Transforming Your Organization? Let Go and Put Others First
Updated: Feb 21
Culture change guru Jim Hemerling has a catch-phrase I love: “always-on transformation.” He uses it to describe the current era of constant change in which we and our organizations find ourselves. As managing director at the Boston Consulting Group’s People and Organizational Transformation Practices, Hemerling knows a thing or two about cultural change, and he admits always-on transformation can be exhausting and stressful. In our world, this is often referred to as “change fatigue.”
And yet there's hope: Organizational change doesn’t have to be this way. Admittedly, change is hard, but leaders don’t always make it any easier, especially when we take too long to act or commit. According to Hemerling, this is why change management efforts frequently seem to happen in crisis mode and why they often focus solely on short-term results, including what will make the boss happy this week. A better way forward is to create a leadership-enriched culture that values continuous learning, letting go of old command and control paradigms, and instilling trust by talking and delegating to those who work for and with us.
Another thing that makes culture change hard is our inherent aversion to institutional change, especially when we associate our personal value or self-worth with our status in the organization. We have spent a lot of time, sweat, and tears getting to where we are, earning what we have, and we often link our personal value directly to our rank, our technical expertise, our position, our influence, and general standing vis-à-vis others in the organizational pecking order.
Clinging to What We Have
When I think about cultural and institutional change, I end up musing about three books: Howard Bloom’s The Lucifer Principle, Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man. While diverse in their breadth and themes, all three authors agree on one thing when it comes to resisting both big and small cultural change – namely, we oppose any change in which we perceive a potential for loss, whether that loss comes in the form of status; ease and efficiency; interpersonal relationships; or the rules and standards we’ve grown accustomed to, helped develop, and supported.
As soon as we see ourselves, our tribes, and our organizations benefiting from existing game rules and hierarchies, we automatically become one of the “haves.” And as a have, vice a “have not,” the idea of change unleashes our instinct to defend the status quo, not stir the pot, calm everyone down, and assert: “Everything is fine. Let's not fix what's not broken. How about we just slow down, or better yet, leave well enough alone?” The problem, however, is that throughout history this strategy has consistently worked against resiliency and long-term survival – from the ancient empires of Egypt, Babylon, and Rome to 20th Century firms such as Kodak, Blockbuster, and Borders. Instead of clinging to the rules, structures, and pecking orders that had made them great, each would have been better off evolving.
Here’s a rule of thumb: The world always belongs to the next wave, and it’s better to be riding that wave instead of being swept under by it. In Hemerling’s schema, there are five strategic imperatives that leaders can implement to stay ahead of change and move their organizations, and the people that comprise their organizations, forward.
Inspire through purpose. While leaders often focus their change efforts on operational or component-based goals, to motivate others broadly and effectively transformation needs to connect with a deeper sense of purpose. This deeper sense of purpose is almost always based on two things: mission and people. Instead of focusing on loss, the best leaders ask: Who will gain from this change and how can we help them benefit from these gains?
Go all in. Rather than just seeking efficiencies, improving execution, or streamlining operations, leaders and managers alike need to think about initiatives that enable the organization to win in the mid-term, drive long-term growth, and fundamentally evolve the way their component operates in step with changing times. The best way to do this? Invest foremost in developing the next generation of leadership and talent.
Focus on the capabilities needed for the transformation period… and beyond. Real change requires different capabilities, tools, skills, processes, and investments – both in terms of your time and budget. When moving organizations forward, leaders must ensure their people have the skills and tools they need along the entire journey – not just today, but also tomorrow, and the day after that.
Nurture a spirit of continuous learning. This is a key component of our the servant leadership ethos, and yet, it is harder than it sounds, because it includes changes to strategy, shared values, and culture. A commitment to learning naturally includes a certain tolerance for failure and mistakes. Strong leaders not only cut people slack for errors and mistakes, but often celebrate them, as long as the errors were underpinned by good intentions and they result in learning – i.e., smarter, more sophisticated employees to face tomorrow’s challenges and decisions.
Adopt an inclusive leadership style. Leaders at all levels need to have a vision and the ability to articulate and communicate that vision in terms of gains, benefits, and what a better future looks like. And yes, a leader needs to empower others while still holding them, as well as himself or herself, accountable for results. In Hemerling’s ideal world, a leader needs to lead situationally, knowing when to be directive, when to lead via commander’s intent, and when to be completely hands off, all the while remaining consistently inclusive. And yes, this is a tall order, but it can be accomplished through candor, empathy, focus, and all those other characteristics exhibited by true servant leaders.
In the end, Hemerling asserts: “We owe it to ourselves, to our organizations, and to society more broadly to boldly transform our approach to transformation.” And, to do that, “we need to start putting people first.”
For a deeper dive into Hemerling’s “Five Ways to Lead in an Era of Constant Change,” I encourage you to set aside 13 minutes and check out his 2016 TED Talk here: