Tag Archives: change

A multitude of ice cream flavours

Lessons learned series: People make their own choices

This is the third in a four-part series chronicling the four most memorable leadership lessons I learned in my career – the hard way. And by “the hard way” I mean – boy did I get it wrong sometimes when I first started out, at times painfully wrong, but over the years I’ve learned by trial and error.
I originally meant for this to be one “listicle” post, but it turned out to be a long one, so I’ve broken it into a series. We’re at lesson #3, stay tuned for the last one:
1. Criticism doesn’t work
2. Get comfortable with uncomfortable conversations
3. People make their own choices
4. Great leaders are servants

As a leader you can create a “circle of safety” as Simon Sinek would describe it. You can create the conditions for trust, change, growth and optimal performance.

Then you need to get out of the way.

However, not everyone will respond in the same way. Some people will continue to respond in ways that are unproductive or not conducive to a high-performance environment.

Here’s a scenario: you’re a new leader of a team. You signal that the department needs to develop some new processes; to be more data-driven in your efforts. You can’t go by “gut” alone any more, you need evidence that your work is aligned to the strategic plan, that your department was helping to move the needle in advancing the interests of the organization.

You ask each direct report for a yearly plan, backed up by data. If data isn’t being collected, you want to know what your team needs to do in order to get it.

One of your direct reports does not submit their plan on deadline. No explanation, no request for information or extension.

Except for the fact that you have everyone else’s plans, you would have questioned whether you had actually made your expectations clear in the first place.

During the subsequent one-on-one, it comes out that your direct report has never actually written a yearly plan before. So you provide some guidance and a template that you usually use, plus some resources they could find on the internet. You extend the deadline by another week.

At the end of the week, you got a two-page summary of work already done, but it doesn’t include any goals, metrics, measurements, key messages, or budget, all headings in the template you had provided.

This is a composite, generalized, anonymized scenario of course, because a variation of it is something I’ve seen a number of times.

During one of these times, I turned to a mentor/colleague for advice.

“What did I do wrong?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said, “You can provide no support at all, or all the support possible, but you have to understand: people make their own choices.”

There could be many reasons why your direct report didn’t respond: you had a short time to establish trust and a comfort level, perhaps not enough time for this person to feel like they could ask for more help or training. Perhaps the task was beyond their skill level. Perhaps they felt they had been promoted beyond their abilities and didn’t want to admit it. Perhaps they just hoped you or the problem would disappear. Who knows?

If you have time and your employees are willing, it’s worth delving into some of those reasons, because in most cases, they can be overcome.

In rare cases, they can’t be overcome, and your employee is completely unwilling to step up. In that case it’s time for some personnel changes.

In the end, we cannot control others, we can only invite them along for the journey. Whether they choose to come along is, ultimately, not for us to decide. In those cases, we have to allow for others to make their own choices.


Photo credit: “Once upon a Time” ice cream flavours by Ruth Hartnup on Flickr, used under Creative Commons (CC-BY 2.0) license.

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Co-creating your organization’s future

Here’s something daring for a Change Management professional to say: change can’t be managed.

You can (and must) lead your organization through a project, a re-organization, or a set of circumstances that changes your operation in fundamental ways. But in the end, “management” doesn’t work.

You may think you can control the process, and if so you may be in for a surprise. I won’t say an “unpleasant” surprise, because there’s always some good that comes out of “failure.” At the very least, you’ve gained valuable insights. At most, you and our organization have grown in ways you hadn’t anticipated.

You may be surprised that your team doesn’t see change the same way you do. You may see that some positions will need to be eliminated and you want to downplay that reality. You may not be contemplating a change in personnel at all – you only see the upside to change. You may be surprised that immediate cost savings are not apparent when you finally implement a change.

You will ask someone like me “How do I get my team to see this change as a great thing for our organization?”

And I will screw up my courage to be quite candid and say: “You can’t.”

You cannot decree how people in your organization are going to perceive the changes you are planning. You cannot manage disruption caused by the need to retrain for new processes and systems, or hide (for long) the fact that change may mean some people lose their jobs. You may not be anticipating job losses at all, and you can follow the best practices in change management, yet you will still get “resistance” and a drop in productivity.

Why? Because people are complicated, because your organization is complex, because most elements of an organization’s culture are hidden under the surface, and because people adapt to change in unexpected ways.

And then you will say to me: “Well if change can’t be managed, why should I hire you?”

And I will say: “Because your job as a leadership team is to create the conditions where you and your employees and stakeholders are co-creating your future together, and that’s what I can help you with, if you’re up for it. It’s never as straightforward as you think it is, but co-creating a resilient and healthy organization has rewards beyond a single project.”

No one gets to choose how another person will react to change. But you do get to choose how you structure your organization. As a leader, you are uniquely positioned to create conditions where change means progress and productivity, not fear and loathing. Do you encourage resilience? Is every part of your workplace aligned to a shared purpose? Do you empower your employees and stakeholders to act and think for themselves towards that shared purpose

Creating the conditions for employees and teams to take responsibility for their own success is quite frankly a scary proposition. That’s the paradox of leadership: letting go of the outcome makes for better outcomes.

If you’re prepared to be surprised, and to learn along with your team, then you’re prepared to lead through change, and I’m prepared to facilitate the process.

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Week 18: Finding the Raven and new heroes

An event I attended at the end of March marked, for me, the beginning of the homestretch of my temporary appointment. It was the raising of a prayer pole and warrior canoe at the Cowichan campus in Duncan, where Megan Joe became my latest hero.

Her grandfather Harold was lead carver on the project: overseeing the pole carving and doing the work alongside a team of carvers on the warrior canoe. They’re very impressive – go see them if you get a chance.

He couldn’t be there for the ceremony, so Megan read his words to the 100 or so people assembled. She was visibly petrified of speaking in public. Shaking and near tears, bolstered by her family and her community, She did it. She stood up there and did it anyway. We patiently waited and listened to Elder Harold’s words spoken through her. She was a brave young woman among all the veterans on that day. I was almost in tears with her.

I wondered if it was simply the age-old fear of public speaking that 90% of the world has, or if there was an added weight on her shoulders to represent her family in place of her grandfather, in front of her whole community. I wanted to go up to her afterwards and tell her what a wonderful job she did, that public speaking gets easier, that it’s good to feel the weight of responsibility, that she’ll grow into it, because she’s got such a strong community behind her.
I was also acutely aware this was one of my last events as a VIU employee, and it made me a little verklempt. I’m a sentimental fool, as anyone close to me knows.

One of the speakers that day explained why the Veterans Prayer pole is Raven. “The shapeshifter – he changes. Warriors must change to go to war. Some of them didn’t change back when they returned.”

April was a blur – the realization that my term here at VIU is ending has spurred a different set of tasks: reports to write, files to hand off, vacations to plan. After my last day here, I’m taking three weeks off, then deciding what direction I want to head next.

I am going to miss this place. I chose to take this job despite the distance from my home and my family, because I knew it would be a tremendous learning opportunity – a chance to shift and change in new and productive ways. I realized that day in Cowichan: I’m always seeking to learn, to grow, to change. I’ll always be touched by new heroes like Megan, and I’ll always be on the lookout for The Raven.

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