12 Things Excellent Leaders Do Differently
Today feels busy — just the way you like it. Pretty much like any other day. The sunshine warms your face as you walk through the park to your office.
The coffee in your hands is hot and its scent is sooo delightful. The trees are in full blossom and life feels great. You love your job. Working with people and inspiring them.
You are a leader. You love it. You seem to be natural in that you get the best ideas out of your people.
When it comes to execution, sometimes your tribe doesn’t do all that well. It takes them so much time.
And they seem to keep forgetting what you have agreed on.
It’s frustrating. You have told them so many times. Most of the improvements even come from their heads!
Why on earth can’t they just do it? Like you. You do lead by example. You do embrace new challenges with passion!
So why is it that you feel like you are running around like in a frenzy and people seem to rather sit in their comfort zone?
If only you could fix their attitude to change, your life would be just perfect!
And maybe it will be perfect soon. Not 100% perfect, since there is a lot of your effort in the game. But nearly perfect, when the transition model gets rooted in your veins.
When you understand these important principles about change, you’ll find it much easier to rally your team behind tough transitions.
1. Excellent Leaders Understand The Grief For The Past
The transition model, also known as the change model or the transition curve is a second-hand theory. It has been derived from the model of the five stages of grief described by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969.
Elizabeth wrote a book On Death And Dying after having worked with terminally ill patients. She had observed that the patients followed a similar emotional pattern when faced with imminent death.
The five stages were always the same and went in the same order: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally — acceptance.
2. Excellent Leaders Help People All Over The Spectrum
Economists and behavioral psychologists explored the grief pattern for organizational change management purposes. They, too, have observed that there is a sequence of reactions when it comes to the change in the workplace.
Although different scientists have a different take, a consensus is in place in that you can plot the reactions on a curve. Morale and energy on vertical axis Y and time on horizontal axis X.
Typically, people react to change in 6 stages: shock, denial, frustration, depression, bargaining, and finally — integration.
Some people go through the stages fast. Early adopters in marketing theories — adventurous experimenters.
Some will be on the other extreme of the spectrum though. And many in the middle.
Emotion-wise it looks like this:
3. Excellent Leaders Know One Simple Truth
One thing to know is that change is ALWAYS taken badly. Even the change that the team originally suggested and requested.
Crash Boom Bang!
You announce the change they dreamed of and ….
Yours, since you thought it’s all agreed and expected.
Theirs, since they are utterly surprised and paralyzed.
Well, that’s the transition curve in practice.
Take this example. I have managed a big team of engineers. Super technical, super knowledgeable, super smart people. Fun too. The relationship we had was great.
Their work was rather stressful. Since critical services of some of the biggest companies in the world were running on our products, the engineers had to react swiftly to solve customers’ production-impacting issues.
Some of these were complicated and could not be solved fast. And so we operated in a “Follow The Sun” model — 24x7 operations where three engineering centers in different time zones worked on the issue for their fair share of the 24 hours day.
What it meant was that my engineers in Europe would shake hands with their colleagues in Asia, take over, work on the issue during our hours, and hand over to the Americas at the end of the shift.
Very stressful. Especially as they were juggling with multiple production issues simultaneously. They were often the heroes of the day when they managed to restore the service.
But once they provided a workaround, the deep investigation and resolution on the code level would happen in the client’s time zone. In our case, often the Americas.
And so my EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa) engineers could hardly ever work on the deep troubleshooting that they loved, asked for, and dreamed of.
Yet, when we changed the support model and their dream came true, they were not jumping five meters high as I (wrongly) expected them to.
Instead of being happy that they are no longer juggling with high severity production issues, they worried about their prestige.
Instead of celebrating that they can primarily work in deep troubleshooting mode, they doubted their abilities.
And so I got it confirmed, and after that many times:
Change is ALWAYS taken badly.
4. Excellent Leaders Expect The Shock
Let’s talk a bit more about the curve.
Of course, you would prepare people for the change anytime you can. Most of the time you can, you should, and you would.
And then no matter how much you’d have prepared the ground, people would be surprised.
Yup. Prepared or not, from their heads or your boss’ head, the first stage on the curve is — shock.
You can’t avoid it, but you can mitigate it.
5. Excellent Leaders Shock Masterfully
We are born storytellers. For thousands of years, people sat around the campfire and shared their experiences through stories. Our life was dependent on what we learned by the campfire.
Eric Edmeades, one of the greatest presenters I know, would make you imagine this:
“You are sitting around my campfire and I share a story with you. It is entertaining and engaging, and it makes you think and maybe laugh a little. And in that story, I tell you about the time that these big white rhinos tried to kill me. ‘Cos they really did. …”
“… And what I knew about these big white rhinos is that they don’t have good eyesight. In fact, they barely see. They can smell and they can hear. And so the reason they are running towards me is that they could smell me. …”
“And let me tell you something. Rhinos are bigger than you think. And they are way faster than you think. When they are running towards you they are shaking the ground. What does every inch of my being wants to do when they are running toward me?
But I know that if I run they are going to hear my footsteps and that’s going to give them the ability to follow me. And if I let them to follow me, with those big horns, I am going to end up with some interesting piercings. Not good, right?
And so instead of running, I stood there and stared them down and waited. And they got about fifteen feet from me and they stopped. And they turned around and walked in into the bush.
And then they got curious again when the wind shifted. They got running again at me. And they stop at about ten feet. 3 meters. And they walked away again. If I had run I would be dead today.
And so imagine we sit around the fire and I share that story with you. And a week later you are off in the bush picking berries, doing whatever you wanted to be doing and two white rhinos come running at you.
And you suddenly remember — oh my god, I am supposed to just stand still. And you stand still. And it saves your life.
Whose fire do you want to sit around for the rest of your life?”
… For millions of years, our survival and our ability to thrive were utterly dependent upon the stories that were being told around our campfire.
And that’s why we have this miraculous ability to extract learning and subtle messages from a good story on the deepest, subconscious level. The more vivid the story, the more powerful.
And so when you are introducing the change, come up with a story. Your story. One that shows that you too struggle sometimes. One that demonstrates your grit. One that builds a message around what you are after so that it’s relevant. One that allows your team to connect.
6. Excellent Leaders Embrace Incompetence
There is one more reason people react with a shock to whatever news. You are challenging their competence.
In 1969, coincidentally in the same year Elizabeth Kubler-Ross published her work on five stages of grief, management trainer Martin M. Broadwell described the model of the four levels of learning.
The concept goes like this. At first, before a new concept is introduced to you, you are unconsciously incompetent. You don’t know that you don’t know.
At the moment the new concept is introduced to you, you become consciously incompetent. Argh! Hurts. Now you do know that you don’t know (and you are asked to get to know).
Over time though, you learn, you practice, you accommodate. And you become consciously competent. You still have to think about the new skill, but you are becoming better every day. You know that you know.
Until finally, your new skill is fully integrated. You become unconsciously competent. You practice your skill without having to think about it. You pretty much don’t even know that you know.
I like to ask my students to plot the stages of learning on the same curve.
7. Excellent Leaders Empathize With Their Tribe
Excellent leaders know that they are challenging the skills of their tribe with every change.
They know that they are taking them into the unknown and that they are leading their tribe through the four stages of learning. And that it’s not a hurdle-free process.
Tell your tribe you are with them. Tell your tribe you will not let them down.
8. Excellent Leaders Infuse Denial
Once your team gets over the shock, denial comes next. In a healthy environment, denial would manifest as a heavily argued push back.
If your people are freely expressing their dissent, celebrate. You are a great leader because they feel comfortable arguing and being open.
Plus, you are getting loads of information that will allow you to implement the intended change in the best possible way.
Here’s how you leverage the denial:
Your team is super familiar with the nitty-gritty details of their job. It doesn’t matter how much you think you know, the change may cause issues you are not aware of.
Add the fuel to the disagreement to start with. Brainstorm with your team on why the change (or its current proposal for implementation) is not a good idea. Sort the ideas by common themes.
I like to invite my teams to the brainstorming (and to become part of the solution as well) by saying: “Speak now, or you are losing the right to complain later.” Works magic.
2. Reinforce the change is happening
If you want to be followed, you need to be confident in the change yourself. No matter the outcome of the brainstorming, do stress that the change is happening once major blockers are removed from the road.
3. Identify the real blockers
Let your team prioritize the blockers by the impact.
4. Brainstorm solutions
Let your team come up with solutions. Encourage them to think out of the box and go wild. If there were no constraints, how could this blocker be removed?
5. Create a guiding coalition
Make your people part of the solution. Convert team opinion leaders into your first followers. Agree who will pilot the change on a small scale.
6. Get volunteers to explore the best solutions
Typically, the most vocal people are the ones that care the most. Why not let them own the solutions? If you know your team, you know who these people are. Your opinion leaders.
Ideally, you made them aware upfront and they are now part of your guiding coalition.
9. Excellent Leaders Phase The Frustration
I like to think about the Frustration phase as the phase where people are becoming consciously incompetent.
Rather than leaving it up to your people to figure it out, here is how you can encourage them to take the risk:
Rally the team onward
Once the new solution is available in the form and shape that will not disrupt the business, take your guiding coalition of early adopters and have them run a pilot. Make sure they document their findings regularly.
Work with them closely and help them embrace the new way of doing things. Support them, listen to them, manage their expectations.
2. Allow for a rewind
You will dramatically increase your tribe’s willingness to experiment if you ensure them that if it goes south, you are ready to roll the new procedure back.
Schedule a review date. Chances are roll-back will not be necessary. Your team already removed the blockers and starts to see the benefits of the new way.
3. Put safety first
Create a safe environment where everyone can learn at their own pace. Organize learning in groups.
Have your early adopters teach the rest of the tribe. They have been through the frustration themselves, they can understand and empathize.
4. Celebrate first victories
Have the people who run the pilot speak about their experience. Let them update the team regularly on what is changing and more importantly, what is not changing. Invite them to present their first wins.
5. Don’t be above tricking or treating
Bribe them. Show them some love. Buy donuts for the learning session, organize a nice Lunch & Learn with some salad and pizza. Praise them for every move in the right direction.
10. Excellent Leaders Cheer-lead Them All
It doesn’t matter that you have done everything right.
You have invited your team to participate in the smooth introduction of the change.
You have run a successful pilot with the biggest opponents and converted them to supporters.
There will still be people who feel strongly about the new status quo. People who felt way more competent in the previous set up than the new one.
People who are realizing that the change is happening — with or without them.
So how do you encourage the slower part of your crowd?
Put safety first again
Reassure them the change is happening with them. The team is here to support them through the learning curve.
2. Realize you are back to ground zero
Remember, it takes longer for some people to get there. Don’t give up. Persist. Acknowledge their emotions. Give them a hug. Explain again and again.
3. Make a happy dance
Invite your early adopters to share how the new set-up is working for them. Let them be open — let them speak about what’s yet ahead to be smoothed.
Let them speak about their struggles. Let them share the strategies that helped them cope.
4. Provide variety
Provide as many learning opportunities as possible. Respect that each of your team members has a different style of learning. Create webinars, talks, assign learning buddies.
5. Glue the team through awareness
You can do this little team building exercise.
Explain the transition curve to the team. Take a pack of post-its and let them went their emotions on the post-its. One feeling per post-it. That’s the individual part.
Then, invite them to put the post-its to the whiteboard. Ask them to group the post-its with similar feelings together. Then move the positive ones to one side, negative ones to the other.
One of the major benefits of this team exercise is that your people will take the time to think about their emotions.
They will understand that it’s normal to feel the way they feel based on the explanation of the transition curve.
They will also see that they are not alone who feel that particular way.
Also, they (and you) will see visually where the team is on the transition curve.
You have laid the foundation.
Now you can brainstorm again on what is missing for the implementation and how to help it.
11. Excellent Leaders Love Bargaining
Once most of your team has moved to the new way, bargaining comes next.
You are moving to the finishing line. Your team has pretty much adopted the change. There are still a few things that will go through iterations, but you have successfully taken the team to the other side.
Now it’s the time to leverage the collective knowledge and make sure there is no stone left unturned and no opportunity for enhancements forgotten.
12. Excellent Leaders Praise ALL THE WAY
You made it! You have done it the right way. You have learned so much about the team, their daily issues. You respect them more and you gained their respect in return.
Celebrate. Give credit. Praise.
Take a deep breath. A new change is coming.
TL;DR — 12 Things Excellent Leaders Do Differently
Excellent leaders understand the grief for the past.
Excellent leaders help all people on the spectrum to navigate through the transition and leverage the team dynamics.
Excellent leaders know that change is ALWAYS taken badly.
Excellent leaders expect the shock.
Excellent leaders shock masterfully and tell excellent stories.
Excellent leaders embrace incompetence. They respect everyone’s pace.
Excellent leaders empathize with their tribe.
Excellent leaders infuse denial to make sure the change is feasible.
Excellent leaders phase the frustration.
Excellent leaders cheer-lead them all.
Excellent leaders love bargaining to make the change perfect.
Excellent leaders praise ALL THE WAY.
A Day In The Life Of Excellent Leader — YOU
Imagine yourself a few months down the road.
Today feels busy — just the way you like it. Pretty much like any other day.
Life is great. Ever since you realized that when you think you have already over-communicated, you have only just about started, you feel in control.
You know your people. You know who will be your first followers. Who will resist the most. Who will come with the greatest risk mitigation plan.
You appreciate and leverage everyone’s pace and your people love you for that.
You love your job. Working with people and inspiring them.
Just start applying your new learning about change today — this new future can be yours before you know it.