How Effective Leadership Leads to Effective Change

It’s 9.30 am, Weds 7th February 2001, I’m sitting at my desk and it’s the third day of my new job.

As commercial director, I had expected something a bit more than a desk in a bank of other desks in the tech dept.

Not that I had anything against the tech guys. They were a good bunch, but it rankled as I looked at the other directors sitting in their glass-walled offices.

The phone rings, It’s Alan.

Alan is in his early thirties and one of a group of hotshot young investors taking London by storm.

Already a millionaire, it was my interview with him that had secured me the role. We hit it off immediately and I could see that he liked the way I was presenting my vision for the business.

“How are you settling in?”

My reply was to change my relationship with Alan in an instant and forever.

“Good, thanks. I’m just getting the lay of the land, trying not to put my size 10’s in”

The phone when quiet.

“ok, just call me if you need anything”

I never heard from Alan again and in the investor meetings I attended he never addressed me directly.

You see, what I hadn’t realised was that the last thing Alan wanted was for me to take a gentle approach to settling in.

I was to find out very quickly, that there were massive problems in the business and Alan was looking for me to shake things up.

He and the other investors wanted change, and they wanted it quickly.

He just failed to mention that in the interview.

If you’re not changing things, you’re not a leader

The next few months were life-changing for many people.

The board removed the CEO and Managing Director from their posts and bought in a new leader.

The objective was to get the business more aligned to the vision of the investors.

Herein lay my own personal challenge.

It was my relationship with the CEO and MD that had secured me the interview with Alan.

I just didn’t know that they no longer shared a vision for the business.

As the new CEO affected changes to reduce the costs in the business, the tech guys were driving change on the IT side of the business.

It was a tech-driven business, pushing the capabilities of the available technology of 2001. To do so, required our suppliers to think about their systems and the way in which they wished to do business.

And my role was to identify new ways of monetising the business. Which, in turn, required our commercial partners to think differently about the way they could use their marketing and advertising budgets.

Then in September the biggest change of all was to come. Two planes were deliberately flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. It was to change the lives of millions of people around the world.

I was sitting in an Italian restaurant in Soho with one of my friends and business contacts Paul, and as we watched the events play out on the wall-mounted TV 3,500 miles away, I knew in that moment that my life would be changed forever.

Only two weeks later the investors decided to close the business. They chose to withdraw and safeguard their remaining funds.

Having made the decision to leave my “safe” job of 15 years just 9 months earlier, I was now redundant and out of work.

I had wanted change and had created what appeared to be an effective change in my life, only for it to turn out not to be.

The Only Constant is Change!

Change is the only constant
Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash

The point about the above, true story is that it embodies nearly every aspect of change and it’s something that most people don’t think about.

There are many different types of change and they impact us in different ways.

  •         Planned change
  •         Unexpected change
  •         Rapid change
  •         Slow change
  •         Imposed change
  •         Involved change
  •         Reactive change
  •         Proactive change

The challenge for any leader is to know what changes need to be embraced, and how to implement those changes so that they work effectively for all stakeholders involved with the organisation.

As one of the best definitions of leadership highlights: -

“Leadership is getting people to do willingly what they did not think they wanted to do or could do”

The problem is…

… as a leader it is impossible to know if your understanding of the situation is leading you to make decisions that are going to be effective; until after the event.

Blackberry vs iPhone

It’s 2007 and on the back, of its success with iPod, Steve Jobs launches Apple’s iPhone.

At the time Blackberry was the market leader with its miniature QWERTY keyboard and roller button. When iPhone launched Mike Lazaridis CEO of Blackberry would utter words that would come to haunt him for the rest of his life and the lives of many of Blackberry’s employees…

The most exciting mobile trend is ...

Full Qwerty keyboards. I'm sorry, it really is. I'm not making this up.”

And in that decision not to go to a touchscreen format, Lazaridis consigned the once-mighty Blackberry brand to become an also-ran in the mobile phone market.

This example illustrates the difficulty of deciding what will be effective before the event. There are many other examples of CEO’s who couldn’t see a sea change about to happen and as a result lost their businesses.

Staying ahead of the curve

British Thornton: The world’s best manufacturer of slide rules. Didn’t see the impact of handheld calculators.

Blockbuster: the world's biggest video rental chain, didn’t foresee the impact of streaming technology and the rise of companies like Netflix.

Kodak: the world’s biggest photographic company failed to see the impact of digital photography, even though it had been at the forefront of its development, with a viable digital camera as early as 1975.

These failures of effective leadership help us to understand what leads to effective decisions.

It’s about being just ahead of the curve of your customer’s desires and being able to deliver a new product or service just when your market is ready to receive it.

Too soon and no one will adopt your product/service. Too late and you will have missed the boat.

Timing is everything when it comes to making effective decisions.

This applies whether your customers are external to your organisation or if you are delivering a service internally and your customers are colleagues or partners.

Leadership Decision: The First Step to Effective Change

The first requirement of effective change is that the leader/s of the team, group, community, organisation are in tune with and aligned to the next step the people they serve will want to take. Because as Mike Lazaridis discovered, if you’re committed to clickable keyboards and the world wants touchscreens, you’re going to be left behind.


…because, as a leader, you can’t be sure that your decision is going to lead to success or failure, the question now moves from how to make an effective decision as to how to implement that decision effectively.

The Chartered Management Institute has identified 9 steps that should be considered before any change program is pursued.

  1. Agree the implementation strategy
  2. Agree timeframes Every change programme needs a start date.
  3. Draw up detailed implementation plans
  4. Set up a team of change champions
  5. Establish good programme management practices
  6. Communicate clearly
  7. Ensure participation and help to minimise stress
  8. Personalise the case for change Individual employees must feel they can take ownership of the change programme as it evolves.
  9. Be prepared for conflict and manage it effectively. Change usually brings about conflict of one kind or another.

Having been involved in many change programs and in running both large and small organisations it seems to me that all the CMI has done is identify what it is to be a leader.

There is challenge in achieving each of the steps and the larger the organisation, the larger the challenge.

The biggest challenge lies in managing the risk that the original decision may not lead to the most effective and desired outcome.

Two strategic approaches have evolved as methods to reduce this risk.

Lean Strategy and the Agile Manifesto

Eric Reis was an advisor to start-up venture capital firms in Silicon Valley when he saw a pattern to the companies that were successful. He built a model around this pattern which he went on to publish in his book The Lean Start Up.

His model has 5 principles

1) Entrepreneurs are everywhere. This is about demystifying the idea of the entrepreneur and acknowledging that there is no one type of person that makes a successful entrepreneur. And, that entrepreneurship as a skill can exist in government and non-profit organisations as well as the traditional commercial organisations

2) Entrepreneurship is management. Instead of a chaotic, “do what we feel like” strategy, you need to adopt a principled approach to manage risk and reduce failure.

3) Validated Learning. In his book, Reis refers to “The job of a start-up”. However, this has now been more broadly adopted and can be applied to anyone who has a leadership role. Their job is to learn who their customer is and what their product should be. Treat this learning rigorously and scientifically.

4) Build-Measure-Learn and repeat. The key point about this step is that it should be carried out at the minimum viable level to get reliable results and has become known as the minimum viable product/service.

5) Innovation accounting. It’s critical to treat learning rigorously, which means measuring progress and creating action plans.

The other approach to minimising the risk around strategy development and implementation is Agile. Originally an evolution in the world of software development it was a direct response to the impossibility of knowing whether a decision would lead to the right outcome.

As the name says it is about being agile and nimble. In doing so practitioners can keep costs to a minimum during the early development phases of any project.

Agile has now developed into a complete philosophy of project management with its own 12 point manifesto, read it HERE.

The myth and reality of effective leadership

The problem with success stories is that we don’t hear about all the work that went on behind the scenes and we tend not to hear about the “nearly made it” ideas.

And this creates the myth of the inspirational leader with that indefinable touch and ability to be just ahead of the market.

But what we can now also see are the organisations in every aspect of social activity, where the adoption of lean and agile principles has enabled them to respond effectively to changes in their environments and so maintain their viability and influence.

The world continues to advance at an accelerated rate. Today, artificial intelligence fosters the development of technologies such as virtual and augmented reality. Machines can take on more and more roles that we once considered solely the domain of human capabilities. Therefore, it is us as individuals that will have to become effective leaders of our own effective change journeys.

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