As an executive coach, I am driven to ask the tough questions that help people on their leadership growth journey. For better or worse, that mission is not limited to my clients. My husband Daryll likes to tell the story of a time when we first started dating and he called me to complain about his manager. I let him vent for a while and then, instead of empathizing or siding with him as he expected, I asked how his behavior might have contributed to the situation. This was not the supportive response he had hoped for. When he tells the story he jokes that it was the last time he would call me for “coaching” without first thinking about how much work would be expected of him…and I learned that coaching my husband was not the best idea. Joking aside, Daryll discovered what many of my clients have also come to realize – successful change starts as an inside job.
From my front row seat working with senior executives in top performing firms, I have seen change initiatives unfold with varying degrees of success. Here is what I know to be true: the most effective change leaders are not afraid to look in the mirror. They accept responsibility for the current state of their organization and how their decisions and actions contributed to it. Beyond that, they work to actively grow their leadership in productive and inspiring ways. In essence these leaders own the success for the change end-to-end by 1) embracing self-reflection, 2) welcoming new ways of working, and 3) making bold moves for everyone’s benefit. On the surface, this is a tidy little checklist for success. But it only works if you’re willing to dig deep.
Commitment to Grow
Roy was having, in his words, “people issues”. He came to me through a trusted colleague and, in our first meeting, shared all the strengths and weaknesses of each of his team members. When I asked about his people issues, he led off with, “Oh, well that’s easy. It’s Tom. He’s killing morale and blocking our progress on redesigning a major business process.” Thirty minutes later, Roy let out a deep breath and said, “I feel better sharing this with someone who understands.” He probably did feel better, but it was short-lived because I asked him to consider how he had played a role in these dynamics. (Sound familiar?) Roy grimaced, looked down at the table, and said, “I haven’t dealt with this for two years. I hoped it would work itself out, or that Tom would get frustrated and retire. To tell you the truth, I hate conflict.” In that one painful moment, Roy made a mighty first step. He took ownership and cracked open a doorway of possibility for him and his team to create success-driven change.
Adult learning theory and research is the process of critical self-reflection as “an honest self-examination” of one’s behaviors, practices, and assumptions. (Cranton, 1994) This moves beyond the surface content level of problem solving to a deeper look at the foundational motivators that drive our actions and behaviors. Engaging in critical self-reflection can be transformational but is often a cringe-worthy practice, requiring courage to uncover blind spots and challenge assumptions held as indisputable truth. Roy’s blind spot was a deep desire to be liked and seen as a nice guy. He said in his effort to be the good guy he let things go and walked away from conflict to keep the peace. Reflecting more deeply on why he avoided conflict enabled him to uncover this blind spot and he saw how striving to be an idealistic “nice guy” produced unintended destructive results. He intentionally redefined a more grounded, useful leadership aspiration and, over time, shifted from being liked to being courageous, honest, and kind.
Onboard New Ways of Operating
Understanding and overcoming behaviors that don’t serve you will free you to welcome new ways of working. Having tempered his need to be the nice guy, Roy started intentionally leading his team by asking open questions and explicitly sharing expectations, which resulted in some amazing breakthroughs. In one conversation, he gave feedback on the negative impact of Tom’s “command and control” leadership style. Roy then asked Tom, “What is your point of view and what am I missing?” Tom revealed that he was struggling to figure out how to get the team on board and wasn’t sure what to do. What Roy had perceived as a refusal to change was actually someone struggling to be more effective. This lightbulb moment motivated Roy to have similar conversations with people across his team and he was rewarded with incredibly valuable insights.
Make the Thoughtful, Bold Moves
When you can examine your own leadership practices and experiment with new approaches, you are empowered to act in ways you wouldn’t have previously considered. Roy really examined his team and their talents and made some important discoveries. For example, he learned the team respected and relied on Tom’s technical expertise. With that insight, Roy moved Tom into a senior consulting position and promoted Sara, a senior team lead with strong people management skills, to head up the operations team. This new structure better aligned with people’s strengths and business priorities, and the entire team benefited as a result. On the other side of the transition Roy noted, “What helped me hold some pretty difficult conversations was a strong sense of confidence that it was the right decision for us all. I see today how much better things are for the team and how much more energy we have to focus on the right things.”
Effective change leaders hold a winning combination of committing to grow, acting on this growth by exercising their authority in inspiring and productive ways, and making thoughtful bold moves for success. Now it’s your turn.
Think about a current challenge you are experiencing with a change in your organization.
What do you believe is creating the challenge and why?
What role are you playing in creating or perpetuating that challenge?
What needs to be improved to ensure greater success, by whom, on what, by when?
What role might you play to support success?
What would it look like to act on this insight tomorrow?
Tina Colton is a global executive coach and consultant who helps her clients build deep and lasting change. Learn more at www.leadbyl2.com.