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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Davies

Early Moves

When leaders take on new roles, it's not uncommon to see them make bold moves early on in their tenure. I've seen this in business, where a new team leader or head of department will seek to make changes to structures, processes and even the makeup of the team, from day one.

In sports, it's standard fare for a new head coach to start off by cleaning house, making redundancies and replacing existing staff with his or her own people, as well as holding press conferences and talking about culture change - particularly if the team has not been moving in a positive direction (which is often the reason for the change of leadership). New schemes and ways of playing the game typically come along with the new coach, all of which adds up to a lot of change in a very short space of time.

Recently it's been very visible, too, in politics. In Britain we've seen a very unusual situation recently, where there have been two new Prime Ministers given the position in the last two months, during a time where the UK is facing into some pretty significant challenges. When a new PM gets the job, arguably the most impactful thing that they do in the first few days is to announce their cabinet, the decision making body which surrounds them and holds the key positions. Of course, when the new PM takes office, the positions are already held by someone, but those people are generally ousted wholesale, and the new reign begins with a whole new cast of characters.

One of the mistakes that leaders often make, is to change things for the sake of being seen to make change. Some seem to believe that the mark of good leaders is bold and sweeping transition, when, in fact, a mark of good leadership is often stability. Taking time to understand what's done, how it's done and why. Who does it, what are their strengths and development areas and how can we support and nurture those. It takes time and patience to recognise the good things that are already happening and it shows calm and maturity to do that work.

In change management, it's an oft quoted stat that between 60-70% of change initiatives are not successful. Some of that, naturally, will be down to poor change management processes, but I'd argue that a significant amount of it is also down to the fact that many change initiatives are simply not necessary. Organisations - large ones especially - spend a fortune every year driving changes. Department realignments, mergers, restructures, etc often only to revert to the previous model a year or two later.

I was part of a department which was centralised and then de-centralised again within the space of a couple of years. Each one of those projects led to costly redundancies, the loss of some great people, instability, fear, worry, anxiety and lost productivity as resources and time were focussed on the change, rather than the work itself.

I worked alongside another department where a sweeping restructure to drive performance resulted in the best performers (who had opportunities and interest from other companies) leaving the company and the lower performers (who had fewer options elsewhere) staying. The department spent a fortune on consultants and redundancy packages, further eroded the psychological safety within the team and ended up with a less skilled, less productive workforce for their troubles.

In sports, I've seen at both amateur and professional level, new coaches take over and implement styles of play which are not at all well suited to the personnel they have on their roster. Rather than taking the time to understand their players abilities and moulding the scheme and approach to their talent (and perhaps augmenting the squad with a few players in perceived weak positions, or to give depth) they attempt to wedge the square peg of their available talent into the round hole of a scheme which has served them well elsewhere, often with a dramatically different set of players at their disposal.

I could provide many more examples, but the common denominator in these changes was the fact that new leadership had taken over. They wanted to put their stamp on the department or team, often without having first taken the time to understand the landscape and consider carefully what was needed.

Steven Covey's mantra of 'Seek first to understand, before being understood' is an important one. If only it were more popular for leaders to be seen to develop their understanding of the new environment, before having others understand them through their changes, perhaps a lot of cost and pain could be avoided. First impressions are important and as we all know, you don't get a second chance at it.

What changes are you embarking on and how much time have you taken to consider them? Change can be good, but so is stability.

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