A week ago, I went to a play called ‘One dancing lesson’. It was about a scientist with Asperger syndrome, who had to perform a dancing act during an award ceremony. Dancing, which involves physical contact, was a lot more challenging for the protagonist than the average person. For that reason, he decided to take a 60-minute dancing lesson from a dancer who was recovering from a major accident. As the plot developed, a question around change arose: ‘Can people change?’. Change is not a passive activity; it is a very active one. You can change only if you consciously put a lot of effort and energy towards this goal. As the scientist put it, there is a very simple equation: Change = Courage. Without courage, there is no change; with a lot of courage you can drive all the change in the world.
But what happens when you need to drive change in an organisation, where only a few people will embrace the change but most of them will fight it?
Driving change in an organisation is like going to war with your allies. You need to change the mind-set of many people within your team and across teams to accomplish your mission. Even if change is in the DNA of a company, people still find it difficult to have an ‘always-open-to-change’ mentality. Think about the last time a new process or tool (say a new recruitment software) got introduced at your company. How long did it take you to move from your comfortable gdocs to the new tool? I thought so! And this is a small change. What if the entire organisation had to change from its current state? Leading a business unit in a central function, over the last few years, has helped me establish a sequence of stages essential to the successful implementation of change.
1. Build trust
The most impactful way to earn key stakeholders’ trust is by being empathetic, actively listening to people’s feedback and establishing yourself as a subject-matter expert.
In the last 3 years, I have led three big changes: two organisational changes and one systems change, across multiple geographies. All of these changes have been time sensitive; where other organisations take years to implement a change, we take a few months. Had I not invested time in building strong relationships with the teams on the ground, the implementation would not have been as successful. I achieved this by spending enough time to understand the uniqueness of each market, listening to the team’s feedback on the implementation plan and bringing my breadth of knowledge into the equation.
2. Always take people on a journey with you
While at a previous company, I experienced first-hand what it means to drive change using a top-down approach. This approach might have worked well in a world where choice is not ubiquitous. In our world, where people challenge everything, this school of thought won’t get you the desired results in the long-run. So from Day 1, at my current company, I was determined to do the exact opposite.
Everyone wants to be part of shaping the vision; no-one likes to be told what to do. You can turn a change to your advantage, by getting the key stakeholders to be co-creators and hence, owners of the change.
And last but not least, the final step of the change process.
3. It’s a balancing act
You have to be decisive and confident but collaborative. Demanding but understanding. Smart enough to comprehend the high-level ideas but practical enough to see how that translates on the ground.
How can you tell people what to do but also be perceived as collaborative? The magic word here is knowing when to be demanding, knowing when to be understanding. Finding the balance is more of an art, which comes with experience. When a couple has its first child, do they know from the beginning when to be empathetic and when to be strict with their child? Probably not! But as time goes by, you build your confidence as a parent and finding the right balance becomes more natural. It’s a similar feeling when you are leading a team. It is through trial and error in the different sides of the spectrum that you learn the art of balance.
Someone from my team once asked me: ‘You have been leading change across the organisation for a long time now. When change happens, people tend to be overly negative. How do you stay motivated and positive?’ The answer is simple. There is an amazing thrill you get from driving change in an organisation. ‘Pushing’ people to go outside their comfort zone and helping them do what they initially thought to be impossible is very rewarding.
Final words of advice: Be courageous. Be empathetic. Take people on a journey. Master the art of balance.