Travis was a technical middle manager in a mid-sized credit union based in the US. His nature was unassuming and “nice,” someone you could trust to look after your own children, a peacemaker. Yet Travis was also a changemaker. Someone who was unsatisfied with the status quo, who sought to influence the way the organization managed their teams and projects.
Travis knew well enough that he was not in a position to lead change, so in order for him to influence change, he first had to change the way he led. There are a few key steps that he took to get him there.
As an emotionally intelligent leader, Travis focused on people. He developed his personal relationships with key stakeholders and influencers. He was then able to hold court with the CEO and share stories of success and failure. Additionally, he had the opportunity to join a task force, not to lead it, but rather to provide some expertise on specific subject matter that would leverage his transformational experience. The trust he was able to build with this task force allowed him to influence the organization toward effective transition strategies and tactics.
Travis knew that digital transformation required time, not only for him but for his leaders and all others impacted by the transformation. So he leveraged opportunities, again and again, to talk about the changes, impacts and effects to help provide time to all involved. Through Travis’ journey, one thing we can learn is what emotionally intelligent leaders do to affect change, in this case, a digital transformation.
1. People Over Process
There is a key difference between change and transition that emotionally intelligent leaders know. William Bridges, subject matter expert and author of Managing Transitions, distinguishes them in the following way – Change is external and physical, while a transition is internal and psychological.
Average leaders manage change – they focus on hard assets they can see and touch, such as tools, processes, procedures, metrics, structures, etc. However, organizations are made up of people. And unless leaders address the internal and psychological impact of change – human transition – nothing changes.
2. Time Over Events
In continuation of our distinction above between change and transition, there is one more differentiator Bridges provides in his book – Change is an event while the transition is a journey.
As an average leader early in my own career, I was required to lay off a percentage of our staff. I fought it hard for over a month with other senior leaders, only to eventually succumb to reality. In the weeks following the layoff, I became increasingly frustrated with my employees that they were not moving on. Instead, they remained mired in frustration and distrust.
I failed to realize at that time that transformation and transition take time. I had the time, but my employees didn’t. I had a month of processing, and on the other hand, it was a surprise to my employees. All change happens in this way. Leaders who are “in the know” have the luxury of time. For employees who are not, change happens as events.
3. Whispering Over Yelling
Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft from 2001 to 2014, was an emotional and somewhat confrontational leader. Positively, he could be seen jumping on stage and riling up an auditorium of employees to seize the moment. Negatively, he could be seen cursing out a senior leader in front of their peers, on at least one occasion bringing them to tears (a personal first-person story account that was shared with me). The negative impact he had on business strategy and direction was equal to the positive impact he made on people and culture. As a result, during his time with the company, Microsoft was on the brink of irrelevance. (*Source: https://www.latimes.com/business/technology/story/2019-12-21/satya-nadella-reinvigorated-microsoft)
Satya Nadella took over as CEO in 2015 and has since completely turned Microsoft around. Not only in their business strategy but also in how he leads. He turned their strategy from competitive to collaborative, as can be seen by the way he introduced Microsoft products to run on Apple’s mobile iOS. He also turned their leadership and culture from competitive infighting to collaborative and co-creative.
Recall our friend Travis from the beginning, the peacemaker turned change maker. Emotionally intelligent leaders like Travis are more Nadella than Ballmer. They carry a strong central core value set but don’t hit others over the head with it. Instead, it exudes from them in confidence. Similar to the quote attributed to a few authors – “Confidence is quiet. Insecurities are loud.” Obedience may be obtained through yelling. However, true followers and change agents grow through quiet confidence, where they share the spotlight.
A couple of years after the start of their transformation, Travis received a note from one of his senior leader stakeholders. It read…
Stephen Covey once said: “I am personally convinced that one person can be a change catalyst. A transformer in any situation, any organization. Such an individual is yeast that can leaven an entire loaf. It requires vision, initiative, patience, respect, persistence, courage and faith to be a transforming leader.
You have been the change catalyst for our organization. You had the vision for a new way of working, influenced the CEO and executive team, executed the vision and transformed the way we work. As a result, our organization is more resilient to change and able to adapt to an increasingly dynamic world.”
I encourage you to consider changing your own approach to leadership, focusing less on the work and transformation, and more on yourself and the others involved in it.