Leadership Matters: Resilience Is a Secret Ingredient to Successfully Navigating Change

tomato and pepper with key to unlock secret ingredient
By Jeff Skipper

6 minutes

The benefits of being an adaptable organization, especially in these pandemic times

There comes a point during a transformation where people begin to run out of gas. I’ve seen it many times:

  • Arriving late to meetings
  • Incomplete work
  • Staring off into the great unknown
  • Outbursts out of nowhere

Change has a cost for each person. Sometimes the price is high. But we can choose how much we pay.

Pandemic disruptions have sparked massive changes that continue to increase in size and frequency. No one is immune. No one can stand still and hope to survive, let alone win.

The Story

With artificial intelligence invading the financial sector and fintech knocking at the door, the ability to anticipate major threats to credit unions everywhere is paramount. In response to the pandemic, one of my clients with 15 branches decided it was time to upgrade its data systems. Project Mastermind was born.

Migrating legacy systems and data is a massive job on its own, but these leaders recognized they would also need to change their way of thinking—how they analyze accounts and identify opportunities. Project Mastermind was not just a technical change for the back office. It would be a huge paradigm shift for everyone.

Your Employees Determine Your ROI

Technology change requires that people change. After all, no adoption means no returns. If employees cannot or will not use the new tools effectively, we might as well set the $2 million investment on fire. The people factor matters.

Not every organization gets this. Ask yourself: What percentage of your change relies on employee adoption? I guarantee it’s a number greater than 50%, and that means you need to make a significant investment to help employees buy in and master the change.

If a change is easily navigated (has low complexity) and delivers clear benefits (is highly desirable), good communication and solid training may be all that is required. But some change is hard. It requires sustained attention over months, possibly years, and tests our will to stick with it as we juggle our regular jobs and the increasing demands of the project.

Project Mastermind began with a stellar kickoff laying out the path ahead. Employees were excited to be part of the planning and design. Demos created buzz about new possibilities for customer service.

As development progressed, issues arose that required additional time and effort to resolve. As more employees were added to the program, work piled up for those working with members. Some were pulling double- or triple-duty as they juggled program demands, their daily jobs and training.

But leadership did something unusual before getting deep into the program work. Using a series of workshops with the executive team, managers and employees, they began building resilience. These live interactive sessions were spread out through the program timeline and covered several key components:

1. Change is a process. Complex change is a journey and it’s hard to get excited when you’re not sure what the road conditions will be. Nervous people don’t excel. Instead, they anticipate failure, and this holds them back. The program team laid out the milestones (design, testing, training, cutover), and then we dove into the psychological side of change.

Leveraging Prosci’s ADKAR model cast light on the stages of the journey:

  • Awareness. Leaders tell us what the change will entail: the who, what, when, where, why and how. If employees can’t answer those questions, they need to ask.
  • Desire. Once we are aware of the change, individuals must decide if they will support it. Lack of desire leads to division and resistance.
  • Knowledge. We can’t perform the desired change until we know how. Good training will fill the gap.
  • Ability. Converting knowledge into ability on the job requires practice plus the support of managers and peers. Great managers normalize some degree of failure and help employees recover and improve quickly.
  • Reinforcement. We typically don’t get new behaviors right the first (or second) time. Rewards and recognition encourage us to keep moving towards the goal and sustain the change.

2. We are masters of change. Too often individuals say, “Change is hard.” That’s wrong. Some change is hard, but the reality is that we are constantly navigating micro-changes without even thinking about it. We only recall the hard changes because pain makes them stand out.

Employees were challenged to consider all of the changes they have successfully navigated during the pandemic: social distancing while shopping, home-schooling children, building relationships over the web, improving cooking skills, adapting to work from home … and on and on. The adaptation has been endless, yet we often fail to recognize that we are pretty darn good at tackling change head on.

Starting with a positive mindset about your capacity to change has a huge impact on actual performance.

3. Change is best shared among friends. During one workshop, I was discussing the fight-flight response and how that proves our brains are built for adaptation. We constantly appraise the environment for threats and opportunities and react in an instant.

Sarah spoke up, “Jeff, there is another ‘F’. It’s flock!” Her point was that during times of change, we tend to gather and commiserate about our experiences. Even if it doesn’t produce any silver bullets, simply sharing the challenges we face can have a calming effect. But we often end up learning from others who are having more success navigating change. What are they doing differently? Usually it’s about how they recharge …

4. Build a better battery. Change can be challenging because it demands attention. If you want to master something new, you must focus on it. That’s why we are tired after navigating a windy road or taking intense training—we expend a lot of energy to stay focused, and there is only so much available to us. Once spent, we cannot assimilate anything new.

We need a full battery to handle everything that comes our way. When you snap at an employee or miss a step in a simple procedure, your battery is in the red. When you flop down onto a couch at the end of a day and let out a big sigh, it’s a sure sign that the battery is empty.

Employees spent time identifying what they do to recharge the battery. It’s a simple exercise but serves to remind people of the very activities they tend to neglect during the grind of a tough change program. They pointed out that we need to pay attention to our physical needs by eating well, exercising and getting a good night’s sleep. We also need to also focus on our mental reserves with meditation, hobbies, and time spent with friends and family.

5. Keep their eyes on the prize. Great leaders tell great stories. With a single illustration, they remind employees about how a change will dramatically improve customers’ lives. They acknowledge the pain of the journey while continuously pointing to a better future.

For Project Mastermind, the destination was to provide a single place where members could recognize an even greater number of their dreams, making the credit union an unseen member of the family that would journey with them through the joys of life. A true companion.

Reflecting on Resilience

Project Mastermind hit rough ground. Virtual training was a difficult way to learn a new way of thinking about data, let alone all of the new system features. Some employees left during the program, further increasing the pressure on those that remained.

But the team charged on to a very successful implementation by coming to work each day with full batteries and keeping their eyes fixed on a better future for themselves and the members they cared about.

Change is a process. Building employee resilience isn’t just good for achieving program success; it’s great for ensuring organizational adaptability. Who doesn’t need more of that?

Jeff Skipper is an international expert in accelerating change. For more than 25 years, clients such as IBM, Goldman Sachs and The Salvation Army have engaged him to achieve dramatic results during strategic transformation. Jeff holds a master’s degree in Organizational Psychology and is a Certified Change Management Professional.

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