Becoming a leader of transformation

Implementing the principles of continuous improvement

In my previous column, I explained how continuous improvement incorporates change into the rhythm of the organization, resulting in a system of transformation.

In this system, cooperation is commonplace. There is willingness to engage in learning. It is easier to implement practices that focus on process improvement. And all these actions support the continuous improvement of products and services.

But how do leaders of transformation — the rightful term for those responsible for success in this system — achieve these outcomes? And how can you become such a leader?

Any effective leader embodies personal, perhaps more intrinsic, qualities that serve as a foundation for implementing the principles of continuous improvement in a natural, organic manner. In my book “Change the Lapel Pin,” I suggest that personalized leadership draws from three essentials: Education, Experience and Exposure.

To benefit fully from these three essentials of leadership, it is important to identify innate capabilities that can help you to more fully develop as a transformational leader. For example, in “Origins and Evolution of Leadership,” Andrew King, Dominic Johnson and Mark Van Vugt concluded that individuals emerge as leaders if they exhibit certain natural tendencies, including motivation, temperament, dominance and aptitude. Emotional intelligence and relational skills are also critical to advancing in leadership.

These attributes do not work alone, however. They should be adroitly applied to develop and refine other skills that allow you to face the immediate and day-to-day challenges that come with a transformational system. While no such list will be exhaustive, several skills rise to the top.

Chief among these are communicating and listening. Communication plays a key role in the process of change. It promotes clarity when conveying an organization’s vision, and it helps to create and maintain individual connections.

Within transformational systems, communication is essential. People need to understand the reasons for change and how they contribute to achieving it through their efforts. It is reassuring — and motivating — when they feel their input is sought and applied. Enlist their involvement up front.

For example, I have used individual meetings with trusted advisers to gain knowledge. I then shared these insights in larger gatherings to elicit feedback, gain consensus and clarify the work required for success. Ongoing communication keeps everyone updated on progress and allows for further discussions, especially when course corrections are necessary.

To do this effectively, you need to maintain a constant presence and message to motivate and inspire. But it is also important to understand when it is time to listen to the expressions of individuals and groups and perhaps to modify your message accordingly. In this context, you must be self-aware and understand how your verbal and nonverbal communications can affect the team.

As such, listening is just as important as speaking. Sara Stibitz, in “How to Really Listen to Your Employees,” recommends that leaders eliminate distractions that imply that the person speaking and the message are unimportant. Look for nonverbal cues, like body language, that offer deeper understanding and meaning to the conversation.

Communicating and listening are just the beginning of the skills an effective leader of transformation must develop. We will continue to explore these skills in January.

Alex Johnson, Ph.D. is president of Cuyahoga Community College