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Project success lies in supported leaders

Elissa Farrow
February 8, 2016

Over the past year I have had the opportunity to work with senior leadership teams in companies going through large transformation programs. One of the illuminating themes coming out of these consulting and coaching assignments is the perception that senior leaders are often taken for granted and expected to be more resilient than lower level managers and staff, without the same support mechanisms. One leader said they were told by their superior when making staff redundant “don’t express emotion, be firm and get on with it”—essentially, ‘be a robot’.

Another senior leader I provide coaching for had recently been asked to downsize his team, to create the list of staff (about 150 in total) to be made redundant without any consultation with his leadership team (or the local leaders) or any other sources. When the time came he had to announce who would stay and who would go by email and let HR handle the fallout.

Another example was a senior leader who was not told of anything prior; she was brought in with her staff into a meeting room where they were all told that they were all redundant as of that moment. Staff looked at the leader, the leader looked at the staff just as shocked and unable to process what had just happened. “I felt like I had been hit by a truck,” she told me. “I could do nothing to support my staff or even prepare them or myself for this event—I had worked for the company for over six years and felt surely they would have involved me in the process.”

I could give you a pile of other stories similar to this that clearly show that leaders are often taken for granted, given bad advice about how to manage change effectively and expected to ‘just do it’ without any recognition of the impact this has on their personal wellbeing, psychological state or their ability to lead.

Consider the movie about the leader that had to make staff redundant based on ill-thought-out company change policy and, when one of those redundant staff commits suicide, the finger is pointed to the leader and not to those who are designing a poor, un-empathic change approach.

When it comes to change there seems to be a disconnect and an expectation that senior leaders can cope with these quite emotional situations because ‘that is why they are paid the big bucks’.

In change, leaders are human too. They do feel quite strongly about the change and do need support. Leaders are a key success factor in any transition, this has been proven time and time again through international research on project success and failure.

I have researched over 200 leaders (both senior leaders, middle managers and local team managers) through a change leadership program I have conducted over the past two years. What leaders have expressed to me as the top five things they need while change is occurring is:

  1. Visibility of the future state.
  2. Involvement in the plan and its local deployment.
  3. Acknowledgement of the additional work change leaders puts on top of business as usual leadership.
  4. Information, but also respect for their integrity about keeping information confidential (when required).
  5. Empathy for a tough job dealing with employees who are upset, angry and a danger to themselves.

In my next two posts I will unpack these five items in terms of practical strategies that can be considered by senior leaders and change managers alike to ensure that those who are key to the change (leaders) are suitably supported and focused on achieving the benefits required.

Elissa Farrow
Elissa is a founder and lead consultant for About Your Transition and has extensive experience in strategic organisational adaptation design, facilitation and delivery. Elissa has supported organisations to define positive futures and then successfully transform to bring lasting benefits. She has proven adaptative capacity and can successfully transfer her skills to different contexts. In 2018, Elissa commenced her doctoral studies through the University of the Sunshine Coast. Her published research is exploring organisational adaptation to the evolving field of artificial intelligence using qualitative and participatory research methodologies. Elissa is an experienced board director and considered a thought leader in her field having won a number of national and local awards for contributing to Women in Project Management and for Change Management Research.
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