Former VP of Travelocity and Change Champion at GE and American Airlines, Al Comeaux, shares insights on how to overcome fatigue and stay competitive amid never-ending change: we must make our organizations durable by cultivating energy among our people. This requires a new way of thinking for leaders.
Change fatigue. If you haven’t heard this term, you (and your employees) at least know the feeling.
AI. Return to office. You name it. Change is wearing out our people. It seems like a treadmill. And according to research by Gartner, employees’ ability to absorb change without fatigue dropped by half in a single year. That was before the pandemic.
It’s become clear that those organizations best equipped to win the Change Durability test by keeping their people energized will win overall—whether the future involves AI, kerplunking, or other things we’ve never heard of.
How do we as leaders re-fit our organizations for change durability? Well, after 20 years leading changes at the C-level at well-known companies—an IPO, leveraged buyout, hostile takeover, CEO transitions, and countless everyday changes like reorgs and technology cutovers—plus two decades studying scores of organizations going through changes of all kinds, I can tell you it’s not about re-fitting our organizations. It’s about re-fitting ourselves as leaders.
In my bestselling book on leadership and change—Change (the) Management: Why We As Leaders Must Change for the Change to Last—now ranked among the best change management books of all time (only three years after publication), I draw on my experience and research to share a simple truth: We as leaders need to think differently if we’re ever going to lead lasting, successful changes. And we need to think differently about one aspect of the change we forget often (believe it or not): It’s our people.
After all, organizations don’t change. People do.
We don’t put much thought into this, but we naturally think we need to get our people to change. That’s compliance; it wears down our people and doesn’t last. The reality: Change is a decision made by every single person; to succeed, we need to energize our people by getting them to want to change. That’s contagious.
Common sense? Sure. Common practice? Not really. In fact, this forgetting-our-people-when-we-should-be-remembering-them-most is at the heart of why two-thirds of change efforts fail—and why our people are worn out rather than energized.
Below I share five things we need to focus on when leading change…things that can bring energy and greatly improve our chances of success at change—one change at a time.
We’re often focused on outcomes when leading a change. Of course, we need good outcomes, but they only come after good inputs. For those of us leading a change like return-to-work, an outcome focus might mean sending an email explaining the new policy and then waiting for the red KPIs to turn green. Inputs might mean personally hosting sessions at numerous offices, and doing some of the things below. It’s about inputs first…the outcomes follow.
Given that we leaders rose through the organization because we’re great at something—solving problems—it’s in our natures to solve the problem and then hand the resulting change down to our people. This is pushing change onto others; it makes the change “our” idea. To energize the team, we need to instead pull: The change has to be our people’s idea (sincerely) if they’ll ever want to change…if they’ll ever decide to change. We need to learn and foster their ideas for the change.
How do we learn and foster their ideas? We listen first. We sincerely attempt to find out what’s going on, for two good reasons: 1) When people feel heard, they’re energized to do remarkable things, and 2) Our people are closer to the action than we are. Their ideas may not be precisely what we had in mind, but they’re based on the real world. So we learn what’s really going on if we truly listen before we consider the change. We’re not doing this to validate our ideas; we’re doing it to get to the truth—away from the ivory towers. Our people will be energized that we’re using their ideas, and they’re more likely to decide to change.
For energy during the change, we have to find ways to model it ourselves. I can’t tell you how many companies struggling with return-to-office policies, for example, tell me their top leaders (in some cases C-levels, in others the next level down) aren’t returning to office, even while mandating it. This is a dead end. We simply can’t NOT model the change. Given that it’s often our people—not us—who will do the new thing after a change, we may have to get creative to take actions that support the change, but we must find ways to show those we are leading that we are part of the change. After all, who are they following?
As someone with a bias for speed, I was surprised to learn during my research that so much of the work we need to do for successful, lasting change comes before execution. It’s not about just jumping in fast, even though marketplace realities might have our hair on fire. It’s about getting our people aligned first. Think of our organizations as flocks of ducks: Before ducks can take flight, they have to learn how to paddle in line, walk in line. We can’t have our people going in every direction and expect to lead them through a change. We have to align, and we do it through inputs, pulling, listening, and modeling the change.
I see and hear all kinds of people predicting the next big thing. In 1991 after the Gulf War, it was the Hummer, which was ubiquitous in that invasion. They were wrong: The big, lasting thing we got from that event was something called GPS; no one predicted its ubiquitous future.
So I don’t predict. But I have one sure bet: There will be change.
What we need—no matter what comes next—is the right mindset for leading change—one change at a time—if we want to win the long Change Durability test before us. Let’s re-think our thinking so we can succeed at leading change today and going forward.
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