Fall 2016
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CTDO Magazine

Shifting Sands

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Change is not difficult; our adaptation to it is.

We are wired via evolutionary biology to interpret change as a danger and to respond accordingly. People, teams, and organizations that thrive on change understand that we are designed to see trouble, not opportunity. But change does not imply trouble; instead, our mindset is the root cause of the problems we have with change.


Leaders face change in the same manner as all humans. We tend to react in one of four ways:

  • We respond sequentially and gradually—that is, we go from A to B to C, etc. The problem with incremental approaches to change are that they miss the two most important factors of a fundamental and effective response: They do not factor interdependence between systems and choices nor do they consider finding ways to understand the situation holistically.
  • We change by exception—that is we allow some new facts or rationale to emerge that changes the problem set but does not change the mindset that the exception allows. Here's an example: A team of engineers were concerned about the fact that they were not able to meet deadlines. The problem was that they knew they gave unrealistic deadlines to their project teams. Why? They did not want to "cause conflict." They decided to give themselves more room to meet deadlines, but they did not address the root problem: their aversion to conflict. The change by exception ended, resulting in the same problem—missed deadlines—but for another reason.
  • We swing back and forth between extremes (pendulum-swing change) or mutually opposing viewpoints, but do not examine the fundamental assumptions that underlie the decision or choice.
  • We change via transformation—that is, we step out of the box for a more fundamental rethinking of premises, assumptions, and mindset. Discordant information is considered and integrated and new ways of thinking emerge. As Marilyn Ferguson, an early thought leader in change theory, points out, it is only paradigm change that promotes transformation—and for transformation, or true organizational change, to occur, the beliefs that control behaviors must undergo the most profound mindset change.

The first three types of change are more to our liking—they require no radical disruption in either our thinking or our acting. But they are also like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Thriving on change requires a transformational approach and method to radically alter the mindset that is at the root of why there is so much angst about change in the first place.

A whole-systems method for thriving on change

As chief talent development officers, you have the influence to redesign the development of people and make change skills and tools the core competencies of your company. Thus, place change and change management at the center of leadership and executive competencies. Redesign and re-engineer the company's strategy, systems, structures, skills, staffing, and style to take advantage of the competitive edge of companies that are change masters.

First and foremost, change is not peripheral to organizational success or one of many skills to own—it is the central factor that determines whether companies, teams, or individuals thrive. Placing change and the mastery of coping with change at the heart of any leadership model shifts the emphasis from the change initiative of the month to coping with change as the premier leadership competency.

Leaders who will thrive on fundamentally shifting sands will discover they require three interlocking skill sets to succeed: mindful awareness, goodwill, and focus and attention.

The factor of awareness is required know-how. In addition, the skills of mindfulness must accompany the change that's core to a transformational leadership model. Awareness is developed in three areas: self, relationship, and contextual intelligence—or, as Daniel Goleman names them in his models, emotional, social, and organizational IQ. Each area has specific tools and skills that can be trained for and mastered.

The second core competence that is required to thrive is developing a culture that can withstand difficult, important, high-stakes conversations while also encouraging warmth and goodwill. The "secret sauce" is the integration of conflict resolution with the generation of goodwill.

Finally, our most precious resource is our focus and attention. We are capable of developing the skills to focus like a laser, let our attention wander in a creative diffuse manner, relax our focus when recharging is needed, and lift our attention and place it intentionally when it is time, rather than waste time and energy multitasking.

The most powerful role a CTDO can play in the success and sustainability of your company is to adopt a transformational approach to change and change management. It is archaic to think that a training session or a single change initiative will help the company cope with change in any competent manner. To thrive on change as an organization, take these steps:

  1. Build the business case for placing skills and tools of change competency at the heart of all training company-wide. There is a plethora of research and examples of companies around the globe that are thriving on change by developing mindful leaders, adaptive systems, and an approach to change that is central to the company's strategic competencies.
  2. Understand change at a fundamental level and its effects on human systems. Applied neuroscience, social psychology, and behavioral economics are fundamental to the implementation of a company-wide strategy toward change. Any method without strong integration of these sciences will be ineffective and powerless.
  3. Approach change management as an organization-wide initiative with three years of committed leadership and resources. Anything less than three years is ineffective and will result in one more program du jour that fails. (The case study that follows explains why three years is critical.)
  4. Align all HR systems with the change initiative, including reward and recognition programs, learning and development, and organizational development.

Case study

Using Kotter's eight-step model for leading change, I worked with ICANN, a large nonprofit organization in the IT/Internet sector, which sought to implement a company-wide change initiative. We customized each of the steps to fit the pace, culture, and style of the company.

Create a sense of urgency. The sense of urgency was driven by the CEO, who saw that if the leadership did not become proficient in managing and leading that growth it would destabilize the future of the organization. In his words, "It had to go from a 13-year-old successful start-up to a professionally led company."

Three superordinate goals were determined by the entire organization using the same bottom-up democratic process that ICANN adheres to in developing Internet policy:

  • Every employee will have a development plan that is tied to their performance goals each quarter. Managers will be held accountable by their direct reports, who will fill out a "leadership audit" that is based on Gallup's engagement survey. If a manager does not receive at least a 4 out of possible 5 rating overall, his bonus for performance management will be affected.
  • A company-wide recognition program will be developed that recognizes and rewards core values in action, collaboration, and cross-functional cooperation.
  • Every major process will be examined to determine if it produces the effective outcome. If there were missing pieces or gaps in the process design, a team will address the broken or ineffective processes.

Build a guiding coalition. The powerful coalition that formed was a hub and spoke model of governance of the change, with clear lines of authority and responsibilities developed that enabled the executive team to influence but not sabotage progress. The team comprised peer-nominated staff who met the criteria of being excellent communicators, collaborators, and facilitators. The 24-person team was the hub, which then led 12 teams of staff who were all working on the same three goals.

Form a strategic vision and initiatives. The superordinate vision for the change was a company in which all staff had a voice and ability to affect important aspects of their lives. For example, all employees were engaged in a lengthy and thorough problem-solving methodology that identified what was needed to move the company toward being a "professionally managed" organization. The three superordinate goals above came directly from the hard work of all staff in the spoke teams.

Enlist a volunteer army. Through its leadership of the teams comprising the spokes, the hub team was responsible for keeping everyone up-to-date at all phases of the change. There were numerous means of communications: quarterly all-staff meetings were held so that everyone heard at the same time the progress, problems, and plans of the other teams; frequent communication was disseminated from the hub team to all staff about specific and data-supported results on the three goals; and emails from the CEO encouraged all staff to participate and play the "long game," not just focus on the short term.


Enable action by removing barriers. Staff were empowered through Two-Means-One, an in-depth team training program that included mindfulness, focus and attention, creating goodwill through effective conflict resolution and problem solving, and exerting positive power and influence strategically.

Generate short-term wins. There were numerous opportunities for short-term wins. The commitment from the executive team was to fund the program for three years, and the expectation was that we could make significant headway in year one. The most visible positive change in the first year was the deep training developed for the teams and its impact on how people related to one another when pressure-filled conversations surfaced, and the quality of the critical thinking and decision making from the teams.

Sustain acceleration. In the second year, the leadership of the teams came more from the staff and less from the consultant. Transferring both skills and authority to the most accomplished and committed of the team members resulted in newfound effectiveness on the part of many staff who had never shown leadership inclination.

Institute change. The changes became embedded in HR policy and practices, such as sequential frequent development discussions for all staff.

Complexity of change

Change through transformation is a complex and inspiring aspiration. It requires rigor in training, crafting the initial commitment with all stakeholders, and developing a detailed business case that can be presented to stakeholders with each of their concerns considered. Most importantly, it requires a true belief borne out of experience that, if the conditions are created to support and sustain the transformation, employees will lend a hand because it is better than watching their ship sink and also because it satisfies a deep need for learning and development.

Change is not a subject on a curriculum; it is the heart, soul, and substance of the prime differentiator between thriving and muddling along.

Guidelines for an Effective Company-Wide Change Initiative

  • Develop a clear mandate for the impact that change has on individuals, teams, and organizations by researching and reporting on the outcome studies that are easily found and quoted. Refer to studies from sound academic research institutions to support the program.
  • Include a third-party researcher on the design team to gather and report on objective outcomes that are meaningful to your company.
  • Design with the end in mind. Any change initiative must be integrated completely into a larger purpose that is thought of as an organizational change program.
  • Ensure that the impact you are designing for is tied directly to important company targets and goals. For example, use change programs to address the reliability of project team results.
  • Use Kotter's eight-step model for leading change to introduce and manage the intention and goals of the program.
  • Embed a mindfulness program in the company's strategy and vision. Think of your intent as being long term, big picture, and highly impactful versus a wellness program that a few people do during their lunch break.
  • Practice mindfulness yourself. You cannot suggest what you are not embodying.
  • Acquire a trusted ally to partner with you on the transformation. The partner must have three capabilities: expert knowledge and practice in all tools and skills of awareness, attention, and goodwill; deep leadership experience in the trenches of organizations; and superb skills in coaching and organization development consulting.

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Elad Levinson is an expert in applying neuroscience and cognitive sciences to leadership effectiveness, and has more than 40 years’ experience in leadership roles in various organizations. He held several senior management positions at Agilent Technologies, ICANN, and Stanford University. Elad is currently a senior adviser at 4128 Associates, and the head instructor for Praxis You’s Thriving on Change. Be sure to check out Thriving on Change: The Evolving Leader's Toolkit. This is a great resource created by Elad for today's leaders.


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