The Dark Art of Change Leadership

It took 38 years for radio to reach 50 million users but Facebook achieved this in only two. The world is shifting faster than ever and with many commentators saying their only prediction is that “the unpredictable will occur”, achieving organisational equilibrium is a redundant notion. In this environment mastering the ‘dark art’ of change leadership has never been more important.

At the end of January we were joined by speakers from two market leading organisations at the latest event in our Change Mastery series. Delwar Kang, Programme Director, EDF Energy and Bridget Connell, Programme Director, O2 Telefonica shared their very different experiences of leading change.

Together with our audience from a cross-section of industries, valuable learning was shared and insights created.

Communicate a vision but co-create the strategy
Change programmes must have solid stakeholder support and leaders need to be clear in communicating the drivers for change. O2’s change challenge came right from the top with a clear mandate from the CEO that “delivery certainty is not optional, it’s essential”. EDF Energy’s directive was clear “to do more for less cost”. However, successful change programmes are rarely driven by creating cost savings only, but by realising other organisational benefits. One of the key learnings from EDF was about understanding the leadership dynamics and not only what is being said by stakeholders, but also what is not being said. Real change happens when people come together to solve a problem they can’t solve alone. There was strong recognition in the audience that involving people in creating a shared understanding of what is missing from a strategy or what is preventing success, creates a more powerful solution and greater commitment to deliver the change.

Make the proposition greater than the possible resistance
Success isn’t just about selling the benefits of the change but also about highlighting the consequences of non-compliance. The performance bar for what is required is often set high and the consequences of not hitting that level need to be made clear as part of the message. Resources for supporting individuals and groups to attain higher levels of performance will be a key factor in their confidence to achieve. EDF Energy used the model below in order to ensure resistance to change was minimise and demonstrated the implications of non-compliance with a level of expediency not seen within the organisation before. One of O2’s key learning points was that the consequences of not changing took longer than hoped to become apparent. Many individuals didn’t see the value of what they saw as ‘softer’ behavioural based development rather than technical training, but once old behaviours were no longer celebrated a momentum for change started to build.


Use pace to prevent coffee mornings
Often too long is spent allocating work and talking about barriers. One of the attendees shared his experiences of creating a robust implementation plan and tasking the decision makers to put names in boxes. He also suggested challenging the rigour of these decisions by asking why they had chosen individuals. What skills or knowledge would they bring that would make them successful in delivering part of the change process?

Communicate a thousand times in a thousand ways
Whilst the future might be uncertain, people will want to know how they will be affected. Help them to understand the future by using messages that resonate with them. More unusual suggestions attendees had used were experiential training to get people to feel what change will feel like and storyboarding to understand where they currently were, what barriers they had and how to remove them.

No more magicians and heroes - saying goodbye to old friends
Once you have understood the competencies required in delivering the new way, it’s likely that there will be some people who won’t have the skills or the motivation to achieve what they need to. There will be some individuals who have been successful in the past and may not understand why change is required. Both O2 and EDF Energy understood that it was important to be respectful of the past and help those exiting the business to be hopeful of the future and to move on with dignity. O2 used vacant positions to reward individuals who were demonstrating the newly expected behaviours by giving them wider job roles or promotions. EDF Energy also had some individuals who raised their performance levels to a high enough level to be promoted, even with challenging criteria.

Preventing your new hires from ‘going native’
Raising the performance bar can be a slow process and the danger can be that your new hires and those in new roles could be pulled into old cultural norms by those remaining. Hire the most senior people first as they tend to be less easily influenced and can help nurture more junior employees. EDF Energy looked for individuals who had already done elsewhere what they were looking to achieve, whereas O2 recruited individuals from industries very different from their own, such as finance and media, to bring new experiences and ideas to the business. Make sure your senior stakeholders are involved with your new talent on a regular basis to reinforce the new messages and provide what motivates high performers – being part of something successful and working with interesting and exceptional people. Along with encouraging the new, don’t forget to cherish what is good about your organisational culture; bringing in diversity can cause conflict. Relish the opportunity for challenge but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Slowly does it – momentum not speed
Whilst the speed of change is rapid, knowing where to focus your energy and resources is key to success; spreading your resources too thinly can result in nothing being achieved. Sometimes change takes longer than expected and it is important to keep the momentum going through communicating the small successes, as well as when you reach your bigger goals. After a big launch event, O2 found that it was impossible to deliver on all the streams they planned, so Business Programmes made the decision to concentrate on the things that would demonstrate that as a function they understood the bigger commercial picture.

Looking for green shoots
Success is often demonstrated in unusual places or by unusual means so look hard for small signs of things changing. Listen to the types of conversations people are having; what language are they using and what types of behaviours does it demonstrate? Other signs can be internal or external people wanting to come and work in your area due to the reputation it is building. Your customers or stakeholders are often the first to spot improvements in the service you offer. Being able to more readily fill vacancies with the right type of individuals from within the organisation can also be an indicator.

When things change in a change programme
During the process, the ground usually shifts beneath you and your original objectives change beyond your control. EDF Energy found that this can be problematic if it also poses a change to the psychological contract for people within the process. Attendees reminded the group to keep communicating and to not avoid the difficult issues. They suggested that if you have wined and dined people to gain their support, then redouble your efforts when the chips are down. Look for the promises you can keep and be honest about the ones you can’t.

Avoiding complacency
With the ever shifting sands it is easy to breathe a sigh of relief when your change project has been successful. However, organisational equilibrium leads to complacency about what is making you successful and in a rapidly changing environment it is becoming harder for organisations to stand out. It is clear from O2’s story that current and future competitors will not be the same. Five years ago they were competing with other mobile phone operators. Now they are competing against an increasingly diverse landscape with ‘over the top’ players (such as Sky, Apple and Facebook) providing something over and above O2’s traditional offering and taking a slice of the revenue. Keep talking to your people and your stakeholders, keep an eye on your competitors and keep asking ‘what next’.

If you are interested in attending our next Change Mastery event, you can find more information here