Many CEOs believe people are their most valuable asset. I am one of them. But making that belief a reality is one of the biggest challenges we face.
CEOs often paint aspirational visions for a company and propose innovative strategies to help a company evolve to meet the changing world. We might want to become “the leaders in convenience,” or “change the way business is done,” or simply more “customer obsessed.” These strategies are audacious and often inspiring, and they may even be the reason someone decides to join a company or follow a leader.
Many employees want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. CEOs must have faith that their strategy is going to make a real impact, but they must also take action to turn the new vision into reality. It doesn't happen on its own.
The path forward appears simple and self-evident to many CEOs, but because they are focused on selling the vision and promising returns to stakeholders, they must skate over the details and can’t always see what is happening in the organization. Focusing on the vision is certainly their job, but the most successful CEOs concentrate on helping people learn and grow to support the evolution of the business.
To truly help their people change, CEOs must wrestle with the details to overcome the organizational inertia that gets in the way of change. If they don’t, reality sets in and progress towards their vision stalls– leaving them wondering why.
Several years may pass from the time a CEO paints the picture of that aspirational future state to the time when they realize that things have lagged and dragged – with little change to show for their efforts. As CEOs, our frustration with the lack of progress sometimes shows up as doubt, fear, and even anger.
But unless we manage and enable change with strong and consistent leadership, employee behavior won't change, processes will stay broken, and teaming will become more difficult. Finger-pointing or apathy can emerge, leading to serious organizational dysfunction.
Why does this happen? What is missing from our aspirational CEO vision and the interpretation of that vision by employees?
Some of Oxygen’s largest clients – companies like Microsoft, Sony, and DXC – all had big visions for the future and solid plans for evolution. The Achilles’ heel in these plans wasn’t the vision – it was the execution. In all cases, it took strong leadership to help internal team members evolve so they could drive forward in unison. These companies achieved success through clarity about how to execute toward the vision.
Early on, I realized I had a passion for how people learn. For over 15 years, I have partnered with companies to execute their visions and help their people adapt and change. But even I had to confront some harsh realities about the “training” we were engaged to create.
Over and over, I found that “training” was rarely the answer. As we explored why, it became clear that most of the content meant to drive people toward change was generic, topic-based, and launched with unrealistic expectations of what it enabled employees to do differently in their jobs post-training.
And my own company was perpetuating the problem. We were inadvertently reinforcing those short-sighted C-level approaches to helping employees adapt to change.
So seven years ago, I vowed to change that.
At Oxygen, we shifted our business to focus on creating integrated and impactful learning experiences for our clients instead of one-off “training events.” We became obsessed with driving employee success at client companies and began thinking about workplace education as a holistic experience focused on change through time. And we helped our own people grow into a new way of working with each other and with clients.
It took time.
Here is what I learned during that shift:
Your first step sets the tone for the rest of the initiative or program.
We’ve seen those first steps start off as a top-down initiative where leaders “cast the vision and roll it out,”which can be effective if there is real commitment by leaders to engage people throughout the change.
By contrast, we’ve also seen initiatives start from the bottom up, producing only incremental change and a lot of frustration as the efforts run into systemic roadblocks.
No matter who calls for the change or where it comes from, all levels of an organization must listen to one another and be considered by leadership. This big picture view ensures that insights originate from different people with different perspectives, not just those sitting around the executive table.
And no matter how familiar that change message may sound to you as a leader, you must continue to communicate it, long after any initiative is considered “complete.”
You aren’t going to change your company by rolling out a few training programs.
Training money is easily wasted, and it’s often seen as “the solution” to all problems faced by an organization.
While learning is sometimes needed, we more often find that it is broken systems, a lack of collaboration or communication, or something else that’s not working right. When these root issues are addressed, learning becomes an amazing tool for ensuring that a company evolves and stays relevant, because it’s through the employees that change happens.
You must understand the details to get to simple.
This work takes a village to identify and close the gaps between your current and future states. It’s complicated, and you must understand the details to be effective. You may need help with key expertise that can’t be found in-house before your internal teams can move forward with implementation.
There are no shortcuts.
In business, nothing that was easy ever paid off for me. Only the hard, mind twisting, rewarding kind of work made a massive difference to my company and the clients we helped along the way. In all the years I have been running a business, I have yet to find the short cut to success or change. Consistency, progress and strategic evolution are what worked for me.
You have to let your team help.
Your team deeply wants to help you. But like most of our clients, your team probably doesn’t know how to get started. It is comprised of smart people, but your customers have evolved; and closing the gap between your sophisticated customers and your company’s processes, skills, and technology can be both chaotic and stressful.
People need help to change how they work. When you give your team the guidance and structure to change, magic will happen – and over time, you will evolve and make the progress you imagined. Change happens, one conversation at a time.
Lack of clarity is the problem, not your employees.
When changes don’t take shape fast enough, or behaviors don't shift, who often gets blamed? Employees.
The employees aren’t selling enough. They don’t know how to solve customer problems efficiently, and they end up fired or feeling ostracized.
The symptoms remain, but the root-cause doesn’t get fixed, with employees continuing to struggle with unclear expectations for leadership’s inspiring vision. As an employee, what does the vision mean to me? Is it consistently communicated, or are there different definitions coming from individual leaders or team members?
When you find yourself blaming employees, consider if you are consistently communicating your vision and your expectations for supporting it.
If you are unwilling to take a collaborative, problem-solving approach, to center your work on your customer, and to address the complexity head on, your vision for change will struggle to take hold.
But even when you and your leadership team do engage this way, friction is inevitable.
The key to success lies in identifying and tackling root causes so you can systematically address the details and link front-line roles to the business strategy. Don’t hire a training person to run a program that is going to fail, don’t spend money on band-aids, and don’t create mandates your people can’t execute on without help. Give them the help they need to act with purpose and make decisions required to support and drive the evolution you seek.
And remember: Your people are your greatest asset, but if you are not going to develop them and help them cope with the complexity and change, then apply your resources elsewhere – and help those people leave so you can hire the talent you need for the future.
Don’t waste your time, effort, and resources trying to be like the latest fad you have read about in a business book. I encourage you to dive in and understand the details, and then do the work so that you and your company can grow toward the future together.
It is hard but rewarding work – and the growth of your company likely depends on it.