Riding the Train or Laying the Track? Leading Corporate Change

Change is messy, hard, and difficult. According to the Harvard Business Review, 75% of corporate change initiatives fail. Business Week cites the fact that 88% of CEOs report change is their “biggest challenge.”

corporate changeIn reality, though, business is change. Understanding change is half the battle. How do we begin with leading corporate change?

In the corporate world, we are embarked on a roller-coaster ride, with the path being far from linear, or continuously upward (or downward.)  Instead, we can feel jerked around through sharp turns, the ride slows down, then speeds up with sudden force, then seems to coast — only to spin wildly on a moment’s notice and accelerate again.

In this chaotic, almost daily series of fits and starts, it’s not surprising that many leaders just want to hang on for dear life. And if we’re making payroll and keeping the stakeholders happy, why not just hold on to the rails?

But there is a fundamental difference between going through the fits and starts of corporate life and leading change, influencing the forces at work to guide your company’s path. Level Five leaders get off the roller-coaster and set the conditions for their company’s strategy to take shape. They understand that change is not an endurance trial of hanging on; rather, it’s a journey to a known point. It’s a journey with an end state in mind.

Consider the case of the pulp and paper giant, Stora Enso. As the authors Albrecht Enders and Lars Haggstrom describe in “The Transformation of the World’s Oldest Company” (Harvard Business Review, January 30, 2018), the senior leadership guided a fundamental change process in 2017 – known as the Pathfinder program – where an Integrated Process Team was established to develop the way ahead:

“The critical decision that made the Pathfinder program a key vehicle to drive change… could have backfired, had the top team not made decisions… that created an overall structure of mutually reinforcing and self-sustaining actions. Supporting the change agents to learn, develop, and grow; tasking them with projects that were mission-critical to the company’s future; encouraging them to challenge and cooperate with the senior management team; and closely tracking the impact of these efforts – these were the levers that ultimately enabled the Pathfinders to contribute significantly to Stora Enso’s transformation journey.”

Faced with the certainty of change – and the uncertainty of change – Level Five leaders must set the azimuth (direction) for their organizations with a clear mission, intent, values, and culture, develop a clear strategic plan, and focus their energies on building the leadership team of the “right people.” As Jim Collins writes, these “right people” have to be placed “in the right seat on the right bus.” That’s exactly what the Stora Enso leadership did.

Changing from what you are now, to what you can become, requires all of these ingredients. To use Jimmy Buffet’s language, Level Five leaders keep the team “inside the limit markers.” They enable leaders to drive change, resulting in higher profits, greater cohesion, and market superiority.

Make a real commitment to leading change. Don’t settle for riding the roller coaster; instead, lay the track. Resource the leaders who will adapt to the ups and downs, starts and stops, because they understand where the train is going.

Enjoy the journey!