Challenging the status quo at work

I recently had lunch with the Japan office president of a well-known multinational firm in the consumer goods sector. On arriving to take up his post nearly three years ago, he was faced with what he described as “an organisation desperately in need of change, but nobody knew it”.

This was indeed a very interesting and profound observation on change management. In fact, one of the biggest challenges we face in senior leadership positions is how to help employees realise change is necessary and then understand how to make it happen.

A new leader in any organisation will find there what they consider to be a mess, be it because there is a problem with systems, processes or accountability; there is no clear vision; a shared mission is lacking; or succession planning is weak.

While the urgent need for change may be crystal clear to the leader, they will initially lack support to kick-start the process of change. In fact, it is not uncommon for the new leader to face fierce resistance to change. This is especially true in Japan, where change is not necessarily seen in a positive light.

In his book The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, Peter Senge, graduate of the MIT Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts, concludes that there are four prerequisites to introducing change, namely, a compelling case, a clear reason, sufficient time, and a high level of patience and support from leadership throughout the change process.

In conversations with senior managers in Japan, the word change and the need for improvement inevitably arise when key challenges are discussed.

Whether the leader is a recently arrived expat or a Japanese leader—either promoted from within or hired from an external source—the challenge is the same. How can the leader introduce change in an organisation that is change resistant? Moreover, how might any modifications be made in a timely, effective manner?

From researching organisations that had undergone change both successfully and unsuccessfully, Senge concludes that, “People don’t resist change. Instead, they resist being changed”.

The change process begins when there is a sense of dissatisfaction with the current situation. The influencers in the organisation need to feel the same sense of urgency as the leader, and believe that the current situation is simply not acceptable and must be changed.

If the organisation is large, it is especially important that all key managers share this perspective. Once a leader has gained a reasonable level of consensus regarding the existing situation, any change has a much higher chance of being successfully implemented.

It is no surprise that leaders hired from outside an organisation typically bring with them some of their loyal captains and soldiers. Moreover, it is these people, sharing the leader’s dissatisfaction with the status quo and quest for change, who ultimately will become key influencers in the organisation.

The champions of the shift to improvement are the change agents. Having joined in the leader’s quest for change, they are ready to embrace and implement the action plan. However, before transformation begins, the leader must remember the 5 Es.

Envision: Change begins with a well-thought-out vision.

Express: Announce this vision to the team and repeat the message.

Excite: Build excitement by repetition; fuel delivery with passion and belief.

Enable: Provide the tools to achieve the mission. A vision minus proper tools is a daydream.

Execute: With the vision created and expressed, the team excited and equipped with the needed tools, change can start and the vision take shape.

Many leaders are competent in creating a vision, expressing it, and attracting promoters. But a weak link often emerges at the enabling stage if tools, processes and support are lacking. Without these, a mission will fizzle, despite having the best plan couched in the highest degree of passion.

In a relatively short time, the president of the consumer firm was able to introduce change that had an impact and was sustainable. He was involved every step of the way, repeating the message, enabling his growing team of promoters, monitoring progress, and ensuring execution without compromise.

The key to his success was that his team felt they owned the process, rather than that the change was top-down.

As this leader prepares to move on to the next mess he will fix, it will be interesting to hear how the leader replacing him at the multinational perceives the situation they inherit.