I recently listened to an interview with Louise Penny, author of the wonderful Inspector Gamache novels. Among other topics, she covered the role her enduring characters play in her books. As I mulled over our fascination with individual characters in works of fiction, I thought of the roles that personality and character traits play in a very real phenomenon: leading change.
Helping our clients execute change dominates my working life. Most of our work at L&C involves advising CEOs and decision-makers on how best to deal with transformational change within their organizations.
My business partner and I recently met with a senior executive who is setting up a change leadership group within her organization, a huge Canadian company in the telecommunications sector. She asked us to help her think about tools and processes that might be useful.
Of course, our toolbox is fully stocked with techniques. Some are derived from the seminal work of John Kotter and his eight-step process of managing major change. Others we have concocted based on our experience or borrowed from less comprehensive thinkers whose observations nevertheless prove useful in particular situations.
“Do you have some framework you could pass along?” the woman asked, echoing scores of C-suite executives who have turned to us for help.
Notice that her focus was on a framework, a structure that would effortlessly and inevitably bring about a transformation from A to Z. A hat, if you will, from which her company could make a rabbit magically appear.
The longer my partner and I discussed the challenges faced by this client’s company and the structural adjustments that would address them, the more I thought about how key individuals influence the narrative of change within organizations. My business partner and I gave our client an array of tools, exercises and frameworks, but more importantly, we talked about helping her think through how she was going to get the right people for her team: people who had the capacity to help others make change happen—and stick.
It is the magician, after all, who makes that rabbit appear. And people create a successful change process. Their skills, experience, character traits and personalities drive change much as the skills, character traits and personalities (my favourite being Penny’s Armand Gamache) bring about the satisfying denouement of a novel.
I’m not advocating the cult of personality. Even in fiction, personality is useless without ability. Jack Reacher, the protagonist in the fiction of British author Lee Child, has plenty of personality and this personality keeps the reader engaged. But clearly, his acute deductive skills and proficiency in hand-to-hand combat are essential to his success. In business also, the skills of the individual are essential, regardless of the structural framework.
All this reflection left me with a mystery of my own: Why do the theories of change seem to give short shrift to—or outright ignore— the qualities of people who are responsible for making it happen?
Why don’t we discuss whether some people are better at making change happen than others? What are the traits and competencies required for those leading change within companies and how do they manifest themselves?
The answers to these questions aren’t easy or obvious. Sometimes the right person for one role is the wrong person for another. Winston Churchill led Britain’s fight against Nazi Germany and is often hailed as the model of a great leader. Some biographers and historians contend that his strong character traits contributed to episodes of lesser success earlier and later in his career. The consensus, nevertheless, is that it was Churchill’s leadership and force of personality that pulled Britain through the trials of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. He was described at the time as “the only man we have for this hour.”
As I write this on my MacBook and keep an eye on my iPhone, I wonder if Apple would be the colossus it is today if Steve Jobs hadn’t returned to the company to inaugurate a critical restructuring of its product line.
I also wonder if Canadian women would have had to wait longer for the right to vote had it not been for the fortitude and humour of activist Nellie McClung.
If there are right people for certain roles, there are also wrong people. Having the wrong people trying to drive change is one of the biggest reasons why even sustained and thought-out efforts can fail to influence public opinion, shift political direction or – more to the point here – create transformational change within corporations.
Even if you are not as certain as I am about the role of the individual, why take the risk? Why gamble when change initiatives consume so much of the financial and human resources of any company?
Fortunately, one of our corporate partners has been working on the important task of identifying the skills required by people in change leadership roles. SuccessFinder™ has developed a comprehensive human metric capable of predicting job performance in any specific job role. We use the tool in many ways in our work, but an important application is determining whether an individual has the special combination of behavioral traits that make them effective in leading change.
Why not equip your change initiatives with the types of people who embrace change and know how to help others pursue it? Who know how to make order out of chaos, who are adept at listening, as well as explaining, who can inspire others, who can inspire and build consensus? These folks no doubt exist in your organization. Deploying them—the right people—in the right situations would be incredibly constructive.