New leader, effective change Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2009

A change in leadership can bring fear and uncertainty to an organization, and a new leader must defuse that to begin bringing about sustainable change.

And although new leaders must act quickly, they shouldn’t do so until they gain an understanding of the organization and the trust of its employees, says Nick Williams, general manager of the Columbus office of Definity Partners.

“It’s a mistake for a new leader to go in with preconceived solutions,” Williams says. “Change needs to happen fairly quickly but not before the initial level of trust is built and the new leader gains an understanding of the opportunities the employees see and the obstacles they’ve faced.”

Smart Business spoke with Williams about how a new leader can create a culture of sustainable operational performance.

How can a leader who is new to an organization gain the confidence of long-term employees?

When a new leader moves into that position, there are typically expectations of higher performance, so as soon as that leader can communicate those expectations to the organization, the better. It’s important to convey that systems, processes and behaviors are going to have to change in order to achieve a higher level of performance. You really need to communicate that overall vision, that a higher standard is important, and then communicate why it is important in terms of your customers’ demands and what is changing in the marketplace.

How do you begin to create that culture of higher performance?

The CEO has to spend time one on one with the organization’s key leaders to understand their pain. Typically, those people want a higher level of performance, as well. That really gives you the opportunity to start building trust with the team as well as understand the landscape of the organization and what obstacles and opportunities exist. Change is scary, and new leadership can be frightening, so it’s important to ask people what they’re afraid of and address those fears head on.

How do you approach implementing operational improvements in the organization?

The most important thing is to identify the top four or five priorities you’re going to work on. Then, you begin to challenge the status quo. Ask, ‘What would it take to create a higher level of performance?’ Then, to discuss solutions to the challenges, create a forum, which should include people across different functions in the organization, from front-line people to C-level positions.

Solutions should be sustainable and should aim to simplify, standardize and automate a process. First, to simplify, you need to eliminate waste in your processes. There’s not a single area of an organization that doesn’t deal with processes that have inherent waste and opportunities to eliminate that.

Once you simplify that process, standardize it so that you get a consistent outcome from now on. When an organization doesn’t have standardized processes, it has difficulty moving past the same challenges because they continue to have different outcomes.

Finally, automate the process. Figure out how to take advantage of the technology you have at your disposal and how to leverage the system to automate those processes throughout the organization.

How do you encourage employees to get on board with the changes?

You have to celebrate the trying. Even if you tried something and it didn’t work, it’s still a win that you tried something different. If you are willing and open to trying different things, quick wins are going to come, but make sure that you celebrate not only the things you tried that worked really well but also when you tried something that didn’t work well. That will foster a culture of change at all levels of the organization.

What are the biggest pitfalls new leaders face when implementing change?

The first is not acting quickly enough. Many organizations are great at identifying their challenges and even at following through to develop solutions, but then they don’t take quick, decisive action.

Another pitfall is failing to follow through. Many employees have heard the message in the past about maintaining a culture of continuous improvement, but it hasn’t been followed through on. When improvements are not sustained, that responsibility resides with the leadership.

Finally, many leaders make the mistake of focusing on the draggers in an organization instead of on the performers. Focusing on the draggers and allowing them to maintain the status quo and not get involved in change is demotivating to the employees who are working hard to make improvements in the organization.

How do you ensure that a culture of operational performance is sustainable?

Reward employees who are willing to drive change and identify solutions. Don’t just have them go through the motions of attending a training class but have them focus on external activities. Have them start to understand more about the external marketplace and really see other businesses and other business models.

They’ll come back with really great ideas, and one of the best ways to take advantage of training is to ask those employees to share their learning with others. You put them in a position of expertise with others, and that really starts to raise the average level of performance. Those people then become the removers of obstacles, the gatekeepers of resources, so that their leaders can then focus on improving and growing the business.

Nick Williams is general manager of the Columbus office of Definity Partners. Reach him at or (866) 520-2003.