“Slowness to change usually means fear of the new.”
– Phil Crosby
A colleague of mine recently came to me for advice: she had struggled to gain buy-in from the middle-management team on her business change programme and was about to embark on another.
Staff on the ground were enthusiastic and eager to embrace new ways of working, but it was a different story with the management team who appeared to have “better things to do”. As a result, she spent an excessive amount of time trying to re-engage management towards the end of the programme instead of prioritising the delivery.
The crux of the problem was that she had mobilised the work too quickly without engaging the management team from the outset. I thought it worth sharing how I helped her shape a different approach to engage them at the right time.
1. Make them feel a valued partner from the beginning
Selling the “why” to justify change is as crucial to leadership as it is to their staff members. Engage management early and walk them through the proposed change and its benefits. They need to know that they are critical to its success.
Some management teams may feel uncomfortable sharing the pain of uncertainty and instability during culture change. They need to feel in control to enable them to provide the right level of support in the long term. Build in time to listen to their concerns, and work with them to develop solutions.
2. Give the Management team a clear role in the change
Managers need a clear view of their role and responsibilities, but don’t wait for them to come up with this on their own. Work with them from the beginning to define this and make them aware that the baton will pass to them at the end of the programme. Ultimately, their role should be to support their teams through the change and to take accountability once the change is live.
If you need to agree the percentage of time Managers should devote to any part of the role, ensure you gain a firm commitment that they will stick to it – and agree the consequences with them if they don’t!
Consider the level of detail the management team needs to know and understand to support their staff, and tailor your training accordingly. Ideally, train managers on the changes before training their staff. This keeps them fully inside the detail and helps alleviate the feeling that their staff are learning more than them.
3. Show them what good looks like
People find it easier to work towards something when they know what the end goal looks like. Knowing where they are headed can help get things back on track more effectively and help avoid problems altogether.
Taking people to areas or locations which have undergone similar changes can be incredibly powerful, especially when people can speak to those who have already been through the journey and understand how they overcame challenges.
One former colleague of mine once described visiting an area which had undergone a Lean Transformation as being like walking into a room playing a soothing Mozart sonata, in comparison to the chaos of the ‘Death Metal’ equivalent blasting out from his own department!
If such a visit is not possible, work with managers to define what good looks like to them to set expectations which can be reviewed periodically to check you are on track.
4. Have regular check ins, but don’t do all the talking
Management teams need to be informed about what you are doing, who you are doing it with, and what this means to them. I like to get local staff involved directly in the changes to update at manager check ins, so the changes are coming from the business and not just the team of consultants they’ve hired. It helps build engagement and transfers capability over to team members who become more confident in their dialogue with their bosses.
One tip I’ve learnt over the years is to come up with a coping mechanism for managers who find they are struggling with challenges. I call this ‘The Surgery’; it provides a safe environment for people to get things off their chest. This can be as informal as a regular one to one chat over coffee each week, or a weekly forum to raise issues as a collective.
Make sure the outcome is to resolve the problem and not let it fester. I also have a rule that people talk about their successes as well as their challenges, otherwise an imbalance of negativity can wipe out the good work that is being achieved.
5. Encourage them to spend time on the ground with their people
Finally, “walking the floor” is one of the most important activities any management team can do. It ties directly into their role of understanding what their teams are doing, why they are doing it, what challenges they face and how managers can help.
Attending daily huddles, supporting problem solving activity, sitting with a variety of people to get to know them and listening to their improvement ideas has been key to supporting culture change in the many organisations I’ve worked in. This is not easy. If it helps, document some pointers for leaders to use when they take their first steps into the unknown.
Some managers will push back citing a lack of time rather than go out amongst others and listen, observe and ask questions. Strong leaders learn how to do this well, and do it often, as they recognise the value this brings.
Ask them which type of leader they want to be.