Category Archives: Leading Change

Employee Engagement…What’s in a Name?

Naming-pic1A few years ago,  I was spending a lot of time at the hospital. My husband had had a serious stroke and so my days were spent largely going to and fro, admittedly in a bit of a haze. I didn’t have time to notice too much of anything outside the small sphere of my personal concern but there was one thing that stood out, one thing that I noticed each morning as I walked past.

The Hospital Human Resources Department had changed its name to The Employee Engagement Department.

At the time, I couldn’t help but wonder what they might be doing differently now that they weren’t doing when they were called The Human Resources Department. And it started me thinking. It’s easy to change a name but not so easy to live up to it. In the case of the hospital employees, I wondered what their experience was like working under the newly popular umbrella of Employee Engagement. Were they more interested or involved? Were they happier? Were their issues and concerns being heard more than before? Were their opinions being sought out more often? Were their teams more functional and productive? Did they feel more energized and valued? Were the hospital’s costs better managed or the patients’ experience enhanced?

Of course I don’t know the real answers to any of those questions except to say that my short observation of this particular hospital staff led me to believe that not much had appreciably changed.  And perhaps that’s the point. You can change the label on something but it won’t make the substance of it any different unless you a do something differently or introduce something new. Simply calling it something else just doesn’t get the job done. So maybe there are a couple of ways of looking at this. Do you change the name first to create a mental visual around what you want to achieve? Or, do you re-label only when you can be satisfied that what you have to offer bears a reasonable resemblance to the name you give it? I’m kind of leaning to the latter here. After all if you take a cherry pie and label it “apple”, it may resemble an apple pie from the outside but unless you change what’s inside, it’s going to stay a cherry pie no matter what you call it.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

*Note: a refreshed version of an original posted in March 2010


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Filed under Building Relationships, Employee engagement, Leadership Development, Leading Change

Four Things to Remember When Change Hits “Upside the Head”

woman-ice-pack_300Change.  It’s a topic that provides much fodder for discussion among leaders.  We anticipate it; study it; plan for it; and, if we are smart (or lucky), we make it happen or respond to it with strength, a sense of purpose and a clear head.  Sounds pretty simple.

But of course, it’s not.  Sometimes change hits us “upside the head” and cares not whether we have had time to think about it or prepare for it.  It simply happens, rudely and without ceremony, leaving us grappling to make some sense of it all.

Yes, there are ways to mitigate the impact of such brutal changes but for the most part, they have a way of sending us into a tailspin and causing even that which was once so familiar to seem somehow foreign and out of sync with how we understand the world.

The trauma brought about by such change happens every day to countless people, people without contingency plans, or any idea how they are going to cope with what has happened to them.  And yet we do, cope I mean, under many conditions and through many challenges.

Having experienced an “upside the head” change myself, I am given to thinking about aspects of change that I perhaps did not give so much consideration to in the past. Here are a few of those thoughts:

Change is primarily an emotional and people-centred event

In 2001, Jeffery W. Greenberg, Chairman of Marsh & McLennan Companies headquartered in New York, presided over a firm of 58,000 people worldwide.  1,127 of them worked in the World Trade Centre, some in Tower One and others in Tower Two.  Mr. Greenberg’s office was in Mid-town Manhattan.  From his window, he had a clear view of the towers and of the horror inflicted on those who went to work there on September 11th.

At the end of the reckoning, 295 of the company’s employees had lost their lives.  In the midst of the pain and disarray that was to ensue in the days, weeks and months following the attack, something significant emerged.

In telling his story, Mr. Greenberg’s primary observations were not about executing business disaster recovery plans or repositioning Data Centres and telecommunications systems but about the people in his organization; their courage, resilience and determination to pick up the pieces and move on.

This suggests to me that successfully moving through horrendous change events relies more heavily on the preservation of emotional health than we might otherwise think.  It reinforces, at least for me, that building an organization with a strong sense of purpose, widely shared values and an engaged workforce is not a faddish notion.  It is a business imperative.

During times of drastic change, people are often given far less credit for having resilience than they deserve

It is tempting, I think, for leaders to assume that because a change is frightening, people will fall apart and be unable to participate in working toward a new normal without constant hand holding and caretaking. I believe though, that it is during such frightening times that we each have the potential to discover inner stores of strength and courage that might never have been tested.

While, firm structures are important during times of uncertainty, so is faith in peoples’ ability to adapt and contribute to bringing about a new order of things.

“Upside the Head” kinds of Change bring out the best in most people.

It would be naïve of me to suggest that when disaster strikes, there won’t be some who will take advantage of it for personal gain, or fail to rise to the occasion, but for the most part, people are amazingly supportive of one another during times of trouble.  Even if, in ordinary circumstances, they spend time bickering, there is something galvanizing about life-changing, scary events that brings out the best in most of us.

For leaders, it is something to perhaps remember…and to trust.

Recovery requires us to dig deep and see the funny side of things.

It’s hard to even think of laughing when your world has been turned upside down.  After all, the experience of being caught in a chaotic and foreign situation is far from funny. But, in my experience, there is always something ironic or just downright comical about every situation.

My husband had a stroke, a very serious one.  It scared us both, badly. But, for some reason, along with the crying (and there was some of that), there was also a fair amount of laughter too.

I just think that, sometimes reverence can be overrated and looking at the lighter side of life, even if it seems a bit out of place, has a way of lifting the load for a time. It is even possible that through a recovery period when the going is hard, laughter is indeed a very potent medicine.

That’s what I think anyway. What do you think?


Note: A revised version of a post originally published in 2009

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Filed under Change Management, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leading Change

5 Actions That Help Create Stability in the Midst of Uncertainty

 According to a Mayan prophecy, on December 21, 2012, the World was to come to an end…again.  Obviously, it didn’t.  But these prophesied World-ending events  show up from time-to-time on the global radar.  The good news is that apparently one quarter of our planet is now online so, the next time it comes up,  we’ll  have some time to say our goodbyes before we all fade to black.  However, while my tongue remains firmly in cheek regarding prophesied catastrophes such as these, they serve as a reminder that there is always something afoot, something changing, interfering with, or otherwise upsetting our equilibrium.  It’s the way of the World.  And, through technology, we are choosing to make that World more intricate and more accessible which renders our day-to-day dance both exciting and sometimes  horribly stressful.

To me, all this suggests that a leader’s role, (at least one of them), is to create a platform for stability, often where none exists, because in a world of constant change and increased complexity, people need to feel anchored to something they can count on.

For some, it is as simple as knowing that in the face of the unknown, they can still be all right.  For example, during the Second World War, The British Government gave the people of Britain reassurance that they can still be all right through a poster campaign that said, among other things, “Keep Calm and Carry On”.

Of course it wasn’t the only thing they did to help sustain the people but it served as a vote of confidence in the spirit and capability of the British people to stay the course and overcome the hardship, terror and uncertainty that war had foisted upon them.  They, in turn, rose to the occasion finding ways to support each other; share what little resources they had and keep their upper lips proudly stiff.

Today too, we are bursting with uncertainty. We have come to know that just at the moment we begin to feel steady, things are going to change. So finding ways to create stability amid inconstancy is, in my view anyway, a primary goal for the 21st Century leader.

The question is, how? The answer is…well I’m not sure.  But I have some ideas and here they are:

1.    Be Purposeful

Knowing our organizational purpose is a great beginning to creating stability. After all, while change affects the way we go about fulfilling the purpose, the purpose itself, more often than not remains the same.

2.    Extend the purpose beyond the confines of organizational boundaries.

Most organizations support charities or causes of some kind.  Just as the causes can vary, so can the motivation for supporting them. To me though, doing good works that align with the organizational purpose helps the company grow roots and contribute to the creation of stable communities, both inside and outside corporate boundaries.

3.    Keep Learning

Broadening our knowledge base creates a more stable environment.  In other words, the more we know and understand the less there is to fear.  So giving true value and support to learning, not just training, will build a company of people who are confident, resilient and eager to see and experience what comes next around the corner

4.    Be Guided by a set of strongly held values

World events, economic instability and a constant feed of both useful and useless information contribute to a dizzying existence for most people.  Sometimes we just need to stop and remember what’s important and what we stand for.   It’s kind of like being out in rough seas.  When we can’t see the shore and the boat is tossing us around mercilessly, our values serve as the lighthouse beacon that gives us the promise of solid ground.

5.    Take Blame out of the Equation

When things go wrong, and they do, it’s easy to panic.  When we panic we look to place blame.  Blame is the enemy of stability.  It rattles people and often for the wrong reasons.  Blame is not about accountability it is about passing a hot potato and making sure it lands in someone else’s lap.  By taking blame out of the organizational culture and replacing it with a more solution-oriented demeanour, more people will have the confidence to participate in solving problems rather than defending themselves or looking for places to hide.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

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Filed under Change Management, Employee engagement, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leading Change, Management, Organizational Effectiveness

Leadership and Encouraging Dreams

This post, from 2010 reminds me just how important dreams can be in building something concrete…and just how much work it takes to convert them to reality.


When I first sat down to write today, I didn’t really know what I was going to write about but my mind kept drifting off toward Homer Hickam Jr. and the power of dreams.  So I guess I’m meant to write about that.

Homer Hickam is the main subject of a movie entitled October Sky, which in turn was based on Homer’s memoir Rocket Boys. Basically, it’s about his life growing up in a small mining town in West Virginia and his dreams about, and devotion to, rocketry.

It was a time when the notion of space flight was a fanciful one, especially for those who made their living in a coal mine.   In spite of that, the impact of hearing and reading about Sputnik, the first artificial satellite launched into space, was enough to inform Homer, from somewhere deep within him, that he had found his purpose.

Homer Hickam is a lucky guy.  I say that because I rather think many of us flounder around a bit when it comes to being really sure of our purpose.  And, I suspect that unlike Homer, our purpose does not present itself in such a blindingly obvious way.  Well, at least that’s the way it is for me.

But dreams are important.  They’re important because they have a way of leading us to our purpose and each dream realized, each purpose fulfilled, makes a difference to a life, to a community, and sometimes to the world.  It was that way with Terry Fox.

Terry Fox had a dream.  He dreamed about a cure for cancer. He believed in his dream so much that he ran over three thousand miles on an artificial leg to raise funds for cancer research.

Even though Terry didn’t finish his run, he fulfilled his purpose and his dream lives on, long after his death.  That’s what dreams can do…outlive us.  There’s something quite wondrous about that.

Some might think that dreaming has little to do with reality, but dreams become reality if we do the work. And, I think there are two conditions that make the conversion of dream to reality possible:

One is, we have to want it badly enough to do what it takes to make it real

The Road to fulfillment is always fraught with challenge. If a dream is worth it, it is also worth fighting for. Other people may get in the way.  Fear can put us in our own way but, if we want it badly enough, none of that matters in the end.

And secondly, we have to make sure that the dream is really ours and not something, someone else wants for us.

Sometimes, when we are trying to figure out our purpose or find a dream we can make our own, we can slip into someone else’s view of what it looks like.  This can be a convenient way of getting on with our lives.  Someone else’s dream though, no matter how magnificent it might be, is often like a suit of clothes that doesn’t quite fit and isn’t as comfortable as we’d like, no matter how good it might look on us.

Leadership is about dreaming too.  After all, if leadership were about maintaining the status quo, we wouldn’t need it.  We’d only need management. So dreams are frequently the beginning of new adventures and are about the pursuit of something that calls to us from within and makes us want to change, or be, something else or something more.

Dreams help us define our purpose. At least that’s how it was for Homer Hickam Jr. and Terry Fox. What do you think?

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Filed under Employee engagement, Establishing Direction, Leadership, Leadership Vision, Leading Change

The Certainty of Ambiguity in Leadership

This post is a refreshed version of one written originally in  June, 2009.


Anyone who has ever been in a leadership role for longer than, oh, five minutes, knows that leadership is not a prescriptive thing.  As simple as we try to make it with lists of the ten top things to do here or the best five things to do there, it remains rife with complexity.

Part of this complexity lies in the many roles leaders must undertake that, while necessary, seem incompatible with one another.

Here are some examples:

Being conceptual and Tactical

As a leader, it is important for you to be able to rise above the day-to-day mechanics of your operation so you can see where it is all going. This is about having a vision and ideas that give purpose to the work.

There is, however, a limit on the amount of time you should spend at thirty thousand feet without coming down to the ground and working with people to ensure that plans are developed in line with the vision and specific actions are taken to bring it to life.

Leaders who dwell in the land of ideas too long tend to accomplish very little. Alternately, those who keep their noses to the grindstone and never get off the ground might accomplish a lot but chances are, it will be a lot of the wrong thing.

Being a Leader and a Manager

Some people believe that leadership and management are two separate jobs. From where I sit, they’re not.  Both roles belong in the leader’s virtual backpack. Confusion often raises its quizzical head, though, when deciding what to manage; what to lead; and when.

A simple rule of thumb is that you manage things and lead people. However, to add complexity to the mix, you also manage events and happenings that involve people. And that means you must be prepared to manage conflict and other situations that could potentially get in the way of accomplishing the work.

Being a Leader and a Follower

Opportunities for people to show leadership, regardless of their formal status in the organization, are everywhere.  It is a wise leader who will recognize this and make room for it when it serves the organization and supports its goals.  The trick is in knowing when it is appropriate to stand down and become a supportive follower.

In general, allowing someone else to take the lead is a good idea when:

S/he knows more about the specific work involved than you do or;

S/he has demonstrated more skill in a certain area than you have.

This doesn’t mean you abdicate your position.  It does mean that you are leading for a time, by following and supporting someone who can by leading, accomplish the goal better, faster or more efficiently than you can.

To do this effectively, you must first know your own strengths and limitations and also make it a priority to know the capabilities of the people who work with you.

Controlling and Empowering

We all know that empowering others to express themselves and make contributions to the organizational goals is key to creating vibrant, engaged, working environments. And, while this is a leadership responsibility, it is also the job of the leader to create a controlled atmosphere that connects to the demands and goals of the business.

This means finding a fine balance between being autocratic and being liberal. It is where having a fully activated set of organizational values and a comprehensive, well-articulated vision of the future come in handy. They form a framework within which people can be empowered to use their creative abilities and make contributions on their own terms.

There are many other situations where leaders are required to make choices between seemingly contradictory activities.  For instance, when would you encourage individual effort over team development? Under what circumstances might you favour an arbitrary decision over a democratic one?

What comes up for you?


Filed under Leadership Style, Leadership Values, Leading Change, managing paradox, Organizational Effectiveness

Leadership and the Credibility Factor

What does credibility mean to you?  Here’s my take on it and why I think it’s an important quality for leaders to develop, not just in effecting change initiatives but in everything else they do.


I’ve been thinking about change lately, mostly about what it is that separates a person who seems to be able to influence change in a positive direction, from a person who might have the authority and the technical skill to do the work, but seems unable to pull it off.

The word credibility comes to mind.  The Thesaurus suggests that credibility is synonymous with trustworthiness, integrity and sincerity. I think that if these basic values are present, the chances of arousing the interest and respect of other people are pretty good. And, I believe too, that change agents come in many forms, manifest themselves in a variety of ways and at a variety of levels.

Thinking about that reinforces for me, the notion that it is credibility not title, position, role or authority that makes the difference between an effective change agent and an ineffective one.

So, if you are with me so far, the big question seems to be ” How do I prove my credibility to others?”

Here’s what I think it takes to earn credibility:

I do what I say I’m going to do… and I do it, when I say I’m going to do it.

Reliability is an important ingredient in establishing credibility.

There’s nothing more infuriating or counter-productive, than when someone makes a commitment to do something and then fails to follow through.

I represent myself honestly and do my best to be candid and open with my colleagues and bosses.

I think that to gain credibility with others we must simply find the courage and confidence to be ourselves and make our contributions without pretense or bravado.

I show that I’m open to learning and trying new things

Nothing puts holes in our credibility more than conveying the impression that we have all the answers. And, it is arrogant to think that we can influence change in others without feeling the need to change something in ourselves as well.

After all, change is a learning experience in itself. If we believe that it is for everyone but us, we are likely not asking the right questions, enough questions, or paying attention to what is going on around us.

I demonstrate respect for the experiences and knowledge of others.

One of the best ways to build credibility is to observe those who have gone before us and learn from their experiences.  If we want to be heard we must first listen.

When I challenge the status quo, I offer feasible and thoughtful alternatives.

To me, presenting a problem without considering a solution is not supporting change.  It is simply complaining.  This doesn’t mean that we have to have a solution for every problem.  But if we want to earn credibility, we have to consider not only the problem, but also the possibilities and questions that will stimulate further exploration.

I own up to being human and making mistakes. And, when I make mistakes, I apologize and then do my best to make amends.

Making excuses for the mistakes we make is simply unproductive and, well, not very attractive either. In general, we do not adversely affect our credibility when we make mistakes. We adversely affect our credibility when we try to cover them up, rationalize them away, blame them on someone else or otherwise pretend  they didn’t happen.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?


Filed under Building Relationships, Change Management, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Values, Leading Change

Putting Rules in Their Place

To live a civilized life, we need rules, but when do rules start working against us instead of for us?  I think it is when they morph into something that satisfies the few while serving to control and stifle the ideas, ambitions and progress of the many.

Witness the British Government in 1964.  This was a time when, musically, the British invasion was happening everywhere… except inBritain where the government there placed a ban on Rock ‘n Roll music.  In fact, British rock and pop broadcasters were allowed only two hours of airtime per week, despite a growing demand for it from the public at large.

Here, from the movie, Pirate Radio is an idea (although somewhat exaggerated) of the government attitude of the time on this subject.

Your organization may not look very much like that. But as its leader, or one of its leaders, you will also have rules. Some will have preceded you.  Some you will make yourself.  Some you will develop with others.  And some will be imposed upon you. Whatever their genesis, these rules were at one time or another put in place for a reason.  In my experience though, it is often the case that the reason disappears long before the rule that was developed to address it.  As a result, governments and organizations alike accumulate rules that no longer serve any useful purpose.  An example of this comes from the Province of Alberta where the law still states “businesses must provide rails for tying up horses”.

The point is, that while rules must be respected, they should never be viewed as sacrosanct.  As such, they are fair game for challenge.

The process of putting rules under scrutiny does not necessarily have to be a big undertaking.  It could be simply a matter of developing a habit of examining them through different lenses, like these three, to confirm their continued effectiveness:

 Relevance in the current environment

If the rule in question seems more to hinder than contribute to your progress, it may be time to give it closer examination. Why was it made in the first place?  Do those conditions currently exist? What purpose might it continue to serve? If you abolish it, what are the risk factors associated with doing so? How will it affect other areas, or people, in your organization?

Alignment with organizational purpose, and values

In my mind, rules must fit with purpose and values, not the other way around.

For example, in Florida recently, a young lifeguard was fired for going outside the bounds of his designated area to save a drowning man.  The company’s argument for firing him was that he disobeyed a rule and they were concerned about being exposed to litigation.

It seems to me that the organization’s purpose was essentially to keep people safe from drowning. In fact, as it is a private lifeguarding company, keeping people safe from drowning is its whole reason for being.  But, had this particular lifeguard obeyed the rule and stayed within his designated area, a man might very well have lost his life.  So, while there may still be a place for this rule, in order to fit with the organizational purpose, it requires examination and change for alignment.

Accuracy of assumptions

Sometimes rules are made based on false assumptions so it’s always a good idea when examining a rule to consider the beliefs on which it is based.  Simply asking, ‘by enforcing this rule, what might we be assuming?’ could trigger a useful discussion about its continued place in the organization.


So here’s the bottom line.  Rules have their place but they form only part of the framework that allows people the opportunity to do their best work.  Outdated, irrelevant, self-serving rules can get in the way. If you are a leader, you can’t afford to let that happen.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

Please Note: The clip from the movie “Pirate Radio” is not used for commercial purposes or financial gain.  It is respectfully borrowed  for illustration purposes only and not intended to infringe on copyright.


Filed under Leadership, Leading Change, Management, Organizational Effectiveness