Embracing change is a choice we can make

My favourite line from President-Elect Joe Biden’s November 7 acceptance speech following the American election is this one, on the refusal over the last few years of Democrats and Republicans to cooperate with one another: “It’s not some mysterious force beyond our control,” he declared, “It’s a decision, a choice. So if we can decide not to cooperate, then we can decide to cooperate.”

I relate so well to this, as in my consulting work I share just such sentiments with some of the clients I support as they embark on change management initiatives designed to bring their people together by promoting higher trust and collaboration among them, between levels and between departments.

The conventional wisdom is that undergoing change is a long hard journey filled with disappointing setbacks, where few actually reach their desired destination. It’s like pushing a big rock up a steep hill, the strugglers sigh, knowing that if ever they lose their grip the rock will slide back and crush them… the most likely outcome.

I am among those who quote Prof John Kotter’s research, which showed that 70 percent of change initiatives fail. Not surprisingly, such statistics discourage organisations from even having a go. “Why waste our time and money, when things are as they are and cannot be changed?” they ask.

And yet. And yet. What about the 30 per cent of change initiatives that do succeed? What do they have in common? Kotter guided us with his renowned 8 Steps to Change, about which I wrote a column a few years ago, and through my experience with many organisations I too have learned much about common success factors.

Guess what? Everything is to do with leadership. And needless to say, starting with the top leadership: the board, the CEO, the senior management team. So the first question to ask is where are they? Are they part of the solution or part of the problem? And if the former, how strategic and ongoing, how authentic and influential, is the role they are prepared to play?

Will they merely have their HR person put some event together, show up at the opening and then let their people get on with it – with some unfortunate facilitator expected to wave a magic wand that will transform the expectations? Will there be robust follow up, with specific actions, impact indicators and so forth, to ensure the desired changes are taking place? Or does everyone just get back to work and keep on doing what they’ve always done, allowing the memory of the change management commitments to fade away?

Most importantly, how ambitious is the leadership for significant and sustainable change? How confident and bold are the leaders? How skilled in inspiring their teams to assume that change is indeed possible? Key to success is one of Kotter’s eight steps: ensuring there are enough “quick wins”, to stimulate a sense of hope and optimism, and to dilute the natural skepticism, maybe even cynicism.

For in too many cases it will not have been the first attempt at such change management. Previous initiatives had also promised much, and yet failed to deliver. Would this one also fall flat on its face?

I’m with Biden: it’s a decision. It’s a choice. If you don’t actively decide it will succeed this time then it will not. Not succeeding is the most likely outcome. But not the inevitable one. For sure the ones who most need to change may well be the ones least likely to, so again turning to Kotter it is vital to gather a “coalition of the willing”, of bold individuals who while preparing for the worst will hope for the best and show the way to other more timid and unconvinced folk.

Among role models, positive behaviour sometimes has to be one step ahead of natural feelings of doubt, hoping that subsequently such behaviour will in turn influence feelings for the better. These stronger characters are the ones to lead change, the ones to make all that pushing of stones up hills worthwhile, the ones who won’t worry about mysterious forces beyond their control preventing them from succeeding.

Professionalising family businesses

Four years ago I wrote a column on the intergenerational challenges facing family businesses, admiring the way those who overcame such challenges did so while noting how too often the founder was reluctant to empower subsequent generations.

I want to return to that topic today, thanks to the opportunity I have benefited from over the last few months to meet with a good number of owners of medium-sized family businesses. In some cases the founding father was still very much in control, as his sons (occasionally these days his daughters, too) have been getting to grips with leadership; in others, the elder had withdrawn somewhat, just coming to the office for short periods of time; and in older-established businesses third and fourth generation family members have now risen to prominent positions.

What patterns have I observed? First, irrespective of the age of the company or its leadership, the top person is inevitably ultra-operational, what one might call “transactional”. To the extent that in some of my meetings the phone kept ringing so the boss could progress some immediate transaction, make some micro-decision.

Here, they had just found it too hard to develop a trusted and empowered senior management team to whom to delegate, and the inevitable consequence was that little mindspace was available to allow them to indulge in higher level strategic thinking.

All these micromanaging owner-director-managers were leading successful entities, ones that had survived many ups and downs, including splits from other family members. Their businesses were utterly dependent on their personal talent and experience, their energy and charisma, their motivation to show up to keep the revenues flowing in and to manage costs.

Some are fortunate in having members of subsequent generations who are both fit to contribute to sustaining the business into the future and willing to. But for others succession planning remains an unresolved question.

So busy are they with day-to day issues that it’s just too hard, indeed too inconvenient, to think about the consequences of something adverse happening to them: ill-health, for instance. Some had a notional board, often only including an elder or a spouse – most of whom would not be engaged in the business, while for others it was “me and my brother” or me and my son(s)”.

“Board meetings” might take place around the dining room table at home, or driving together to and from the office, and while a few were considering appointing independent directors none of those I met had done so.

The 2015 Companies Act specifies that four board meetings a year must be held by all registered companies, but most of our SME leaders just aren’t in the habit of complying with this requirement. Their focus, their discipline, is so much more on the day-to-day, and one of the consequences is that formal longer-term strategic plans or mechanisms for managing their implementation rarely exist.

Having said that though, these entrepreneurs are all bold innovators, courageous and optimistic risk-takers, forever on the lookout for new opportunities. They are to be admired, as they operate in this difficult environment.

OTHER VOICES

Some are hiring higher level professional managers, and bringing in consultants and advisers to help them rise. But my perception is that those who would most benefit from fresh and external inputs are the ones least likely to seek such interventions.

It is those who are most exposed to contemporary trends and hence are already ahead of the game who are open to listening to other voices. It is such people too who consider options such as public listing, joint ventures and external investors.

They are the ones with appropriate systems and controls, and robust risk and compliance management procedures.

In Kenya we are so fortunate to have such widespread entrepreneurial energy and talent. What we look forward to seeing is more of our SMEs professionalising in ways that can see them grow to larger scale, employ more people, focus on markets beyond the domestic, and be sustainable for future generations to inherit.