The Well-rounded Change Leader

My career so far has revealed two truths that on their face seem hard to reconcile. The first is that change is ubiquitous and its pace is increasing. And the second is that the status quo is stubborn and resilient. How can both of these seemingly contradictory things be true at the same time?

I challenge you to show me a middle manager in any organization who is not grappling with six to fifteen change initiatives at the same time. They might be learning a new software platform and also trying to understand the implications of the new strategic plan, all while adjusting to changes in semi-annual performance reviews, shifting more travel to virtual engagements, optimizing a product, and implementing a new expense reporting system. In The Science of Organizational Change, Paul Gibbons shares the story of taking a team of middle managers for an offsite retreat and adding up all the change projects they were involved in at that time. It totaled in the hundreds.

In a changing world, the status quo is weighty

At a macro level, it’s hardly necessary to describe the forces changing the way we live, love, work, communicate, travel, shop, and communicate. But it’s worth noting that the iPhone wasn’t even invented until 2007 and cloud services, which have made it much cheaper, easier and accessible to develop disruptive software solutions, are younger than Twitter. Software is eating the world and the main course is still to be served. We’re just finishing the breadbasket.

Yet the status quo is wily, persistent, and still somehow the most plausible version of the future. The most common result of major change efforts is incremental change, and pockets of success. At the individual level we struggle to keep resolutions and sustain new habits as our behavior reverts to our normal state. At the organizational level transformational visions produce incremental shifts. At the systems level, our schools, housing, healthcare, criminal justice and other systems seem to remain intact despite the majority of actors within them being dedicated to change!

How does this happen?

The trouble with over-emphasizing strengths

Faced with complex change, most of us gravitate towards what we know. When good and even great leaders and managers are faced with responsibilities they do not fully understand how to execute, they naturally gravitate toward their strengths and the things that have helped them to be successful in the past—those things about which they feel a sense of self-efficacy. 

When people are over-indexed toward one or two skills (e.g., problem-solving, relationship management), they often ignore other essential aspects of change leadership. Visionaries do more visioning. Problem solvers find more problems to solve. Instead of finding balance across the domains of change leadership, they find themselves under intense pressure, and go with what they know.

The result is that they may continue to do a very good job at the wrong things for the moment, and thereby stumble, stall, or altogether fail. They may also come to feel that their staff are lacking in competence, or that the systems in which they operate are intransigent, or both. Outside observers may explain away their shortcomings as evidence of the Peter Principle.

The leaders most likely to avoid this fate are the most well-rounded ones. They are not the 10 out of 10 visionaries; they are the 7 out of 10 visionaries who are also 7 out of 10 in process, and in relationships, and in problem solving. But this is an unnatural profile—one that requires not only improving in our weak spots, but also often demands that we calibrate against some of our own natural strengths. It is a profile that requires self awareness and flexibility, and constant learning, adjustment, and rebalancing.

Unfortunately,  change leadership isn’t often considered a developmental effort, one in which ascending leaders receive transparent feedback and support around their strengths and weaknesses. Our leaders either “have it or they don’t”. They were either destined to succeed or doomed to fail. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, maintaining the status quo of expectations for leaders may be the very barrier to evolving more effective leaders, better leadership, and better organizations.

Transformational change begins with well-rounded leadership

Here are three ways we can make progress:

  1. Cultivate the well-rounded leader. Understand that change is constant, and that leading change requires a consistent set of skills that everyone in an organization must constantly cultivate. At Outside Angle, we define these skill sets in four domains: vision, process, relationships, and problem-solving.

  2. Expect a normal curve of capabilities. Most people are not strong in every domain of everything. The entire science of StrengthsFinder and other similar tools highlights natural inclinations. That necessarily means people will be strong in some domains and weak in others.

  3. Normalize growth. Stop expecting people to be immediately strong in all competencies because their title has changed. Recognize that holding some virtues may be valuable enough to elevate a new leader, and that the goal of growth is not to “turn weaknesses into strengths” but to create awareness of natural strengths and weaknesses and build systems that maximize the former and shore up the latter.

The vast majority of transformational change efforts seem to be failing. Well-rounded change leaders could (with pun intended), change everything.