By William L. Ringle
Change. It’s ever-present in the 21st-century, in the working lives of C-Suite executives and managers. Change may arise from external factors, some of the most recent being in health care in which a whirlpool of changes impacted company health plans. Change may also arise from internal factors, such as not being able to recruit and retain employees with the high level of competence a company may need.
Whatever the source of change, senior executives are expected to guide employees through the perils change may bring and to lead the charge to successful adaptations and resolutions.
But effectively leading employees through change can test the mettle of even the most experienced executives, because change brings them face to face with their behavioral shortcomings.
Breaking free from the tyranny of the urgent. The details of running a company can easily crowd out less-urgent, but critical, issues that need to be addressed. When this factor combines with the tendency to postpone or avoid delegating responsibility for urgent matters, an executive may overlook tell-tale red flags that, if ignored, may lead to a crisis.
Lack of delegating may happen if an executive feels more capable of handling certain matters than employees, say in matters of order generation and fulfillment, customer relations, returns and credits, and the like.
Whatever the reason, overlooking tell-tale red flags may ultimately result in an unexpected crisis one may not have prepared for. Perhaps the best question to ask oneself in situations like this is: Do you want to be doing this five years from now?
Delegating rather than abdicating. When every-day tasks become overwhelming, it may be tempting to abdicate a certain task to a subordinate. An executive may assign a task to a subordinate “to take care of this,” but this is short of effective delegation.
Truly effective delegation involves carefully selecting the best person to handle a task and instructing him or her on how the task is to be performed. Then, one needs to follow through with the person to assure the task is completed to the delegator’s standards and offering further clarification if needed. Abdicating is asking for trouble, because it hasn’t brought about positive change and it can result in unwelcome surprises.
Awareness of how time is spent. The telling point here is that many of us fail to appreciate how much time we devote to certain executive tasks while postponing or ignoring others. One solution is to participate in a personalized time study. Such a study can reveal just how a C-Level executive or manager routinely spends time in the course of a week or month.
The results may surprise. For example, it’s not unheard of to discover that a corporate leader may be spending too little time, relatively speaking, on reviewing a company’s revenue statements, cash flow, and balance sheets. Perhaps, a senior executive may not feel confident about his or her ability to understand and interpret the results. The solution may be as simple as having a sit-down with a CFO or outside resource to grab hold of the significant items in these documents.
Overcoming reluctance to raise prices. Often, change in one’s competitive environment spawns the need to raise prices. But instead of responding to this need, procrastination and delay may set in. Most commonly, an overestimation of losing a large chunk—say 20%—of one’s customer base is to blame, when a thorough analysis may show that the projected loss may only amount to 10%.
Granted, no one ever desires to lose a percent of a company’s customer base. Yet, the added revenue and profit that result from a given price increase over a product line or customer base often offset revenue lost from customers who stop buying because of price.
Another reason for delay may be an executive projecting his or her buying style on an entire customer base. If an executive habitually buys on price, he or she may assume that all customers buy this way.
In fact, relatively few customers buy on price alone. They buy for any number of other reasons. And most customers won’t trade value for price, because relatively few buy on price alone. They buy for any number of other reasons. And most customers won’t trade value for price. To postpone increasing prices may lead to a decision to sell certain products or services at an unsustainable margin or, worse, at an unnecessary loss over long periods of time.
The solution may be to establish a pricing system that analyzes the effect of price increases on actual customer buying habits.
Maintaining an explicit company culture. Having in place a corporate culture helps to prepare for change. An explicit, understandable culture that’s bought into by employees enables them to understand and respond positively to the standards top executives set forth for them to observe. What’s more, maintaining such a culture comes from the top down.
Unified standards tend to unify employee behaviors relative to owning the problems they encounter at work, and how a company values their endeavors. Communications with employees fosters greater participation, problem solving, feeling appreciated by top management, and devoting greater attention to the quality of their work.
In the absence of a culture made explicit by top management, a default culture tends to arise from what employees, on average, do and care about doing. When this occurs, management may find it difficult, if not impossible, to involve employees in a concerted response when changes dictate new ways of doing things.
Given human nature, inducing a preferred cultured takes far more than a once-in-a-while, talk via TV or over a company’s intranet. To be effective, messages and reminders about a culture need to be consistent and continually reinforced. Periodically, executives need to devote attention to employees who best exhibit what does and doesn’t fit within a company’s culture.
Make a challenge of change, not a fearful occurrence. In times of major change, the tendency among employees can revert to the worst of negative thinking and avoidance. The way to diffuse this response and foster positive, active involvement in the change process is this: Define change in terms of a quantifiable goal for them to fulfill and enlist them in the process. In this way, employees become collaborators with top executives in implementing responses to reach the change-related goal. Employees then consider themselves as important participators in the process.
Top management can then measure the process to the targeted goal and provide feedback to employees on how their collaboration is enabling their company to progress.
Maintaining a program of continuous improvement. We tend to think of change in terms of discrete occurrences. But the reality is that changes in business happen all the time, from the smallest accomplishments to outstanding achievements. And changes occur now with greater frequency than ever before.
A process of continuous improvement helps top executives and employees alike to consider change as an every-day occurrence and as part of corporate life, not something that only happens every now and then.
Perhaps most important, a program of continuous improvement can introduce an active planning process that requires executives to take time out once or twice a year to reflect on recent responses to changes, to estimate what important changes may lie ahead, and what their companies can do to respond to change well in advance.
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