To achieve major organizational change, you must lead the way

“The three most important ways to lead people are:… by example… by example… by example.” ~ Albert Schweitzer

We’ve all heard the expression “talk is cheap.” Perhaps nowhere is that more true than in organizational change initiatives. In my thirty years of partnering with businesses to implement organizational change, I’ve learned one hard and fast rule: regardless of the industry or type of initiative, change only happens when leaders lead by example.

We’ve all watched (or participated) as leaders attempt to introduce change initiatives in meeting after meeting, laying out the “what” of change without focusing on the “how.” But talk only goes so far. Leaders must lead the way, not tell the way. They must demonstrate change by their actions, otherwise it’s just business as usual.

Consider the situation of one organization—we’ll call them Excel Corp. Excel Corp’s leadership knows that things need to change: business has been sluggish and there’s no innovation. They know what kind of organization they want to be, but they don’t know how to get there.

Through interviews with Excel employees, it becomes obvious that the leadership team isn’t performing optimally. This isn’t just the perception of staff; leaders themselves admit that they’re not as effective as they need to be. When we asked employees for feedback, we heard comments like “the leadership team has no vision,” “they keep talking about change, but nothing ever changes,” and “they make decisions and don’t stick to them.”

Armed with this information, Excel’s leadership holds global meetings. They offer a frank assessment of the company’s current state and then they share the vision for the future: to be the industry leader in three years. Through visual metaphors they drive the point home. The current state is represented by a disorganized, out of shape sports team. The future state is represented by a vigorous team where each person plays her assigned role and collaborates to win.

Now, the hard work begins. In order to reach the goal, leaders have to start behaving, right now, like the dynamic, winning team they want to be. They’ll need to communicate more effectively, hold each other accountable, support one another, encourage risk-taking, and act with transparency. These are some of the traits of industry leaders, and they’ll need to demonstrate them. Otherwise, they’ll never reach their goal.

Will it be easy? No. In fact, it will be downright uncomfortable. Leaders will be forced to stretch themselves and that’s never easy. When things get difficult, they’ll have to fight the urge to revert to their old ways. It will take hard work and consistency, but everything they do (and say) must be aligned with the ultimate goal.

Getting Started

Leaders can begin by hosting all-company conversations to discuss the current state vs. future, desired state. Questions can include:

How would you describe our current state? What do you want to see as our bold future target? How can leadership help to reach the target? How is leadership getting in the way of reaching the target?

While people can answer in words, it’s much more powerful to create and compare visual metaphors of current and future state. In these conversations, leaders need to model the kind of winning behaviors they want from others: honesty, willingness to listen, and openness to feedback (even when it’s critical). At the close of the session leaders can further demonstrate accountability by describing the actions and behaviors they will demonstrate going forward as a result of the discussion. By doing that, they’re taking the first crucial step to leading by example.