Bob Irwin – Human Change Follows a Predictable Process and Takes Time

Bob Irwin presented at the TechColumbus Leadership Series where veteran “business builders” shared their philosophies in a conversational setting.  This event is sponsored by Vorys.

Mr. Irwin is the President of TDCI, a company providing enterprise technology solutions and services since 1992. Bob has worked in several senior roles, such as President and CEO of Sterling Commerce from 2007 until Sterling Commerce was acquired by IBM in 2010. In that role, he was responsible for driving company vision, growth, and profitability. He provided strategic leadership in articulating the vision, transforming the company’s software delivery efforts, and building strategic partnerships.

My intent in blogging about these events is to share with others what successful CEOs share in small group discussions. Bob has successfully grown multiple businesses and was willing to share openly what worked and what did not. It is this candid information that I hope is valuable for you as the reader. Because I assume you have a sense of basic leadership principles, I will focus my comments on things that may not be discussed as openly in other settings with the intent of making this blog something other than a rehash of the same stuff you have read elsewhere.

Bob talked about a couple of items that struck me as really interesting, so I will focus on those. The first is the idea of people with a very high achievement desire moving to a level in an organization where they are acting for the good of the organization and teaching others to perform by asking the right high level questions. The irony of this is that the thing that gets us to the senior role is the very thing that will cause us to under-perform in this role. He had two major points that sounded very much like characteristics we associate with “level 5 leadership” as referenced by Jim Collins. They are:

  • Move your behavior beyond personal achievement to doing what is right for the organization. This sounds easy, yet the example is: When someone comes to you with something you could do in 15 minutes and you know it will take much longer for that person to accomplish the task, how do you encourage him to build his skills and give him the time and support to succeed?
  • Move beyond telling people how to do their jobs to asking them what they recommend? By placing the primary focus on the question: what are you trying to accomplish? then why? then how?, you will help your team build independent thinking, business acumen, and problem solving management skills. You are building and leading your team toward roles as managers and leaders.

The second point and the one I found really interesting was what he called the human dynamic dilemma, shown in the image above (click to see full screen). The foundation of this concept is that there is a natural evolution people go through in the process of making a change. Change management professionals often call this “the change curve,” and it takes people from hearing about changes through a structured process until they actually make the change. Bob made the point that this process happens in about six to eight quarters which I thought was the most important point.  I have worked on several change initiatves but have rarely heard a specific time assigned to the change process. His experience indicated that about half way through a transition, at about the one year mark, leaders are generally frustrated that they are repeating themselves often and their people are just “not getting it.” At this point leaders often change direction because they did not achieve success in a year (which seems like an eternity when reporting quarterly results). Now, as the team is just beginning to understand and believe in the new direction, they are faced with another new direction. They immediately return back to step one – hearing about a new direction, but now with much less trust of the leader—and the journey that would have originally taken six to eight quarters could take twice as long. Leaders are thinking the team does not get it, and the team could be thinking a range of things including, “we will wait them out and they will change direction again so why make the effort.”

Some cautions in taking his comments out of context as blanket guidelines:

  • If you decide to change direction at the one year point, make sure it is a required change to accomplish the mission. Do not change because it seems to be taking too long and you think taking another direction might solve the problem. Remember that the time line will reset and be longer each time you start over.
  • Another point Bob made was do not fire people because they are “not getting it.” The cost of severance packages added to recruiting and training costs are quite high, and you are altering the lives of individuals and families. He gave an example where he worked with a leadership team that replaced a large percentage of an organization and the extreme adverse impact this had on the overall organization. His telling of this seemed to strike a chord with everyone in the room, as we have all had these issues and concerns. I happened to have this conversation with a client a couple of hours before his talk (who was one year into the change process). Our business community often assumes that if change is too slow, the team must be the problem. That said my personal belief is that there are times when someone is not willing or able to change as much as the organization requires. If someone is being disruptive or cannot be placed in a job where he will meet expectations after a reasonable time he simply needs to leave in a respectfully managed transition process. These are the exceptions and not the rule.
  • When asked if there is any way to accelerate the process he said “fake it till you make it.” Act in the new way as you are making the internal transition through the change curve. It is Bob’s belief that this can accelerate the process and yet do not believe that just because people are demonstrating the new behavior that it means they are fully committed if they are “faking it”.

I would add one other recommendation to this: transparency in communication. We, as leaders, often create the expectation that we are implementing a change and employees think we should immediately “get it right.” This is an unreasonable standard. Using a messages like “we are making changes and I am learning along the way, so you will see me using new behaviors just as I am asking you to do; You will see me make mistakes along the way just as you will; If you see me doing something that contradicts what I have said, you are welcome to point this out to me because habits are formed by ongoing practice and everyone will be practicing different things at different times.” Honest and transparent messages such as these may make a tremendous difference in employees getting on board and adapting.

So, as you are making changes, there are things that you will need to set the direction and stay the course for the six to eight quarters to move an initiative forward. And within that change, you will be making many small changes and course corrections. If you are using an “agile” approach, you will have ongoing releases or changes, and they should be steps forward toward the overall direction. If this is the case, it will be important to communicate on an ongoing basis how each change or series of changes is moving the overall initiative forward.

To become a more innovative leader, you can begin by taking our free leadership assessments and then enrolling in our online leadership development program.

Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future, via iTunes, TuneIn, Stitcher, Spotify, Amazon Music, Audible,  iHeartRADIO, and NPR One.  Stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute LinkedIn.

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