The Honest Shift to Change Leadership


Change can occur more naturally if we as leaders, teams, and individuals have an honest assessment of where we are and a clear picture of where we want to go.

This may sound like a real downer, but unfortunately, most of us are not very good at looking in the mirror or at drawing compelling pictures of the future. The unfortunate norm is that more often than not, we don’t tell each other the truth, which keeps us from seeing that clear picture. Here is the stunning snapshot of how people really feel: 82% of people don’t trust business leaders to tell them the truth. As a result, we don’t speak the truth back. There is often a huge gap between what we think as individuals and what we say as it relates to company strategy, organizational culture, and leadership behaviors. Yet, an “honest assessment of where we are” can be even more of a catalyst to creating meaningful change, than a clear picture of the future. This may sound like heresy to many, because even John Kotter has said that every large-scale change needs to have a change vision or a picture of what the changes will look like when it’s done. But, from the work that we’ve done with large organizations, realism and truth are at the heart of engaging people and executing strategic change.

An “honest assessment of where we are” can be even more of a catalyst to creating meaningful change, than a clear picture of the future

Truth-telling is all about making it safe to have the conversations most people don’t believe they are allowed to have. It starts by embracing difficult realities with the same excitement and enthusiasm that you have for strengths and accomplishments. Consider this three-step process that can be used with an intact team or a key group of cross-functional leaders to build truth-telling muscle.

  1. Embrace Realities – Ask for and encourage individuals to identify the specific areas where they are “creatively dissatisfied” and that are holding the group back from achieving its full potential. These areas can be in strategy, operations, culture, or behaviors of the team or the organization. Especially encourage people to think about the areas where we round the corners of the truth or are less than transparent in regard to what is really going on. Each area could be put on a separate sticky note and posted on a wall to create a “wall of reality.” It is helpful to group the notes in columns with similar themes. Topics can be behavioral, such as “We don’t hold people accountable,” or strategic, such as “We are not clear on our primary customers.” They can also be hard hitting, such as “We talk about the customer all the time, but our actions don’t match that talk.”
  2. Identify the Realities that Matter the Most – Allow each individual to consider all the sticky notes on the wall (often we end up with 20 to 50 notes with any team) and put a check mark on the three or four statements that are most real and important to them. After a team has placed their respective check marks, you can step back and see the four to six areas that really stand out. It is helpful to ask the group, based on the areas that have the most relevance checks, to describe the story of the “honest assessment of where we are.” Of course, this is just focused on the areas of creative dissatisfaction and not the areas where the group feels they are great.
  3. Craft “Truth Statements” that Have Sharp Edges ­- Next, truthfully state the realities that were agreed upon by the team as succinctly possible. Typically these truth statements carry enough impact that leaders at any level cannot look at them and decide to do nothing about them!

Identify specific areas where they are “creatively dissatisfied” and that are holding the group back from achieving its full potential.

Here are several truth statements from teams in different companies that ignited authentic action for change.

    • We claim that we are customer-obsessed but in reality we are really finance metrics-obsessed.
    • We lack a culture of execution and do not dig into the details of why we perform a certain way; we prefer to just start new things.
    • We believe the people who have been here less than 10 years don’t have enough experience to lead, and that those people who have been here over 20 years will not change. We have written off the capabilities of two-thirds of our people.

Truth statements validate what people feel and create a safe haven to bring up the real issues, take risks, and speak the truth. In the profound words of a team member, “When I see our leaders passionate about the truth and humble enough to let their egos go to really find it, it fires me up to do the same!”

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Image credit- guarding123 / 123RF Stock Photo

Jim Haudan is the CEO and Chairman of Root, Inc. For more than 20 years, Jim has helped organizations unleash hidden potential by fully engaging their people to deliver on the strategies of the business. Jim believes business results are achieved by meaningfully connecting strategy to all of the people in the company to bring it to life. For eight straight years Root has been on the Great Place to Work® Institute’s 25 Best Small and Medium Workplaces, and among the 2009 Top Small Workplaces according to the Wall Street Journal and Winning Workplaces Inc. Root’s clients include some of the biggest names in business, such as Gap Inc., Petco, Dow Chemical, Pepsi, FirstEnergy, Taco Bell, and Hilton Hotels – more than 500 companies and tens of millions of people. Jim is a frequent speaker on leadership alignment, strategy execution, employee engagement, business transformation, change management, and accelerated learning. He has spoken at TEDx BGSU, the Conference Board events and numerous client meetings. He also contributes regularly to business publications and blogs and has written a national best-selling book, The Art of Engagement: Bridging the Gap Between People and Possibilities (McGraw-Hill, 2008).

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