December 2009
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TD Magazine

John Kotter

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

John Kotter is an authority on leadership and change. He is the author of 17 books, including international bestseller, Leading Change, as well as Our Iceberg Is Melting, a New York Times bestseller that puts the eight-step process into allegorical form. His most recent book, A Sense of Urgency, is about how to create and sustain a sense of urgency within an organization to achieve the best results. He is also the author of several articles and the creator of three executive videos. In 2001, Business Week named Kotter the number one “leadership guru” in America, based on a survey of 504 enterprises.

Q| What was your first job, and what lesson did you take away from it?


My first real job was at a radio station in Jackson, Michigan. I started by just helping the DJs around, and then actually running the Sunday morning show myself. That was part-time during the spring of my senior year in high school, and then full-time during the summer.

I learned that a job could be fun. Very concretely, I learned a lot about a radio station and how it worked. There were only two radio stations in town because the town only had 50,000 people. I don't think the broadcast stations picked up that far out, so they weren't really picking up anything else.

Q| How did you initially become interested in studying leadership and change?

I am what a social scientist would call an empiricist. That means the kind of study I do is not in the library. It's out talking to people and watching people. I'm very interested in performance. For example, why do managers or organizations perform well or poorly? Just in pursuing my interest in managerial and organizational performance, and actually being out and watching what was going on, I became convinced that:

  1. The world was changing faster.
  2. That had some pretty profound implications.
  3. With change, more and better leadership was needed.
  4. All of these things are important.

So I started digging into it, and I have been pursuing that in one way or another for some time now.
Q| What are some of the top obstacles that companies may run into when they are implementing a change effort?

The most fundamental obstacle is that they don't know how to do it. They've learned a model that doesn't work from their own past experiences. They've learned how to do small changes, but they haven't learned how to do big changes. They do what we all do. They take what they know, and they apply it to what looks like a similar situation, but in fact, is not.

When they do use the right method, they don't create enough sense of urgency to get the effort started. Companies get ahead of themselves. They don't put together the right kind of teams with the right characteristics and power to drive change. They immediately want to start talking about strategy, and they don't create the foundation upon which you can start making something really difficult happen. At the beginning, it's a matter of slowing down to speed up.

They don't target and get enough short-term successes that are unambiguous and visible to start winning over the skeptics and taking power away from the cynics. After enough successes, it feels like something really great has happened, but they let up too soon, before they've finished the job. Ultimately, if they make it to the finish line, they don't realize tradition is an enormously important force. Even if you get an organization to transform and operate in a new way, if you don't stabilize it and drive those decisions into the DNA and culture, it can start to slip back toward the old ways.

Q| Did any of your research surprise you in writing A Sense of Urgency?

The whole notion of false urgency surprised me. I didn't have that when I first started researching and writing. If you look at anything I've written before that, it was a matter of "are you complacent or do you have a real sense of urgency?" What I found is that there is a third category where it can look like people have a sense of urgency because they're racing around and doing new things, but it's anxiety-driven activity. It's not an internal drive to take advantage of some opportunity that leads to productive behavior. That's a new category, and I'm convinced there's a huge amount of false urgency going on out there. And very often, executives don't see it or recognize it.

It didn't even occur to me until someone pointed it out a few months ago that my book before that one was the penguin fable [Our Iceberg Is Melting] about the eight steps of effective change. If the story is 100 pages, each step would get 12 pages. But the urgency step actually gets much more than all the rest. I wasn't even thinking that when I was writing it - I was just writing it the way it reflected reality. It's a huge issue.

Q| What are your thoughts on corporate social responsibility and how it ties to workplace culture?

It is much easier to define corporate irresponsibility. Corporate irresponsibility is simply doing things according to our values and norms that hurt people. It could be a community, stockholders, or employees. Irresponsibility means taking risks that ultimately could and do hurt people. Therefore, responsibility means respecting and paying close attention to all the people who depend on you, in one way or another, and their wants and needs - being useful to them and not hurting them.

I think anybody who runs a good business does that and they don't even think about it as corporate social responsibility. That's just how you do good business. You can't compartmentalize it too much by creating a small group to make for good publicity. You need something built into the fabric of the organization. Companies need to do their work in ways that are reasonable for an organization to run itself.

Q| Is there any significant change you think leadership today needs to make to better prepare itself for the future?


I'm sure there are long lists of traits saying that leaders of the future need to be more global or technological, and those can all be true, but nothing is as fundamental as that we need more leadership. In a rapidly changing world, we need more leadership at more levels - in companies, in government, everywhere. The gap between what we have and what we need is not frighteningly large, but certainly more than what any rational person would want. The need is growing. If we don't start getting people more prepared and willing to step forward and lead, and it doesn't matter where they are, it's not going to be good for us.

Q| Are you working on any new books or projects?

I'm always working on new books and projects. On January 21, my Harvard MBA-educated wife and a former Microsoft executive started a company to leverage my material across the globe called Sage/Kotter. The company is only 10 months old and doing very well. "Millions leading and billions benefitting" is the slogan.

I'm also working on some books. The next book is practically done. It's mostly on buy-in, not just in the big sense of transformation, but also when you're trying to take some good idea and get a person or a group to accept it and make it happen. The book will start with a story, and then it will go into the principles of why the story worked out the way it did. In another sense, it's about how to get people to stop shooting down good ideas.

That will be the next one, and then there are a few possibilities for the one after that. One discusses the differences between incremental and transformational change - what they are and why they tend to lead to different outcomes. If you apply incremental change to a transformational problem, you get yourself into trouble. I have a first draft of a book called Winning Hearts and Minds, and I've also got three other books in draft.

Q| How do you enjoy spending your free time?

I enjoy being with family. But since I work with my wife, it gets a little blurry between what is considered free time and what is considered work time.

I've been studying video for years. I use video snippets in my speeches to help get ideas across powerfully and more emotionally. So I enjoy watching well-done movies because they're fun but also because I'm trying to learn more about the power of video.

I love travel. More often than not, it has a business component. For example, I'm trying to figure out how to get my wife and myself to Paris right now, but it's just a scheduling challenge.

About the Author

The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is a professional membership organization supporting those who develop the knowledge and skills of employees in organizations around the world. The ATD Staff, along with a worldwide network of volunteers work to empower professionals to develop talent in the workplace.

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