Change and Leadership
By The Army Leader
Change is coming – and leaders had better be ready. This was the message from the 2018 Army Leadership Conference, where 850 delegates from across the services (and civil service) heard from four speakers on the subject of leading through change.
The speakers painted a compelling vision of change and what to do about it. Nik Gowing and Chris Langdon, authors of Thinking the Unthinkable, explained how the pace of change is accelerating and overwhelming modern leaders. Margaret Heffernan, author of Wilful Blindness, gave an impressive description of why it is human nature to ignore the serious issues and changes that we would rather not see – and how they can explode in our faces when we do. Then two experienced leaders gave their perspectives of leading change. John Manzoni, CEO of the UK Civil Service explained why cross-cutting leadership is helping to break down silos in the Civil Service. Finally, David Marquet, author of Turn the Ship Around (more here), talked through his personal journey of creating change in a nuclear submarine.
The conference theme was Successfully Leading through Change. Not every lesson was about leading change. There were some great insights no matter what you are leading. So, here are six lessons worth taking away from the day.
1. The conformity that got you to the top makes you unqualified to deal with the change (from Nik Gowing)
The world is changing faster than ever and no organisation is unique in dealing with the change. In fact, if you do not think that your organisation is going through change then the chances are you are choosing to ignore it. But the problem with large organisations is that the process of getting to the top is largely one of conformity – you do what the culture values, you get promoted, then you promote more people who have conformed like you. So if you are a leader at the top you are probably a conformist.
But what constant change requires are leaders who thrive on change, not those that thrive on conforming to what their organisation has always done. If the glue that holds together our assumptions is coming unstuck, the solution for a leader is to look for the non-conformists, the mavericks and the purveyors of ‘wacky ideas’. This isn’t easy. Ask yourself – how am I valuing and cultivating the mavericks and non-conformists in my team?
2. To harness non-conformists and diverse thinking, you need to be a leader that understands the team’s information networks (from Margaret Heffernan)
If you want to solve problems you need to understand what is going on and get new ideas to those that need them. Information flows around an organisation, passing through people until (one hopes) it reaches the decision makers that need it. And as it flows it passes through some key nodes. These nodes – these people – are the team’s opinion formers and information leaders. They are the hubs of ‘what’s going on’.
But the flow of information does not just go up and down our chains of command – no matter how much we wish it did. In fact, it flows across teams and across functions, enhanced by those people who act as hubs. So to improve the flow of information and ideas you need to enhance the speed of the flow. This does not mean forcing it to go up and down your chain of command – sometimes this can cause it to slow down. It means understanding the flow and removing impedance.
To understand the flow of information in your team, and to help speed it up, you need to get out there and know your people. Know them, know their groups and understand how they interact. Sadly, you cannot do any of this from your desk on the top floor. So if you need ideas and information to speed around your team, get out there and learn who the information hubs are. Go learn where the information is.
3. Diverse and inclusive teams are better at solving problem in a changing environment (from Margaret Heffernan)
Mavericks, wacky ideas and non-conformists might be able to help with change. But unless they feel at home, having them is not enough.
Put another way, diversity and inclusion are different things. A diverse group will have diverse ideas and guard you against wilful blindness – intentionally missing things that you really should see. But unless the non-conformists feel able to contribute to the team, their presence is irrelevant.
This isn’t a call-to-arms for the Social Justice Warrior, it is an evidence-based analysis of what solves problems. Research evidence tells us that teams that succeed are not those filled with superstars. Nor are they led by superstar leaders. In fact, what differentiates ordinary teams from great teams is not about who is in them but in how they interact. As Margaret Heffernan said “The mortar is stronger than the bricks.” Great problem-solving teams were more diverse; included members with high EQ – able to ‘read the mind and read the eye’; and valued the contributions of all the team members equally.
This doesn’t mean that everyone is right, or that consensus is the only way ahead. It means that when problems are wickedly difficult you need collective intelligence to solve them, and that team needs diverse views that are included in the problem-solving process.
4. You cannot execute on intellect alone. You need experience. And it is a leader’s job to develop that experience (from John Manzoni)
From John Manzoni’s perspective, the UK Civil Service has been so focussed on policy lost it has lost its ability to execute. That is because good execution comes from experience. Hard won experience. Sometimes costly experience. If a team relies on ‘intellect’ and ‘ability’ alone it will make mistakes.
This is why one of the most important jobs of a leader is to develop their people by helping them get experience. It can be uncomfortable doing this. They will make mistakes along the way, but unless they do the hard yards they will never get the experience they need to be masters of execution and delivery. Lord Karan Bilimoria echoed the sentiment in the private afternoon session when he said “Good judgement comes from experience; experience comes from poor judgement.”
The other thing experience builds in a subordinate is the confidence to speak up to a senior. When you know your stuff you can prove your point. Another good reason to give your subordinates the chance to learn from experience.
5. Leaders set the context (From John Manzoni)
Along with develop their people, setting the context is the other job of a leader. Leaders at the top of a big organisation need to create an environment where people can best use their skills to get things done. This happens when people feel they are in control and can make decisions about the best way forward.
Command and control get things done – especially in crises. But just because the Army trains for crises does not mean this is the best way to get things done every time. A better way is to set the context for those around you, and those in the rest of the organisation, so they understand what is going on.
When John Manzoni was asked “What is the one thing a leader can take away, so they can do their job better on Monday?” his response was “That depends on the context. What are you doing on Monday?”
“But”, he added, “whatever you are doing, you need to set that context for your team so that they know what they are doing.”
6. When you lean back a level, the team thinks up a level (by Davis Marquet)
“The core of my message – the only person you can really control is yourself. So if you want change, it has to start with you!” So began David Marquet, former submarine commander. But his message was about how you can change others by changing yourself.
David’s core philosophy was that when you take yourself out of the decision-making cycle your team step up to fill the space. This can’t be done lightly; when you give up control you must already have improved competence and provided clarity. For David, it meant his team gained experience (John Manzoni would approve) and it improved the speed and quality of their decisions. Instead of saying ‘may I have your permission to…’ his team said ‘I intend to…’ and waited for him to stop them.
He wasn’t always good at it. When he started his career he thought that a leader made all the decisions and could fix everything. Even as Captain he made mistakes and took back control when he shouldn’t have. But eventually the team learnt to work without his direction and rely on his broad intent. In many ways, just like John Manzoni said, he set the context.
He finished with a great point.
“Leadership isn’t about changing people. It is about creating the environment for people to be the best they can be, exactly as they are.”
The Army Leadership Conference was held at Sandhurst on 8 November 2018 and was run by the Centre for Army Leadership.