Five Things I've Learned About Change

Change leadership expert John Kotter on coping with change, adaptability and his favorite leader.

Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter is one of the top authorities on leadership and change, and author of the best seller Leading Change. He says that he has not always found it easy to cope with personal change.

I personally admire Jack Welch as a change leader. And I have learned many lessons from him. He's said that "the world is moving in nanoseconds," so you better damn well be sure you're good at change. He's also talked about how "incremental change can easily be resisted by a bureaucracy."

Constant baby-step improvement is fine, but it is not enough. Sometimes sweeping change is what you need. It is what leaders do. They take existing systems and adapt them to new waves of technology and competition. Go back and research history. The major leaders, like Abraham Lincoln, whom we revere today were associated with huge changes.

The more adaptable you are, the better. I've found that the more adaptable organizations or individuals are to change, the better they can sustain high performance over time. There is a definitive relationship between leadership and change, which is how I got into this research in the first place. I was physics major at MIT, then I got into electrical engineering and finally, labor economics. That was followed by business school and a focus on organizational psychology. During my research, I began to see a relationship between performance and change. The companies that were better at change were performing better over time. And they had better leadership.

The most basic aspects of leadership and change are a function of human nature. I've found there are specific steps in the process of how people make significant changes. The steps tend to be universal, independent of the content of change. They apply to process reengineering, the need for more innovation, new business strategies, you name it.

The eight steps are to create a sense of urgency, put the right team together, create a sensible change vision and strategy, communicate the plan to obtain buy-in, empower people to act, garner some short-term wins, then pound away the changes you are trying to make until you implement them and can make them stick. That basic process is at the heart of leading change.

Details of leadership are situational. Leaders, by definition, have to fit into the situations they're dealing with. As situations change culturally, and through time, successful leadership styles change too. I would bet that if you look at the people today who are providing terrific leadership in their organizations, some of the things they're doing are different from their counterparts in 1950. Today there is more diversity in terms of gender, ethnic background and race. As the details vary, so does the leadership style.

I've had to lead change at various points in my career. So I can say that if you don't know how to do it, good luck to you! The better you are at seeing and identifying the right steps, the higher your chances of success. In my personal life, I cope with change poorly at times (according to my wife). But in general, I create change, and the reason I do it well is because I have a high sense of urgency.

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