Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Managing your Executives

It’s one thing for the executive to choose the right change leader as discussed in yesterday’s blog entry, but change leaders don’t have the same luxury - they have to deal with what they’ve got and try to make the best of it. 

If you have an enlightened management team, with an inspired leader there’s probably not much point in reading any further. I’ve been fortunate enough to be in this position, and, goodness, it makes a hard job so much easier and fulfilling.

But the trouble is there are many more executives out there who simply don’t get it. Sometimes it’s because they aren’t process oriented. It may be that they view process and quality activities as necessary evils but far less important than the real money making programmes within the enterprise. And sometimes it’s really because they genuinely don’t understand how change works and how to manage something so intangible.

The trouble is, that whatever the underlying cause of the issue with your executives, it’s down to you to fix the problem and it really must be one of your highest priorities. It’s going to take a lot of diplomacy, political manoeuvring, personality, patience and tenacity. Be prepared for tantrums, threats, personal abuse, circular arguments and discussions, and to repeat yourself persistently. But if you can hang in there, the eureka moment, when the message is finally understood, is one of the most satisfying achievements a change agent will encounter. 

Of course there’s still a lot of coaching and hand-holding required over the coming weeks and months, but the hardest job is over. So why is this so difficult? 

Firstly you are dealing with the boss, who will, most likely, naturally assume that they know everything, which is why they are where they are. They will not generally wish to display signs of weakness or ignorance; especially not to you, and definitely not in front of their management team. This requires you to take a tactful and humble approach, preferably in a one on one environment, where face can be saved in the case of any misunderstandings. Never accuse the executive of anything - especially of failing to understand their responsibilities or failing to demonstrate leadership. Don’t make the mistake of confusing the “leadership team” with the leader as the leader will usually see this as a personal attack.

Secondly, executives are used to dealing with information in their own domain, usually financial data, and they are used to asking questions for which they get answers they can understand. In an alien domain the executive may become uncomfortable because the questions they are used to asking may no longer be so relevant or useful, and the answers given may not help them understand. 

You need to work with the executives to help them understand the sorts of question to be asking and how to analyse the answers. This is a tricky dichotomy because you are the person who is generally going to be in the firing line. You need to step backwards and take yourself out of the picture but put yourself into the position of the executive. Encourage them to ask the questions you would ask if you were sitting where they are. Help them with the pointers they should be listening for. 

I believe that a number of change programmes fail because the change leader presents the executive team with what he or she wishes them to see, knowing full well that they don’t really understand what they need to be asking. This self-serving view of a project will only work for a short time, as executives become frustrated at seeing the same data each month without any real idea of where things are going.

To build a successful and mutually beneficial relationship with your executives you need to start educating them from day zero. Hard facts, humility, perseverance, coupled with your own knowledge of individual’s reactions to change should stand you in good stead.

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