In today’s rapidly changing world, leadership is the key component to the maintenance of a viable and growing organization. In managing change, leaders set the tone and pave the way. They determine the rate at which the organization will be willing to change—not only in what the leaders say, but, more importantly, in what they do.

As aspects of the market changes, leaders must be facile in changing with them. This includes anticipating changes, as well as preparing themselves and their organizations in how to address them. One example is the shift to results-focused accountability. Leaders must now be able to demonstrate the results of their activities, not just the activity itself. This is a major shift in emphasis and focus, one which ripples throughout their organizations.

Areas that may have performed well in the past suddenly are no longer aligned with the future. They pop up as "problems." The future must be addressed in organizations accustomed to relying on the past to inform the present. For example, Susan, a hypothetical leader, has based her current-year plans and budgets on what has been done in the past. Plans are an extension of what has been accomplished before. This, however, is no longer an effective way to map an organization’s direction. With radical changes in today's business environment, the past is no longer a reliable predictor of the future (if it ever was).

Leaders must focus on two important areas in order to create sustainable changes for the continued success of their organizations. They must (1) address the cultural aspects of change, as well as the process and technical aspects, and (2) look within themselves first for changes to be made before asking others to change.

Balancing Process and Cultural Changes

Many organizations that do strategic planning focus only on the process and technology changes required. There is an important third element: people. Many initiatives are introduced and not sustained, leading to a "flavor of the month" skepticism among employees. A key missing ingredient is attention to the cultural changes necessary to sustain initiatives in organizations. If the foundation is not receptive to the change, it will not take root. The organization’s culture is that foundation.

Questions to ask include the following:

  • Are people related in the most powerful, effective way to support the new way of work?
  • What in our culture (way of relating to each other and the organization) supports this initiative? What poses barriers?

Relationships sufficient to maintain prior ways of work are not necessarily optimal for new initiatives. Rarely do leaders look this far ahead, assuming that new processes will address all issues.

When a situation pops up as a “problem” because it is not aligned with a desired future, there is a root cause. Generally, the presenting problem is not the root cause, it is a symptom of a larger issue. Leaders must dig deeper than the superficial problem to identify the heart of the matter. And the heart of the matter generally lies in people; more specifically in the way people are relating to each other and to the organization.

For example, Walt is frustrated because his staff seems to be resisting the shift to accountability for results. They continue to focus on activities, and look to him for recognition for all their efforts. They are resentful when he cannot acknowledge their efforts because the efforts are not producing the intended results. On the surface, he reports that they are resistant to change, stubborn in their embracing of the old. In fact, at the root of this issue is their uncertainty about exactly what to do, and their fear of saying "I don’t know." If they were to admit they did not know, they often believe they may be perceived or labeled as incompetent and unable to hold their positions. In fact, they already wonder whether they may be incompetent—with no touchstones on this new path of accountability, and no one to guide them.

What appears to be resistance is actually a fear of being incompetent, of being exposed as not knowing. The leadership approach required in each of these situations is quite different. Applying the appropriate approach, after getting to the root cause, accelerates the resolution of the issue.

From the Inside Out

As leaders examine their cultures and its alignment with new initiatives, they also must examine themselves. Sustainable organizational change happens when leaders start it with themselves. Human nature tends to have us point the finger outward, toward others, when change is necessary. Leaders must first point it toward themselves, asking of themselves:

  • How I am contributing to the barriers in this organization?
  • In what ways am I enabling the problem to persist”
  • What changes do I need to make?
  • How is my behavior with others holding us back?
  • What would more powerful actions and relationships include?

Only after they have assessed their own role, attitudes and behaviors can leaders effectively encourage change in others. Sustainable change begins with the self. Secondly, it can be focused on the team, the entire organization, the community, and so on.

An example may be useful here. John, a leader notes that his team is not proactive. They are very responsive to what is requested of them, very good "dopers" he says. However, they do not initiate. John would like them to identify powerful actions to move the organization toward its vision, and then act. What John discovered was that he subtly encouraged this behavior by telling them what to do, and then requiring them to check in with him on their progress. When people came to him with routine questions, often the same questions they had asked before, he repeatedly provided answers and directions.

Upon looking within himself, he found that having people depend on him made him feel secure and needed. Further, he liked being needed. As John discovered how he reinforced this form of dependency, he also discovered that it no longer worked for the organization. His self-awareness allowed him to rethink his need to be needed, and then to practice new behavior in these situations. As he did, his people become more self-reliant and self-initiating.

The Bottom Line

Inner worlds must be examined and shifted to achieve sustainable change—both the inner world of the leader, and the inner world of the organization (its culture). While leaders tend to look externally for some overlay "quick fix" to make change, sustainable change is only to be found in fundamental shifts in the internal landscape.

Barbara Osterman, founder and owner of Human Solutions LLC, is a business leadership consultant and cultural catalyst. She can be reached at 585-586-1717 and This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . This article appeared in Business Strategies Magazine, August 2006.

Barbara Osterman
About The Author Barbara Osterman [Full Bio]
Barbara Osterman, founder and owner of Human Solutions LLC, is a business leadership consultant and cultural catalyst. She supports organizations in increasing business performance and results by successfully weaving business initiatives and culture transformations.

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