Change Series, Part 1: Convincing the Followers – What Leaders of Change Communicate

by Andrew Manley

In a series of posts over the coming weeks Andrew Manley reflects on his experience gained from leading major change projects.

The obvious disarray around the current UK Government’s plans for Brexit, starkly parallels the change leader’s need for convincing communication. The referendum result for Britain to leave the EU has its roots in many strands of dissatisfaction with the then political status quo within the UK. Similarly, dissatisfaction in any organisation is most definitely one of the key factors in driving change for the better. But the decision by an organisation to change as a consequence of dissatisfaction with the status quo has equally to be matched by the attraction of the destination if the change is to be successful. The challenge for leader’s in change is to give meaning to the journey and for that the description of the destination is imperative.

Calling the Status Quo

Whilst at the outset of a change programme the precise destination (or Point B) of the change may not be clear, the pressure on the leader for clarity creates significant risk to a successful outcome. Amongst these, the possible misdiagnosis of the issue, premature commitment of resources, and efforts in the pursuit of any outcome in order to demonstrate rapid action rather than the correct one can be fateful. Yet the dilemma is that without clear communication leaders  risk the accusation of equivocation and indecision from their followers. Just look at any commentary about the current British Prime Minister for evidence of that.

Appointees new into post have a rare chance to determine their changes and their messages free of any past association with what they are now responsible for. But even existing leaders have the chance through intelligent and sometimes brave intervention to develop inspiring communication.

At the outset, based on even the most superficial of analysis, great change leaders summarise clearly and succinctly the things that are manifestly wrong with the organisation and its performance – they do this by speaking objectively about the hard truths they see and which others will share given the chance to do so. They will also start to formulate and communicate the things that in their opinion are excellent or at least “fit-for-purpose” and thus likely to remain unchanged in the short to medium term in order. This first strand of communication might be termed as “calling the status quo”.

Identifying Achievable Change Outcomes

The second strand of good change communication is to identify and determine the elements, whether processes, systems, organisational design or behaviours, that have to change. Most change programmes involve a combination of all of these elements. The changes required may not be fully detailed at the outset but most leadership teams should be able to define at least the problems if not the solutions from their current knowledge of the organisation, given the opportunity to do so. The horizon of such changes may be months and certainly should be understandable if defined within a time frame of existing budgets, product life cycles or job tenure.

The content of such communications should initially focus on realisable changes to develop more customer focussed and intimate processes, to eradicate old and unhelpful technology and/or to reshape the organisation whilst at the same time giving clarity to the aspects of the organisation and its activities that will remain fixed or remain as lesser priorities for later attention. This may be termed communication of “identifiable and achievable change”.

Instilling a sense of purpose

The third and most challenging message great change leaders transmit is the sense of purpose or destination for the organisation or in many cases its “noble cause”. For most people the sense of a higher purpose is what gives real meaning to their daily lives. Without it, the role or responsibility becomes no more than a job to be done with as little generosity as possible for which the organisation and its stakeholders risk receiving adequacy but not exceptionality. Great leaders inspire their staff above the mundanities by giving context to any change as reaching for something more than the tangible – whether that be superb customer offerings,  leading research, improved environmental performance or faultless operational capabilities. In doing this leaders provide the context in which the immediate may be tackled with enthusiasm and above all a sense of hope for the better things.

By shifting these wider objectives gently the leader can in time “stretch” the origination to achieve great things provided this is well judged and always within the capacity of the organisation and of the resources that they themselves are putting in place. This would be termed as communicating the “strategic” or “the higher sense of purpose”. Continual change is a feature of the modern world and most leaders will shift their message over time – but the best do so only gradually. The higher purpose of the organisation may likely only shift with an evoloving strategy over years whilst the objectives of specific change programmes will come and go with greater frequency.

In summary, the best leaders of change name the status quo, they intervene to define the priorities for change and those things that will not change, and lastly they provide context and higher purpose as a justification for the inevitable endeavour and hard work ahead.

Brexit is perhaps the most ambitious change programme at a national level in over half a century but maybe the seeming confusion it has caused can in part be seen through the lens of poor communication. The electorate voted against the status quo seeking change – but with what future in its stead? A question they were not asked and which no leader has yet satisfactorily defined. Yet at the same time a plethora of change programmes are in hand, but with what objectives we are, for the most part, unsure. Perhaps it is therefore unsurprising that leaders are struggling to communicate a future to their followers and most importantly the change required to achieve it in any way that is meaningful. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that most members of the public feel the whole process, whether they support it or not, is at best disorientating and worst going nowhere.

Andrew Manley is a Senior Advisor and Consultant for HRCubed. Read his bio here.