Change : Focused Leadership Can Transform Organizations

Albert A. Vicere is executive education professor of strategic leadership at Penn State's Smeal College of Business, and president of Vicere Associates, Inc., a leadership consulting firm with clients around the globe. He is one of the country's top leadership coaches, and is the author/editor of several books including Leadership By Design, The Many Facets of Leadership and more than 80 articles on leadership development and organizational effectiveness.

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Organizational transformation, culture change, business model redefinition - leaders talk about these challenges, analysts demand them, and CEO’s routinely are hired and fired based on their ability to orchestrate them.

But what do we know about leading change ? In my years of working with organizations and leaders, I’ve observed that there’s a pattern to it, a four step framework for thinking through the challenge of transformation and making change happen.

Step 1 : Stabilize Operations

If your organization is financially unstable, if it’s bleeding cash, you don’t need a formal change process. A desperate, floundering organization needs a leader who takes action, does triage, and gets the organization back on its feet.

Lou Gerstner understood this when he said in the early days of IBM’s resurgence, “the last thing IBM needs right now is a vision.” They didn’t need a vision, they needed a leader to take charge, build dissatisfaction with the status quo, create a sense of urgency, and most importantly, assemble a team of leaders who could help lead the charge into the future.

Step 2 : Reshape the Environment

Once your organization is financially stable, you need to assemble a leadership team to help you reshape the organization’s environment and plant the seeds for new ways of thinking and new methods of operating across the firm.

This is the time to craft and champion a vision. And it’s a great time to launch new products, services and marketing campaigns that reflect the new character of the organization. These initiatives send clear signals regarding the organization’s new aspirations and directions. And they should be coupled with new performance metrics that drive the organization’s new priorities. 

The current resurgence of 3M is a great example. CEO Jim McNerney and his team of senior leaders have set a new direction for the company, revitalized the brand, set new standards of performance and taken 3M back to a position of leadership as a high performing, innovative company. And their passi on for that direction has infected the entire organization.

Step 3 : Think “Waves”

Of course, lasting organizational change doesn’t happen in a single stroke or in a single quarter. It takes time and needs to be rolled out in “waves” of competence-building. People throughout the organization need to learn new behaviors and new ways of doing things. And once they’ve mastered new skill sets and mindsets, they need to be challenged to keep growing.

GE under Jack Welch was a great example. Over his tenure, GE’s strategic focus evolved from each business being a leader in their chosen market, to each being a global market leader, to each evolving services that complement their products, to each using six sigma to drive performance and growth on a global scale, to each using e-commerce as a global performance platform. These were waves of change that helped GE evolve capabilities that resulted in exceptional performance during the Welch era. And the initiatives involved employees top to bottom across the company.

Step 4: Maintain Momentum  

Organizations that have followed the process to this point are in the midst of real change. But leaders now face the truly hard work, making the change stick. When an organization gets to this stage, they’ve climbed the proverbial mountain. The pressure to back off and enjoy the view is intense.

But the best leaders know that’s not possible. They know they must continually reinforce the direction of the company and retain a sense of urgency across the organization.

How do they do it ? They keep reinforcing the long-term vision, constantly raise the bar on targets for growth and performance, promote constant communication and feedback, drive customer focus, and demand unwavering accountability.

By working this process, a leader can get an organization to sit up and take notice, engage in the change process, and ultimately assume ownership for making the change happen. And it’s when the entire organization pulls together that momentum builds and real transformation occurs.

© Copyright Albert Vicere 2004

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