Why you should stop believing that change is a major challenge

For executives, consultants and coaches everywhere, the business of change is challenging — and lucrative. It seems that we are all good at creating problems that spiral into apparently unsolvable complexity. Most management consultants would not have it any other way.

But what if change can be driven successfully from within, and with a minimum of fuss? Midland Heart — a £200M+ provider of housing services that form a critical part of the UK’s infrastructure — is not perhaps the most obvious exemplar of transformation. But it is an organisation that has been on a deep change journey over the last 3 years. In doing so, it has achieved remarkable results, doubling its operating surplus and getting on track to double its rate of home-building.

Glenn Harris, Midland Heart’s CEO, offers a clear-sighted analysis of the issues that the organization faced. “We were rumbling along being quite average. We hadn’t focused on people, and we certainly weren’t achieving our aspirations to be the best.” Factoring in the governance requirements that accompany any public-facing enterprise, this sounds like life in many other firms.

For Harris, the keys to change weren’t to be found in strategic textbooks, but in some simple principles that he had honed over his career.

The first principle starts with accepting that human beings live our lives in language. The world of business understands this, but often views it through a Machiavellian lens: if I talk to you in this way, I can get you to do what I want.

Harris believes that the language leaders use should serve a different purpose — fostering unity and collaboration. “We can’t expect people to work more collaboratively unless they feel a sense of connection with each other. How we talk to people needs to be stripped back, un-corporate, and grounded firmly in their world so it resonates with them,” he says.

Claire Croft, an executive coach who specialises in helping leaders manage through times of transition, agrees. “The words we use shape how we view the world, and the results that we achieve,” she says. “I am constantly bringing to clients’ attention the ways in which their choice of language informs their internal narrative about what’s happening and why.” Without careful management, language can create all sorts of negative consequences.

The ability to use stripped-back language is grounded in confidence. But Harris believes that many leaders are writing cheques that their experience can’t cash. This leads them to feel the need to hide their insecurities behind increasingly complex words and strategies. “Many leaders simply don’t have sufficient experience in running big projects well,” he says. Too many are preoccupied with self-promotion, and failure is not always barrier to career progress. “But this is all well and good until they are expected to know how to deliver.”

That sense of accountability was central to Midland Heart’s transformation. An ability to talk strategy is important, Harris believes, but it needs balancing with day-to-day delivery. “Driving change means getting into the detail,” he says. “You have to be able to look down the hole yourself.” Leadership, then, is not a remote art — it requires being able to manage the specifics well. “I have met good managers who aren’t good leaders, and that’s fine. But I have never met a good leader who isn’t also a good manager.”

Claire Croft agrees that too often businesses pull apart leadership and management, to their detriment. “Most senior leaders aren’t expected to manage. And as a result their people are confused about what to do. A big vision won’t help you with the daily detail of execution. Leaders need to give their people more.”

This is insightful. While there are exceptions (the ruthless front-line focus championed in Zook and Allen’s book The Founders Mentality, for example), the world of business is largely in hock to the idea of leaders as remote, visionary, God-like disrupters. Harris preaches exactly the opposite — in essence, in order to be effective, leaders need to humble up.

“Delivering change is a process — a grinding process that involves focusing on the core services and keeping things simple. At times, it can look very unambitious,” he says. “The challenging thing is when Boards get bored. All sorts of unnecessary mayhem can get unleashed.” The key, he believes, is to remain ruthlessly focused on putting one foot in front of another. “Keeping it simple is tough, but day after day it builds momentum. In the end, that’s exciting.”

Originally published on Forbes.com