Intense global competition, rapid technological change, and international capital markets are creating more demand for change leadership than at perhaps any other time in history. These forces, combined with the complexity of new and more global organizational forms that span nations and unite organizations through alliances, joint ventures, and mergers and acquisitions, make the job of leadership increasingly difficult. No wonder it is popular to suggest that leadership is in short supply in most organizations.
Moreover, we have a limited understanding of the role that leaders should play in making effective change a reality. This is the motivation for this essay. In the pages that follow, I discuss how leaders can help organizations change to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.
Body of the Essay
It is one thing to argue that organizations need to reinvent themselves and develop new, more effective approaches to organizing, and quite another to accomplish it. Large-scale organizational transformation is, at best, a developing art that has yet to produce any clear formulas for success, but more and more attention is being turned to executives as the principle agents of change and adaptation. It is increasingly common to assume that leadership plays the crucial role in an organization’s successful adaptation to a changing world. Companies are paying record compensation to attract the best and brightest executive talent to lead them safely through today’s turbulent business environment. Many boards and executive recruiters assume that there exists an elite corps of individuals who possess leadership skills that have almost universal application.
The subject of leadership and organization change is embedded deeply in the lexicon and discourse of business executives, management consultants, and organizational scholars. Business periodicals, the trade press, and academic publications are brimming with information and knowledge about leading organization change. Widespread attention to leading change is largely a reflection of the times. Fueled by unprecedented changes in technologies, markets, and economies, organizations are experiencing rapidly changing environments and enormous competitive pressures. Responses to these challenges are resulting in a virtual revolution in new organizational forms and systems. Organizations are increasingly seeking to transform themselves to become more adaptable and competitive, with leaner, more flexible structures, more empowered and committed employees, and more performance-driven human resource practices. (Lawler et al., 1995)
As organizations strive to implement these innovations, they discover that change is incredibly arduous, requiring a great deal of expertise, resources, and luck. The sheer difficulty of transforming organizations is evident in their enormous inertial qualities as well as the scope and magnitude of the required changes. Organization transformation typically involves radical changes in strategy and structure, in work practices and methods, and in members’ perceptions, norms, and work behaviors. As many observers have pointed out, because transformational change involves the total organization including strategic relationships with the competitive environment, top leaders or CEOs need to lead the change process and are essential to its success. (Tichy & Devanna, 1986; Greiner & Bhambri, 1989; Nadler, 1997)
“The Harder You Push, The Harder The System Pushes Back”
Any organization has its own corporate culture and the employees in all hierarchies are accustomed to that particular culture. Bringing about any change at any level is bound to shake the status quo and bring in an element of disturbance within the smooth functioning of the organization. Keeping that in mind, the change leader has to be extremely careful in doing the job and allowing ample space and time for the employees and other variables to adjust to the change being brought about. If the change process is accelerated too much and transformation is imposed hard on the people and the system as a whole, it will result in increased resistance from the system and mounting difficulties in the process of change.
“Change involves moving from the known to the unknown (Cummins/Worley, 1993). Because the future is uncertain and may adversely affect people’s competencies, worth, and coping abilities, organizational members generally do not support change, unless compelling reasons convince them to do so. Similarly, organizations tend to be heavily invested in the status quo, and they resist changing it in the face of uncertain future benefits. Consequently, a key issue in planning for action is how to motivate commitment to organizational change, such as Business Reengineering. This requires management attention to two related tasks: creating readiness for change and overcoming resistance to change.” http://www.prosci.com/w_4.htm
People can be made ready to accept and contribute towards change once they themselves get to feel the need for change. This means making people so discontented with the status quo that they are provoked to try new ways of performing. Generating such discontent can be to a certain extent difficult. People who have been functioning and behaving in ways that have become norms for them now, may find it difficult to the level of hurt, prior to their undertaking the change seriously. In a situation as sensitive as such, the change has to be led very cautiously providing room for delay. The many issues related to change leadership could be structured around multiple themes. They include leader behaviors for effective change, sources of change, different change strategies, whether leadership really matters, and the development of change leaders.
Most leadership scholars emphasize the importance of developing a vision or direction as the first step in leading change. This direction is critical in making sure that everyone is moving in the same direction. It is, however, an open question whether a vision is really necessary for leading change. A key issue, particularly in the literature on charismatic leadership, is how to create a sense of empowerment and ownership for employees.
One argument is that this requires giving employees the autonomy to determine appropriate means for implementing the vision. (Conger, 1989) Prior research has shown that employees are most motivated when they have the freedom to determine what works best given their talents and skills. (Spreitzer et al., 1997) However, in order for such autonomy to work employees must have access to the resources necessary for implementation and to information about the competition and the financial situation of their organization; without these they are likely to feel helpless in bringing about change. Also, rewards may be particularly helpful in building a sense of ownership. (Lawler, 1986)
Leaders in crisis organizations facing a revitalization challenge must devote considerable effort at the front end of their transformation to the creation of resources. Individuals’ resistance to change builds in direct proportion to the magnitude of the gap they perceive between the level of effort expected of them as part of the transformation process and the resources available to get the job done. Often this initial resource-generating step involves closing and consolidating peripheral or under-performing operations, trimming employee payrolls, reducing corporate staff overhead expenses, and suspending or deferring programs so that current operations can generate more cash to be redeployed to the launch of the corporate transformation process. Leaders attempting to revitalize their organizations also need to seek new external resources as they launch their transformation process.
For example, at General Electric during the early 1980s under Jack Welch, the creation of slack resources was not so much a problem as was the reallocation of existing resources to the corporate transformation effort. So the initial transformation issue was less one of resource creation than one of resource reallocation. Businesses that did not fit the vision had to fix, sell, or close themselves, and resources that would otherwise be consumed by these ill-fitting businesses were reallocated to enhance productivity and automation initiatives and to fuel capital investments in businesses that offered greater promise for achieving Welch’s lofty vision of being first or second in their chosen global markets. (Aguilar et al., 1985)
It might be argued that the key role for the leader is setting context; he or she must create a culture that embraces the importance of change. The leader then needs to create an organization structure that will support the new vision. This might, for example, involve a team-based design to reduce centralization, hierarchy, and bureaucratization. The leader must select and hire top-notch people who have the skills necessary to bring the new vision to actuality. If the vision involves globalization, for example, this might involve hiring or promoting people who have international experience. The leader must also create a reward system that encourages behaviors appropriate for the new vision. For example, if the vision requires more focus on the customer, then employees must be rewarded for actions that improve customer satisfaction. In other words, the leader’s most important role may be to devise an organization that sustains the vision.
Implications For Change In An Internet Environment
Sebastian and Samuel (2004) “explore the challenge that technology will deliver to management at both the tactical and strategic level. Changes in communication, content of communication, globalization of communication, are critical to these changes. The environment will support a greater degree of discontinuities in planning which is brought about by the globalization of management activities. Successful management must encompass the management of these discontinuities but use information in an artificial intelligence environment. The integration of these data and the actions that come from that integration must be understood within a moral framework.” (Sebastian & Samuel, 2004)
In the present era of technological innovation and globalization, when the world’s business is coming closer to work as a network, when the logistics are being designed in a way that encompass the ever so easy access of technology, communication and information, when a single business is catering to the markets around the globe, the changes within the organization become more important than those ever were. It is the international culture that the employees have to work in, the greater than ever expansion plans and newer and faster service demands that they have to attend to. All these developments and enhancements come as part and result of the Internet environment in which virtually all businesses are operating these days.
Leading change in such circumstances become an even more demanding and challenging of a task for the managers or leaders. As the trade of goods and services around the world is getting faster and easier, the need for as fast a change continues. However as mentioned in the preceding pages that such changes cannot be brought overnight, nor can those be imposed or pushed hard on the individuals. The system pushes back even harder and poses even more resistance to the change. Instead, the vision once established has to be communicated to the people properly, make them ready for the change by suitably establishing the loopholes of the current state and furnish the future expectations of being technologically sound and equipped.
Aguilar, F. J., Hamermesh, R. G., and Brainard, C. General Electric, 1984. (1985) Boston: Harvard Business School Press (9–385–315, Rev. Mar. 24, 1993).
Conger, J. A. (1989) “The Charismatic Leader” San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Greiner, L., and Bhambri, A. (1989) “New CEO Intervention and Dynamics of Deliberate Strategic Change.” Strategic Management Journal, 10, 67–86.
Lawler, E. E. (1986) “High-Involvement Management” San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1986.
Lawler, E., Mohrman, S., and Ledford, G. (1995) “Creating High Performance Organizations: Practices and Results of Employee Involvement and Total Quality Management in Fortune 1000 Companies” San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Nadler, D., (1997) “Champions of Change” San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Spreitzer, G. M., Kizilos, M., and Nason, S. (1997) “A Dimensional Analysis of the Relationship Between Psychological Empowerment and Effectiveness, Satisfaction, and Strain.” Journal of Management, 23 (5), 679–704.
Tichy, N., and Devanna, M. (1986) “The Transformation Leader” New York: Wiley.
Wolf D. Schumacher “Managing Barriers To Re-engineering Success.” http://www.prosci.com/w_4.htm Accessed January 31, 2007.