A leadership letter to myself

“You have never properly fitted in …. You have bad acne.” Such were the words that the designer and former Spice Girl, Victoria Beckham, wrote to her 18 year old self by way of advice for the future.  Now successfully established in her second career, she felt that she had words of wisdom for her 18 year old self who clearly struggled with self-doubt as well as the odd bit of acne.

What would a typical leader of change say to his or her younger self as they were starting out on their leadership journey?  We thought we would ask a few established – and successful – leaders for their views.  What would they advise?  Here’s a consolidated version of what their counsel might sound like:

“Well done, you’ve started well and you’re on the right track.  Here are a few things you might want to consider as you get experience over the next few years to get ready to lead large scale change.  You’re smart and, I will admit, usually have great ideas about what needs to be done.  In fact, you’re typically right about a lot of things.  But remember, it’s not intellectual ability that will be your biggest asset you when you are top dog.  What you’re going to have to get really great at is building a coalition of support in your leadership team and – with those colleagues – creating a compelling vision of the change you want to lead.  Ideas alone won’t cut it.  But getting people on board with your ideas, and I mean genuinely on board and not just giving you their tacit compliance, is key.  You’ll need to work with your team to shape what the change will look like and how you’re going to achieve it.  Working with them to collaborate on the vision is almost as important as the vision itself.  Your team will have to really believe in what they’re doing and you’ll need to bank on their support for when the going gets tough because, believe me, it will get tough.

And this leads me to my next piece of advice for you: you’ll need to balance a rock-solid resilience with the ability to listen.  And not just listen to the people who agree with you.  You will get challenged and even attacked by people who disagree with what you’re doing.  Don’t let them get to you but do listen to what they’re saying and try to make an objective judgement about the validity of their comments.  Don’t simply dismiss any criticisms out of hand with justifications about why they’re wrong.  Listen, really listen, to what’s behind their commentary.  Put to one side any personal motivation they may have in their challenge, and listen to the substance of their critique.

The next bit of advice is about organisation – how you organise the change, and the organisation you’re changing.  First something on how you organise the change.

Get the best people on the job.  Pick the high performers and train them well in all things change, including how to collaborate in the change team, and the principles and methodology for change.  Too many times have I seen a well meaning team gather together only to lose their way without a clear methodology and skills to handle change.  Keep close to your change team (as well as your key stakeholders to whom you’re accountable), pay attention to what they’re doing and interrogate them frequently about their progress – what’s working and what’s not.  And use data.  Collect data on both hard and soft factors and use it to inform your change planning.  You can never have enough data.

Now, let’s turn our attention to the organisation itself.  Just as I am encouraging you to develop your own ‘soft’ skills in the areas of collaboration and team working, so I encourage you to be an avid student of the ‘soft’ factors in the organisation.  If you don’t believe me, then turn to studies on change and you will see time and again that it is the so-called ‘soft’ factors that make or break a change: the corporate culture, honest and timely communication, the ownership of change by middle management, and employee involvement.  You need to turn into an organisational anthropologist and study how you can involve people in the change because employees at every level make and reinforce – or are able to change – the culture each and every day.  And of course, that links with the data point I mentioned earlier.  How can you gather information on what people are thinking and doing, or intending to do.  Asking them, listening to them and being curious about what’s going on, achieves two outcomes at the same time: you get great information on the ‘soft’ factors like the culture, and you also engage people who begin to feel part of the change rather than just the victim of it.

Before I risk boring you into submission, I am going to pause here.  There’s so much more I could say but I think you get the drift of my counsel to help you develop into a successful change leader.  Good luck!”

*IBM Corporation August 2014, ‘Making Change work …while the work keeps changing’

September 2016

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