The 8 Greatest Lessons 2011 Taught Us About Change Leadership

Thinking back on my experiences over 2011, I am going into 2012 with these eight lessons about change that I learned from these eight leaders. What are your lessons?

1. The Committed Champion Effect
-- Christopher Bear, Director of Sales Training, was leading a cultural change at his company, Prudential. He was in charge of an effort to transform the sales approach. Change at senior levels propelled senior leaders to declare the change "Mission Accomplished" before the culture really was changed. Chris did not shrug his shoulders and say, "Oh well, another failed change initiative." He could have— it would not have affected his job and no one really would have cared. But he cared. And he knew the company would suffer if he didn’t do something.

So he took it upon himself to lead a personal crusade. And I don’t use the term loosely. He single handedly pushed forward the culture change. He worked day and night with a colleague to call people, cajole people, coach people, inspire people, share stories with people, etc. so they would use the new sales tools that would change the culture and improve sales results. The bottom line is: it worked. Another year later his results showed continued success month-to-month and ROI above 600 percent. Bear delivered a strong lesson, reminding me to never doubt that one committed person, regardless of role and level, can make significant change in an organization.

2. Lock them in a Room Until it is Solved-- Doug is special OD person. Wherever he goes, he brings simple methods that transform the organization. He created a whole new approach to conflict resolution at a 15,000-employee technical organization in NYC. He locks people in a room until the work conflict is solved. Seriously. There are guidelines, and he does prepare them for the meeting. But basically, if people want his help, they need to agree to stay in this room as long as it takes to solve the issue. Sometimes it takes all day. Really— all day. And he doesn’t say much. He is closely monitoring the discussion, but he basically lets them talk it out. This sounds easy, but I know from experience when people are upset and arguing, and you are a trained professional in the area, it is hard to not try to fix it/change it/ coach it, etc. But he manages to. The amazing thing is he has over a 90 percent success rate! And so many people wanted his help they had to hire another full time person. This is a major reminder for me that sometimes the most important thing to do is to just bring the right people together to give them a space to solve their problems. Their presence in the room and commitment to solve their problem is the most important thing. As Woody Allen joked, "80 percent of success is showing up." The rest will usually takes care of itself.

3. No is not "No" Until I Hear it 6 Times--
Mark Mason went from up and coming Rock Star to drug addict living on the street. When enough was enough, he rose from the ashes, rebuilt his rock career, toured with top names like Eric Clapton and Def Leopard, wrote music for Disney movies, and become a triathlete. When I asked him his personal secret to his transformations, he said, "When people tell me I can’t or they won’t, I don’t hear the ‘no,’ until I hear it five or six times." This is commitment to success. Change is full of opportunities to say no. Mark reminded me that successful change leaders keep pushing ahead despite the no. It is the only way to succeed.

4. No Arms, No Legs, No Problem!
-- Born without arms or legs, and now a motivational speaker, Nick Vujicic is an amazing example of positivity despite anything the world presents. If you ever need a laugh or an inspiration, any of his YouTube videos will show you how small your problems are. Something change leaders need to keep in mind s they don’t get too worked up by the challenges of change.

5. I will be gone--
I had the pleasure of working with David Kappos and his executives this year to support their organizational change. Mr. Kappos is Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office. At one point we were chatting and he said to me, "I am doing all this for them. Regardless of who is in charge here, whether it be more or someone else, they can take what they are learning, and the changes we implemented together and it will help them succeed into the future." His commitment to his team, and the long term success of the organization reinforces leadership advice in the book, Good to Great, that long time successful organizations are led by leaders who are thinking of others, not themselves. This reminded me how leader ego and drive for recognition will derail your change effort. It must be business driven and focused on the long term.

6. Vulnerability Pays Big Dividends--
Amanda was a leader of a growing 80 person division. She asked me to help her and her executive team get results to the next level. She is a tough cookie: smart, hard working, and very successful. The bottom line was that she had to have the courage to be vulnerable with her team. Several times during the months we worked together, she had to acknowledge mistakes, ask for forgiveness, and speak from her heart. I was very impressed with her willingness to be vulnerable. It spoke volumes to her team and sparked significant change. It is a strong reminder that at the end of the day we have to bring all of us – head and heart to make change work.

7. Discipline over Hearsay-- A global customer reorganized 3 years ago from a country based structure to a matrix. This was a transformational change, since the old structure supported their ascent to market leadership. While the change was met with a lot of resistance, the top leadership commitment was clear from the start through investment of time and resources to educate, coach, and cajole the organization to success. This year, what inspired me was this. From the get-go, we measured progress. The executive board needed to know if "the change was working." With so much time elapsed since the change, and with the matrix generally working, it would have been easy to say, "It is working, we are done, let’s move on." But they chose discipline over hearsay. Their discipline paid off. They found proof it was working beyond their expectation. And they identified a few areas to continue to work on. The extra action they are taking is moving them beyond just implementing change, but to optimizing the change.

8. The Emotions Rule--
The last lesson is an overarching one from all leaders I have met at the speeches, classes, coaching and facilitation I have done this year. In every change project I have found that success or failure hinges on the handling of emotions. Over and over again, I see how built-up conflict, hurting employees’ feelings and ignoring negativity derail good change efforts. Positivity, openness, and concern for employees’ feelings create momentum that cannot be matched by any slogan or incentive. So when all else fails, I want to remember to stop and consider how people feel, and what can we do to help them move through their negativity and catch some positivity.

These are the things I hope to remember in 2012 as I encounter the inevitable change challenges. May your changes be successful and you find your own inspiration to keep the change.