I’ve been spending a great deal of time in the past 18 months working with organizations undergoing significant change. Mergers, acquisitions, and new CEOs, create change in organizations that can be disarming, threatening, and in the worst case, debilitating. In periods of change, leaders are often asked to assume new roles, take on greater scale, and at times offered positions more junior than their current jobs. They are often put in unfamiliar territory, where they are asked to evaluate costs, motivate a new team, and create new opportunities for future growth. In times like this, some leaders seem to rise to the challenge and thrive, and others seem to self-destruct. Here are some observations on what I’ve seen from the best:
- Great leaders put their own interests behind the greater organization. In times of large-scale change, everyone is impacted. However, the best leaders seem to spend less time talking about their own circumstance, and more time talking about what the future organization requires. With great jobs comes a duty of oversight and advocacy – to make decisions that further the future of the organization rather than personal position. I have known quite a few great leaders to step aside or take significant demotions in the interest of preserving a more sustainable future for the greater good.
- Great leaders provide context. Change is often difficult to understand. The rationale, the way forward, and the expected results, can be a mystery to everyone but the very top of an organization. The best leaders begin providing context long before change takes place – to provide rationale for why something or someone different is needed in the first place. Providing this important understanding creates trust, promotes shared vision, and increases positive communication during times of change. Context that establishes a clear line of sight between “what I do today” and “where we need to go” creates inclusion in the process of change that enhances results, accelerates action, and inspires innovation.
- Great leaders are not absent. During times of change, leadership must be seen and felt. A heightened level of engagement and presence is required to calm fears, share information, listen, and empathize. Buying a beer goes a long way during times of uncertainty (actually, buying a beer goes a long way anytime!). In times of change, negative feelings outweigh positive ones – it’s just human nature. When we don’t know what the future holds, when we lose our work routine and people we’ve counted on, the tendency is to assume the worst and feel suspicious. The comfort of seeing a leader you know, feeling positive and hopeful, is tremendously important to those lower in the organization who feel more vulnerable.
- Great leaders serve as a shock absorber. Uncertainty around which jobs will be offered, losing long-time advocates, dealing with hostile cultures and cut-throat colleagues vying for personal gain, are common circumstances during times of organizational change. As easy as it is to fall into the trap of suspicion, negativity, and feeling of abandonment, great leaders realize they must provide a cushion of reason between the uncertain environment and their employees. The metaphor of a shock absorber seems to best describe this role. The road is bumpy, but the passengers in the vehicle can have a more comfortable journey if a leader can absorb some of the shock, and turn the ride into a smoother one. Be the one to take the hits rather than pass them along. Whatever you do, don’t amplify the pain!
In every case, I find that the most successful leaders are those who recognize the importance of their attitude and impact during times of change. Great leaders are self-aware, and understand that what they say and do matters tenfold. They say that most mergers fail because of culture. If you trace culture back to where it all begins, you’ll find leadership in every instance.