Leading Through Change: Jeff Skipper's Insights

Illustration of a captain on a boat leading his people through change

Change is inevitable in business, and navigating through disruptions requires balancing control with active participation. Jeff Skipper, an international change leadership consultant and author of the book, Dancing with Disruption: Leading Dramatic Change during Global Transformation, shows us twelve scalable strategies for leading through change. What makes these strategies stand out is their adaptability to be scaled, from big corporate transformations, to the challenges of starting your own business, and even to your own personal growth.

"Organizations should focus on fostering a sense of control in employees, making them understand that change is not being done through them but with them." 

 

Start at the End; Set a Clear Goal

 

The one strategy often missed when a change of any sort is initiated is to be about the end goal. The clarity of the goal is described as psychological in that it addresses the human need for purpose and direction. For most individuals it can be unsettling when they don't know where they're headed. While some may be comfortable with uncertainty and enjoy wandering, most prefer a clear destination.

When implementing a change, people want to know how and when they will reach the goal. This information allows individuals to assess how the change relates to them personally. They become more motivated to participate if they can see a connection between the desired end state and their role in achieving it. Without a clear picture and understanding of the change, people may hesitate or stand back, waiting for more clarity. The clarity of the goal is also tied to motivation. Jeff argues that a compelling and inspiring future is crucial for motivating individuals to get on board with the change. Simply presenting numbers or talking about abstract goals like increasing market share may not paint a vivid picture of the positive impact the change will have on individuals' lives. Emphasizing the emotional aspects of the goal is highlighted as a key factor in moving and motivating people.

 

“A clear goal is also important in terms of motivation. Think about when people get on board for stuff. If it's not a great-looking future, if you haven't painted that very well, or you only use numbers and talk about increasing market share, it's not that inspiring.”

 

Being honest about the journey toward the goal is important because most employees can sense when information is being sugar-coated or misrepresented. It's also important because, in any organizational change management program, things may not go according to plan, or there may be challenges and difficulties along the way. Reassurance and honesty then contribute to building trust between leaders and employees. When employees believe their leaders are transparent about challenges and committed to supporting them, it instills a sense of trust and confidence in the change process.

 

Identify all Stakeholders, Expand the Circle

 

This strategy focuses on the two groups—those impacted and the enablers. Enablers play a crucial role in managing organizational change. Enablers are those who have already embraced the change, dipped their toes in the water, and can provide a positive perspective to others. When individuals encounter obstacles or hesitations during a change process, enablers can make a significant difference.

People who show resistance to organizational change are often actually just hesitant due to uncertainty or fear. Enablers can help alleviate these hesitations by demonstrating that they’ve already experienced the change with positive results, which helps others overcome the fear associated with the unknown. Jeff suggests getting enablers on board as early as possible. Early involvement helps establish a positive tone and demonstrates from the start that individuals within the organization support the change.

“I get up on the stage, and my first words are: 'Can I have a volunteer?' And it's crickets. No one wants to step up. Eventually, someone does, and when they come up, I say: 'Great, thank you for volunteering.' That was it. Then you ask the audience: 'May I have another volunteer?' How many hands go up? Everyone. What's the difference? Someone I know already went forward, and they put their toe in the water. There were no negative repercussions; they came away with something positive.”

 

Develop a Change Plan

 

Buffets are defined as a diverse selection of options catering to different tastes, so Jeff uses the term "buffet" to highlight its flexibility. In the context of implementing plans and managing change, the tactical buffet represents a range of options or tactics that can be selected based on the specific needs and responses of individuals or situations. With the dynamic nature of implementing plans, no plan survives the first engagement entirely intact. As the plan is put into action, reactions may vary, and not everyone may respond positively. In such cases, having a tactical buffet provides the ability to adapt and choose alternative approaches or tactics that better suit the situation. The ultimate goal of the tactical buffet is to have a collection of tactics that can effectively move people forward in the change process. By selecting and adapting options based on the situation, change leaders can navigate challenges and guide individuals toward the desired outcomes.

“Sometimes the leader that's in front of the change needs to step aside because their credibility has been so damaged, people are not going to get behind them anymore. And someone else coming in can now pick things up and say: “Let me repaint the picture," and let's start moving this direction.”

 

Communicate Effectively

 

The impact of storytelling is highlighted because stories evoke emotions, and emotions are what drive people to act. While numbers may provide factual information, they often lack the emotional resonance that stories carry. In the context of coming out of the pandemic, Jeff encourages leaders to tell stories about employees' accomplishments and adaptability during challenging times. By recounting specific examples of how individuals rapidly adapted, learned new skills, and overcame obstacles, leaders can emotionally connect with their audience and inspire positive feelings. This emotional reinforcement helps individuals recognize and appreciate their resilience and abilities, setting them up positively for future disruptions or changes.

“People learned how to homeschool their kids. They learned how to use new technologies they hadn’t used before. We forget that because it was a painful time, I remind them: ‘You adapted so quickly; you picked up new stuff.’ We're very good at it. So reminding folks that they have these reserves, these skills that they can draw upon is setting them up positively for the next disruption, the next change that comes along.”

 

Response to Resistance: When Coercion is the Best Option

 

This strategy is considered controversial, but Jeff argues that there are situations where coercion is necessary and effective in driving change. 

“I always want to begin with trying to convince you, point out the benefits, make it in your best interest, appeal to your self-interest. But I also need to push sometimes. “

Jeff states that leaders must be proactive and decisive in managing resistance to change, which involves not only attempting to persuade and support individuals through the change but also taking firm action, including the possibility of termination, when necessary to maintain momentum and ensure the success of the change initiative.

 

The Concept of Cleaning Up

 

Failing to clean up after an organizational change sends a signal. The physical remnants of old materials or outdated information can serve as a visual representation of the past, potentially confusing employees about the current state and direction of the organization. Removing them signifies closure and a commitment to the new direction. It helps in reinforcing the message that the organization is moving forward and embracing change. The concept of cleaning up is also linked to onboarding processes. During onboarding, focusing on the current and future state rather than the past reinforces the organization's values and direction. It ensures that new employees understand the current culture and practices, setting the tone for their experience.

“Everything is feedback. Clean up after your project has been done, and ensure anything that remains is pointing forward, not backward.”

 

Change leadership provides valuable lessons in empowering individuals and the metaphor of dancing through disruption is a powerful one, emphasizing the rhythm, pattern, and flow of change. It invites individuals and organizations to embrace the evolving nature of transformation, recognizing that each step is unique, just as the music guiding the dance varies.

 

 

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