25Oct/1310

Change is Easy, by Dr. Laurence S. Lyons

Turn to the change section in any management textbook and it will be sure to tell you one thing—major change is horrendously hard. However arduous you might think it will be to re-organize operations, introduce a new business model, or beef up global customer service, accepted wisdom will tell you to think again. Estimate the effort needed to bring about the desired change. Treble it. Then add some. You will find that making change happen in the real world will be much, much harder than you'd ever imagined.

If you, or one of your clients, have ever instigated major change, you will wisely nod your head in agreement with all those textbooks. There are well over a million excellent reasons why change is so very difficult and always takes far longer than expected. People have a natural resistance to change. They cannot be rushed through the laborious emotional processes which major change unavoidably requires. The Senior Management Team—often the instigators of change—will be thinking one or two steps ahead of their announced plans, which skews their perception about the speed at which change can take place towards the madly-optimistic. Change is difficult, it looks difficult, and it takes a long time.

Yet this need not be the case. There is some good news; there is another way. While coaching may not eliminate the amount of client reflection that is required when change comes along, it does offer a better and more enduring return from the investment in its efforts. We of course know that coaching almost always encourages dialog, and that early warning is particularly important for reducing risk in change situations. So a coaching context is generally beneficial during change. But coaching can go beyond simply setting a culture conducive to lubricating the change initiative. By helping the client find her authentic voice, a coach may encourage a leader to take a less reactive and more robust stance. To achieve this, the leader may probe and test the organization's ambition in an effort to interpret its intention in a way which finds a desirable role for her in the emerging scheme.

A Question of Coaching

Traditionally, major organizational change is the practical answer to a set of three strategic questions:

  • Where is the organization today?
  • Where do we want the organization to be tomorrow?
  • How does the organization get there?

Organizational change methodologies built on these three questions have undoubtedly stood the test of time. These are good questions. They are the right questions. The top team's answers to these three questions—together with the quality of change implementation they bring—will deliver to any organization the future it deserves.

Yet, however beneficial this approach may seem to be for the business, the coach may feel stymied by it. Having a client respond without challenge to the organization's perceived demands may leave residual feelings of weakness or inadequacy. Additionally, it may be frustrating to find that the textbooks dictate that there is nothing important for the business beyond the realm of strategy. Where, then, can the coach find a space in which each client can be empowered?

I propose a coaching question, the fourth question of strategy:

  • Where do I (the client) fit in the picture?

The great thing I find about this additional question is that it is also strategic—but this time squarely in the interest of the client. To get to work on this new question, simply take the original three questions and change the word 'organization' to 'client.' Your discussions will produce an initial draft of a personal strategy. Importantly, it has now been made explicit. It will be almost impossible for the client to answer these questions without bringing to the surface a much deeper one: Who am I?

Asking this fourth question puts what could have been an important hidden issue right on the table. With all that done, it's now time to explore common futures. Ask this: Within the proposed organizational change, is there any gap between the client's career and the organization's ambition which needs further exploration?

Playing with Fire

Just in case you might have any qualms about asking this extra question in a live coaching session, remember that the ethical justification for doing so is compelling. At worst, it will quickly emerge that your client is the best person for meeting the new organizational challenges. In that case, your conversation only took a moment and you've squeezed out risk to both your client and the organization. Rest happy that your client is in exactly the right job, fired up with opportunity and enthusiasm, and that the organization is well resourced for its future. This represents a fine return on the investment of a few seconds' coaching time. Celebrate!

What if your client is uncertain about the method of change implementation, or even holds serious reservations about some of the assumptions in the change plan? Here is another great coaching opportunity! You encourage the client to go into research mode, which means setting up conversations with colleagues outside the coaching room. Perhaps it simply turns out that some detail or interpretation needs clarifying, and once that has been done all is then well. Great outcome. Or, maybe it emerges from business discussions that it is necessary to modify some part of the original change program. It could be that a major piece of the change plan eventually gets jettisoned or replaced. Having your client set this research in motion doesn't mean that all risks will evaporate, but it does mean that you and your client have done your level best in addressing all inherent, and foreseeable, risks. You did good work. In the real world, it often doesn't get better than this. Celebrate!

What if it should become clear that there is no fit for your client in the organization's future, and no hope of re-negotiating the change plan? It is difficult to see how you wouldn't want to celebrate even more than before! I expect to hear the champagne corks flying. You have just identified an extremely significant and dangerous risk, and are already on your way to avoiding a predictable disaster. Remember: If it ain't going to work, then it ain't going to work. Get started on the exit strategy today. Better to spot and avoid the dead end right here and now in the coaching room than to leave it festering unnoticed until it grows into the full-blown catastrophe of a failed implementation. Working the mismatch issue now will prevent serious organizational embarrassment and disruption in the future, and it may even save a career.

Principled coaching begets principled leadership. The principled way can at first seem frightening, but is often the best for both client and organization. Business coaches are often asked, "What is it that coaches actually do?" That question offers no quick and simple answer. But one element of coaching is crystal clear: Coaches encourage their clients to walk the talk by living their values and by being authentic. One route to that goal starts with a major change announcement and the fourth question of strategy.

I freely admit that the search for those core personal values can often involve the client in a long and tortuous inner struggle. Often a situation of impending major organizational change will be the only device able to prompt such consistent and deep reflection. Finding the limits of Self can be hard. But the reward for the client is enormous: Authenticity. Authenticity is the foundation of principled leadership. Because the principled leader knows herself, she has no cause to worry about change.

She is to be found anywhere in an organization, not only at its top and not only among the management elite. She feels no need to take a long and protracted journey to some unwanted organizational destination. She is self-secure. Organizational change may present her with a fantastic opportunity to grow her leadership skills and get closer to her personal ambition. If so, she and her organization will reap huge rewards, which multiply as each feeds on the success of the other. But if, after researching all possible alternatives, she still cannot find herself within the emerging picture, she will simply start work on the construction of another picture. It will be her picture, in which, for the time being at least, she can clearly see herself, and which she is prepared to share with the world. Organizations hold no monopoly on change.

Is it not the quest of business coaches to create such leaders? Leaders who are at home with themselves? Change is a gale which extinguishes the candle or spreads the bush fire; its effect depends entirely on the material it meets. Who said the flame must always die? Authentic leaders are prepared for change; for them, being true to self presents no difficulty at all. Change? What is change? Change is easy.

This article first appeared in Business Coaching Worldwide (Spring Issue 2007, Volume 3, Issue 1). Copyright © 2012 WABC Coaches Inc. All rights reserved.

Laurence S. Lyons, PhD, founding director of The Metacorp Group, has extensive experience in coaching senior teams during major change. A member of the WABC International Advisory Committee, Larry is a scheduled panelist at the WABC 10th Anniversary International Conference. His most recently published book, co-edited with Marshall Goldsmith, is the second edition of Coaching for Leadership: The Practice of Leadership Coaching from the World's Greatest Coaches (Pfeiffer, 2005). Read more about Larry in the WABC Coach Directory. Larry can be reached by email at lslyons@lslyons.com.

If you wish to reproduce this article in any material form, you must first contact WABC for permission.
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