I've participated in numerous strategic initiatives and other change efforts over the years. They've involved issues such as leadership transition, business development, project delivery, client service, quality management, employee recruiting and retention, and safety—to name a few. To be perfectly honest, most of them failed to achieve the desired goals.
That's no real surprise. Research shows that about 70% of corporate change initiatives fall short. There are many reasons why this is so. But in my experience, one reason stands out: Leaders failed to lead. Often these were individuals who weren't fully on board to begin with. But a surprising number of these initiatives stumbled mostly due to the failings of their own creators—CEOs, principals, and other top executives, in many cases.
So how can leaders undermine their own initiatives? Here are some common mistakes that I've observed and how to avoid them:
Failing to make the business case for the change. The typical A/E firm is populated by smart people who are independent thinkers and resist making changes just because management said so. Externally-driven changes are easiest to sell; management prerogative much less so. It's also important to try to personalize the benefits. "This is good for you," is far more persuasive than "this is good for the company."
Being too prescriptive in what steps need to be taken. I often see leaders who are many years removed from doing technical work dictating how technical work should be done differently. It's generally bad form for leaders to hand down specific work process changes without seeking input from those who must implement them. Who's the expert here? You'll not only get more buy-in when people have a say in how to improve what they do, but you'll probably get better ideas as well.
Not building consensus among the right people. Change management guru John Kotter writes that forming a "guiding coalition" is critical to success. This means that you need to assemble a team with enough authority, influence, and expertise to lead the change process. They must also have enough wherewithal to overcome the inevitable laggards and skeptics in the ranks, some of whom will occupy positions of influence themselves. Senior executives often overestimate their singular ability to get employees engaged in a change effort. They need a strong team, speaking and acting in concert with each other.
Being too uninvolved. The potential downside of having a strong team is the temptation to step back from actively leading the effort. Leadership by ideas and words is not nearly so powerful as leadership by example. If you want people to think that the change is important, you need to be personally involved in it. You may not be directly needed to lead many of the activities associated with the initiative (in fact, it's often better for others to take the lead), but your mere presence sends the message "this matters."
Overlooking the power of culture. Imagine an arm wrestling contest between your firm's strategy and its culture. Which wins? Culture, hands down. Many a strategic initiative has been defeated by entrenched corporate culture. The two must be aligned, or one has to change. If it's culture, you have a monumental challenge on your hands. It's doable (and necessary at times), but it takes a careful plan and strong leadership across the organization.
Not talking about it enough. If I wanted to know what really matters in your firm, I could ask. But I'd get a more honest answer by simply listening over several days to what your people talk about. The power of conversation is widely underestimated in change initiatives. If you want to change actions, change the conversation. And talk about the new way a lot. Stories are particularly powerful reinforcers.
Acting contrary to the message. One of the quickest ways to bring down your efforts to change course is to contradict what you say by what you do. I mentioned a common example of this earlier: Not being personally involved in something you said was important. Or perhaps you personally fail to make the changes you have asked of others. Or not providing positive reinforcement to those who get on board, or holding accountable those who don't. When you set a new direction, remember that others will be watching to see if you're walking that way.
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