Leading change and the CEO's role as chief explaining officer

Leadership and government contracting expert John Hillen explains how leaders lead change and bring their organizations with them. Saying 'because I said so' just isn't an effective change management strategy.

Click on leadership and the market by John Hillen.

It is often said that the essential duty of a manager is to make order out of disorder – by applying known rules, procedures, methods, regulations, supervision, and judgement to events and processes.

On the other hand, leaders often have to create all those things as they move their organizations into uncertain futures – laying down the train tracks in front of a moving train.  Leaders don’t just apply the playbook to today’s challenges, they rewrite the playbook necessary for a dynamic and changing future.

here for more columns

The more I came across both challenges during my time as a CEO or senior government official, the more I realized how different these roles were ... and are.

Change management must be a core competence of leaders, something that is now pretty well recognized. There are even a number of leadership gurus who teach that the job of the leader is to not only to lead change, but to always be forcing change – never let your organization sit still – they say.

There is some merit to that, so long as the leader does it the right way and isn’t just constantly throwing his or her organization into turmoil for the sake of change.

Judging by the literature on change management, it must not be a natural skill.

There are hundreds of books and training courses on change management and yet no matter how many copies of Who Moved My Cheese one passes around, it still seems an un-mastered executive competency.

With so much talk of change management, why is this?

First, I think it’s fair to say, is because change is hard.  Even though it is patently obvious to any observer that the world is always changing – and every company and agency along with it – people still feel disrupted and dislocated by change.

Some of the literature on change management assumes that leading change is hard because people naturally don’t like change.  I’m not so sure.  In my experience, people are receptive to change – even with its recognized difficulties and inconveniences - because they understand the advantages of beating the next guy to the future.

What they don’t like is change that is poorly articulated or explained to them in ways that do not resonate with them….but rather are explained in ways that are meaningful only to their leaders.

In learning this over the course of a career where I was always in a fast-paced change environment, I came to see this seemingly simple point as the absolute key to change management – the need to regularly, constantly, and repeatedly articulate the reason for the change in ways that appeal to the values of followers and constituents. 

For instance, if the core value – what one’s follower’s care about the most - is technological innovation, well then, you better explain change in the context of preserving that core value. And that failure to change would erode technical innovation.

On the other hand, if the chief concern of a constituency resisting change is shareholder returns, then the leader’s reasons must drive straight to the heart of how that value is served by the change being proposed.  Conversely, explaining wrenching change intended to preserve the ability to innovate but that might happen at the expense of shareholder returns might get the leader celebrated with the engineers in the company…..but canned by the shareholders. 

This process is not just a sales job with a slightly different pitch to different audiences. That would be the simple, but incomplete approach.

As Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” 

The simple but complete understanding of the change would center on the change leader seeking very purposefully and with much effort to listen and understand the value systems and concerns of various constituencies that will be affected by the change and then speaking to those values in ways that are founded on trust and mutual risk taking.  Only then can the leader created a shared narrative of the change. 

It is for this reason I often told people that the acronym CEO stood for Chief Explaining Officer.  In my last company, over the course of five years, we changed our name four times, our ownership and capital structure four times, and had almost a dozen different product/services mixes we offered.  And yet our strategy never changed – and we generated award winning shareholder returns and business wins at every turn.  To keep this whirlwind of change rationalized and supported…..even owned by all who were affected, I found myself constantly doing key things over and over again. 

First, I had to have a compelling catalog of evocative, repeatable, spreadable, simple, (and many times humorous) revelations, not just explanations for my followers - that emphasized change as the only constant in the life of our company.  This required me to be an historian about our industry, a philosopher about human nature and enterprise, and ahead-of-the-curve on changes in customer missions and technological potential. 

And that was just to seed the ground for the idea of change – not specific changes themselves.  This psychological preparation of the company for any change required constant energy.

Then, of course, there was the implementation of specific and often wrenching changes themselves.  There are a lot of good things written, particularly by John Kotter, on the processes of leading change – and I subscribe to all the usual steps.  But what really sticks with me is that no matter how well you follow the steps, if the change is not built on the unique strengths and values of the organization that naturally grew out of time and experience….it won’t stick.

Change can be dictated overnight by executive fiat of course, but if it’s not deeply connected to organic values and purpose and the unique DNA of the organization….it will be less sticky.

This is particularly true in today’s more democratized, emotionalized, and egalitarian management environments. I don’t know many people these days (even in the military) who get things done in complex organizations by telling people to do it “because I said so.”

The leader must be able to discern the connections between values of different constituencies, the DNA of the organization, and authentically tie the benefits of the changes to those value systems.  And then explain it – over…and over…..and over again.  This turns out to be the best path to get followers to truly own the change. 

A co-authored change between leader and led will be rooted in a shared narrative about the why, what, and how of the change.   Why’s, what’s, and how’s that everyone can articulate in their own terms – not just the ones on the corporate PowerPoint.  

All good stories have a moral – or a moral basis – and they appeal to the hearts of listeners and readers.  So too with a good change management process.  It must be explained in a way that appeals to the hearts of the followers, not just to their incentive plans.