Managing Change/ Setting Direction

Published by Scott Neilson on 20 Feb 2014


Here is a recording of the webinar I gave for the Lehigh University Alumni Association. Watch below or follow the link to view it full screen.

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Published by Scott Neilson on 29 Jan 2014

See past the glare!

In an earlier article I discussed the subject of “Getting the Information You Need” to lead your business…or your department.  Link

In that post I pointed out that sometimes people inside your organization actually don’t want you to have that information.  They feel that it might expose some weakness or shortfall of theirs.  They feel that your visibility to that information might lead you to want to change something.  They fear a loss of control.  All this may sound a bit cynical, but it has been my experience and observation.

It is not at all unusual to be deceived by your direct reports.  People are often quite good at MANAGING UP…meaning managing YOU differently than they manage everyone else.  How do you get around that?

People at lower levels often have a much clearer view of what is really going on in the organization than the people up the ladder.  It is like looking at a pool of water from above and not being able to see the bottom because of light reflecting off the surface.  Stick your head under the water and you will see a whole world of activity you didn’t know existed.

I guarantee you will hear information that you have NOT heard before.

How do you do that?  Develop relationships with people at all levels…diversify your contacts and information sources.  I have found that people down the ladder a few rungs are likely to tell you the straight story…right between the eyes…and that is what you need.


Make it a habit of walking around and talking to everyone…

  • be approachable…
    • ask questions…
      • LISTEN!

Ask them what is working well…what isn’t working well…what could we be doing better?  Have focus groups in which YOU attend.  Have people submit their thoughts and questions anonymously beforehand so it is safe for them to say what is really on their mind.

I guarantee you will hear information that you have NOT heard before.  It will give you a new perspective on your operation and what you need to do to improve it.



Published by Scott Neilson on 10 Dec 2013

Change Back!!! Another take on leadership adaptability.

This article looks at leadership adaptability from a systems perspective…How do organizational systems adapt, and how can we as leaders enable our organizational systems to adapt and grow?  It is submitted by Christy Holland, Business leader in Strategy Development, Execution and Transformation.

In the 1960’s Family System’s therapists promoted a theory which stated that each family member was part of an inter-connected system. Any change in one member of the system, would cause a ripple effect throughout the entire system. As the ripple made its way through the system, members within the system became uncomfortable and would direct their persuasive power get the person to “Change Back.” These theorists discovered that families rejected both “positive” and “negative” changes with the same fervor because what they wanted was homeostasis. Members interpreted the therapeutic advancements of one family member as a threat to the family’s survival. Consequently, though perhaps unknowingly, the system would reject the potential to thrive.

Systems theorists saw the similarities between the work organization and family systems.  People in the workplace also desire to predict behavior and feel stress when people do not behave in accordance with their role. When someone behaves in a way we do not expect, we frequently say that are “acting out of character” or “throwing us a curve ball” or coming at us “from out of nowhere.” When we make these statements, they are not meant as a compliment. We are telling the person to “Change Back” and follow the rules of engagement.

So how do we, in our organizational systems, allow the turbulence of a new idea among our teams and look for ways to adapt and grow?

We know that “Change Back” mentalities will ensure extinction rather than growth, and we encourage innovation as a strategy for success. Those who thrive are collaborating across the company, utilizing technology to improve processes, and looking for new ideas in the customer experience. Our organizational systems can withstand change and the ripple can be positive. Innovation depends on sustaining the turbulence of change.  It demands we let go of the fear of uncertainty and when we hear a new idea, say “Yes and…” to build on that idea instead of persuading someone to “Change Back.”


Published by Scott Neilson on 05 Nov 2013

On timeliness…

A little more on “tough decisions”…but, this time something on the timeliness of them.

I had an interesting contrasting set of experiences in one organization…two reorganizations within a 5 year span.  For an industry leader, these were both major undertakings…surprising that it had to be repeated.  I was not responsible for either, but was fortunate to have a front row seat for both.  I learned a lot.

In the first, a giant consulting firm was brought in.  They had hundreds of analysts running around collecting data, having people fill out forms on how they spent their time, sitting in big meetings and reviewing the data.  They didn’t talk to anyone except to collect the data.  They involved a very small group of employees in the data collection and analysis.  They said nothing to anyone outside of their little group for 6 months.

During that time the organization was paralyzed…nobody did anything.  Literally all employees were consumed with fear and anticipation of getting laid off.  They were updating resumes, starting to network, having back office discussions, forming alliances they felt might afford some degree of protection, or figure out who was “going to get it”.  When the ultimate decisions were handed down, people moved on and the organization continued to fumble along but with a lighter load.

In the second reorganization, a small consulting organization led the activity and worked almost entirely with people from within our company…they involved us.  Data was collected through group meetings and discussion…not by filling out forms.  Most importantly, instead of waiting 6 months to communicate anything with the employees, this team communicated the plan about when each part of the company would be reviewed, and announced each decision as it was made.

By virtue of handling decisions in this manner, each department was “frozen” for only a matter of days, or perhaps weeks.  As each decision was made, the results were communicated, new roles were defined, exited employees left, and the departments were able to resume operating immediately.

The communications were extraordinary…complete, timely, and addressing the exact questions the employees had.  We moved through the reorganization phase in about the same amount of time as the first reorganization, but the acceptance of the changes was much higher, and while we were certainly operating at a lower level than normal during the planning and analysis activities, we were not “frozen” as an organization.

The key was communications…timely and frequent.


Published by Scott Neilson on 21 May 2013

Hire smart…

I have been kind of surprised by some hiring decisions I have seen lately.  It makes me wonder how these decisions are being made and what processes are being used.

All too often we are so anxious to fill an opening that we start changing our perspective of what skills we are looking for.  We tend to view the pool of applicants in terms of who is the best among the candidates we are seeing .  As a result, we start to limit our perspective to what we see in front of us and we lose sight of what we are really looking for.  I have even seen cases in which hiring supervisors start to reconsider changing their organization structure based on a particular candidate and what that candidate can and cannot do.

The problem starts with a lack of clarity about what is needed, what tasks must be performed, and what skills it takes to perform those tasks. 

First, as a leader you must recognize that every vacancy is an opportunity to improve your business.  Do you really need to replace this position?  Can you change your work processes and the description of that position to be something different than it was before?  Can you absorb the responsibilities of this position into those of other existing positions?  Can you make this change an opportunity to provide development or advancement for another employee?

The quickest way to get these answers is to flow chart the activity of your operation and clarify what is needed in each position in that part of your organization.  By doing so you reassess the steps to deliver the product or service you provide, and you clarify the processes and activities to deliver them.  Chances are you will also identify opportunities for improvement in those processes.  It takes a little time but the result is a better idea about what is needed from each individual involved in the process, confidence about your need to fill the position, and clarity about what you need to fill it with.  By the way, that clarity will also be helpful for the other people in your organization as you go about hiring a new team member.  For them it will clarify and reiterate their own role, responsibilities, and value to the team.  During a time of change, that clarity is essential for maintaining stability in your organization.  Though you may not think that filling one position is a “time of change” in your organization…it is.

Once you have established clarity about what is needed in the position to support your processes, the challenge becomes finding the person who has the skills to deliver on those needs.  This means identifying the skills needed to do the job.  Check this with others who interact with that position.  Discuss the position with others in similar positions.  Clarify the skills needed.

Finally, create a set of interview questions which enable you to determine if your candidates have those skills.  Use probing open-ended questions in which the candidates must describe specific responsibilities they have had, situations in which they have had to handle those responsibilities, what they did and what were the results.  This is referred to as behavioral interviewing…interviewing in which you are probing for information about observable behaviors in the candidate. *

Take the time to select the right person who can do the whole job.  Do not simply settle for whomever is available at the time.    It will be a source of endless frustration for you…and them.


* For your reference, in the event you feel you need help in this area, I have worked with several organizations who specialize in this technology.  The best I can recommend is DDI…Development Dimensions International, Inc. located in Pittsburgh, PA USA.


Published by Scott Neilson on 12 Feb 2013

Swinging for the fences…

My apologies to my non-American readers….this phrase is one often used in American baseball.  It refers to a batter trying to hit the ball over the fence (a home run) and score a run with one swing by him/herself (and be the hero), instead of simply trying to get on base and build a run with the other members of the team.  For your information, the odds of hitting a home run is 1 in 35.  The odds of getting a hit is 1 in 4…almost 10 times better.  The odds of scoring a run by getting a series of hits is more than twice that of scoring by the long ball (home run).

There seems to be a preoccupation with immediate gratification rather than making the effort to systematically repair, redesign, or recreate key business processes, and create healthy and sustainable businesses.

Swinging for the fences reflects a quick win mentality which has become pervasive in business thinking.  There seems to be an increased tendency for leaders to be more focused on immediate changes they can make to achieve short-term goals, drive the quarter to quarter share price of the business, and earn bigger bonuses, with not as much regard for the long-term impact.  The thinking is clearly in  favor of immediate gain and reward, and less of a concern with the future state they may be creating and passing on to someone else.

One workshop participant shared this example.  A CEO said to one of his business leaders that this leader needed to reduce operational costs in his business by 20%.  That leader indicated that those results would be achieved with some changes in computer systems, the associated processes, and employee training, and that the plans were in place to do exactly that over the coming 24 months.  The CEO was not satisfied and said that he wanted to reduce costs in project support functions by increasing the workload per employee in those functions now…and by nearly doubling that workload.  The business leader argued that doing so would result in quality problems, high employee turnover, and would ultimately lead to dissatisfaction among the customers.  He further argued that the current service levels were those to which the customers had agreed when contracting for the work, and changing those service levels would violate those agreements.

The CEO insisted that the business leader make the changes to service levels immediately.  He had made commitments to investors that the organization would reach certain levels of profitability by the end of the year, and this was the only way to do it.

The short-term effect was, as the CEO indicated, an immediate improvement in profitability, great satisfaction by investors, and a healthy rise in company valuation and stock price.  The CEO got a tremendous bonus and payoff in his stock options.  The near term effect (6 months later) was onset of operational quality problems.  Customer satisfaction began to decline as did new contracts.  Over the next year revenues declined along with profitability.  This was followed by a dramatic reduction in company valuation and stock price.  Within two and a half years the company had been split up and sold at a fraction of it’s value from 3 years earlier.

While I wholeheartedly believe that a leader must push his/her team to perform well and find ways for improvement, this must be done within the context of what is achievable and sustainable.  It is achieved through a rigorous and systematic approach to improving all aspects of the operation.  It generally, though not always, means that the best results come from the accumulation of a series of improvements across entire systems that enable the organization to routinely generate the desired results.

The problem seems to be a preoccupation with immediate gratification rather than making the effort to repair, redesign, or recreate key business processes, and create healthy and sustainable businesses.


Published by Scott Neilson on 03 Oct 2012

Reduce the noise…

We have spent a lot of time in recent posts talking about establishing clarity of direction, plans and actions.  There is one other point on this subject that is important to discuss…maintaining that clarity and focus, and managing daily priorities accordingly.

Minimize the distractions that the continuously changing environment can cause in your operations and in the achievement of your goals and priorities.

Every day your employees at all levels are bombarded with information that can cause them to lose sight of priorities and direction…every day!  Customers have special needs they are trying to meet; competitors are moving quickly to find and promote new and better ways of serving customers; regulators are adding and changing the rules by which we must operate; shareholders are pushing for improvement in financial performance.  All of these influences make it difficult for employees to remain focused on the company direction and priorities.

A key task that you have as a leader is to manage the impact that these external influences have on your operations…minimize the noise…minimize the distractions…and maintain the focus on the strategies, plans, and priorities in executing those plans.  This goes beyond the communications aspects in the last post.

Think about this…What are your core operational processes, and what structures and processes do you have in place to help you manage the effect of external influences on them.  For example:

  • How do you receive and process customer requested changes to products or services offered?
  • How are regulatory issues, concerns and changes received, interpreted and implemented?
  • How do you identify technological advances taking place in the industry and evaluate their potential application within your operations?

You must manage the points of external influence on your organization.  You must protect your operations from being distracted by too much information.  You must build structures and processes which manage the information coming in, and help employees make sense of it and keep it within the context of the plans and priorities of the business.

Note of caution…Don’t let your efforts to “reduce the noise” get in the way of listening to ideas that may help you improve your operations.  Your constituents are a great source of competitive, market and industry information. They see your business from a different perspective than you every day. Take advantage of that, but manage it.


Published by Scott Neilson on 24 Sep 2012

All aboard?

Driving clarity and understanding throughout the organization at all levels is essential to translating plans to action and executing against those plans.  Here is how you work to make that happen.

Following on the last post about utilizing an effective planning process, the leadership team should understand the strategies and action plans because they have been involved in developing them.  Most other employees, however, will not have been involved and it is unlikely that they will be clear on that direction and what is required of them to get there.

…most employees do not understand what a strategic plan means in terms how it affects their day-to-day activities.

The disconnects get worse the further the employees are removed from that decision-making level.  Unfortunately, many of the people who will be critical in accomplishing the tasks to achieve those goals are far from that decision-making level…the shop floor, if you will.  The cascade of information to all levels is generally not managed and monitored well.

Too often leaders feel that publishing the vision and a few strategies on the corporate website, announcing them at the beginning of the year in a town hall meeting, and hanging posters of them in the lobby is enough.  It isn’t.

What people read or hear from you is the summation of a lot of thinking and analysis.  They hear the end result of all that analysis.  They hear a conclusion and do not see all the steps that went into getting to that conclusion.  They have not been involved in all the discussions and cannot make the leap from issue to answer.  Most importantly, they do not understand what those strategic plans mean in terms of day-to-day actions for them.

As a leader you must drive the effort to understand the direction and take action at all levels in the organization.  This is, to a large degree, a communication process.

This communication process needs to be well planned and executed.  It should take many forms…sometimes large groups…sometimes focus groups…it should be reinforced in individual performance reviews and goal-setting…and it should be supported by multi-media presentations so that it gets through to as many people as possible.  It must be repeated to remind everyone of the goals, the actions to get there, and the progress being made.  Remember, most of the people in the organization only hear about this subject when you, the leaders, talk to them about it, which is generally not often.  It is easily forgotten which causes people to lose sight of their priorities.

I make it a point to conduct quarterly town hall meetings at every site in my organization.  At those meetings I remind everyone of the direction in which we are going as an organization, and I explain to them what it means.  I tell them what actions we will take to get there.  Most importantly, I tell them what it means that THEY must do every day to contribute to achieving those goals.  I make it a point to put it in terms that are relevant to them and the tasks they perform every day.  In addition, as I walk around the organization I talk with employees at all levels and ask them how are they applying our strategies in their everyday work.  Those discussions always lead to clarifying questions and a better idea of how they can do their jobs in a way that better supports our strategic direction.

A word of caution…Do not assume that your leadership team is cascading the information down to all levels.  In my experience I have found that that is not good assumption to make.  Check it.  Be sure it is happening.  Ask the people on the shop floor.

Remember, a key element of motivation is clarity.  People are motivated simply by being clear about what is expected of them…”What does this mean for me?  What do I have to do?  How are we (how am I) doing against those goals?”

Tell ’em…and tell ’em often!

Published by Scott Neilson on 18 Sep 2012

Making it happen!

One thing I have noticed in my years of doing business turnarounds, is that it is not at all unusual for leaders to come up with a vision and direction, but fail to drive that vision throughout the organization and make it actionable.

What leaders often forget is that most people in the organization are far removed from the executive suite and are not closely plugged into the issues the organization is facing or the ways in which the business landscape is changing.  So, when they DO hear of a direction or a plan, it is often out of context and it does not mean much to them to say nothing of being able to figure out the steps to get there.

Without motivating and mobilizing everyone in the organization in the same direction, you are unlikely to achieve the results you desire.

This is an important issue for leaders to come to terms with.  It is the bulk of the workforce that is going to make those plans a reality.  Everyone must be clear on their role in getting to those goals.  They have to understand what it means in their day-to-day jobs.


This needs to begin as a bottoms up process in which key people are involved in developing the vision, as discussed in the last post.  Once synthesized into an overarching direction, the process of translating those plans to actions becomes an iterative one from top to bottom, back up to the top, and back down to the bottom in which you are:

  • ensuring the appropriate level of understanding of the overarching direction;
  • developing the specific actions (at all levels and across all functions to move in that direction); and,
  • integrating all the action plans to ensure that they are aligned and support each other. 


As a starting point you must ensure that all stakeholders are clear on what that vision is.  They have contributed to it.  They have been part of the discussions that have gotten you to that vision.  But, are they clear on the final outcome of that process?  Does everyone understand what the finished product is?  You must communicate it effectively…with clarity and enthusiasm.  It is also a good time to point out their contributions to that finished product to show them that you were listening and to cement their buy-in. 

There is a lot more to the whole subject of communications in this area, and I will get to that in the next post.


The next step requires each part of the organization, whether it is departments, business units, or country operations, to translate that vision into strategies and action plans complete with due dates and responsible individuals.  Each department needs to understand the strategies, be clear on how they contribute to them, and what they must do to support them. 

  • What specific actions can they take to support them? 
  • What is the timing necessary to orchestrate this activity?
  • Who will be responsible and what resources will they need to get it done?


The process then must utilize a rigorous schedule of reviews to ensure that the strategies and tactics across departments make sense and are agreed by everyone.  Most importantly, they must be coordinated and connected so that they build on one another and move the entire organization in the same direction.


Finally, once this is all agreed and aligned, you have a script which defines all the actions you plan to take to achieve those goals and that direction.  

Now leadership at all levels needs to live it…

  • be aware of the priorities;
  • make decisions in line with those priorities;
  • remain abreast of progress against those objectives;
  • dedicate resources as appropriate to achieve those goals;
  • communicate progress to all stakeholders.


Driving execution never stops.  As the leader, whether you are the CEO, a director, manager or first line supervisor, you must always be setting priorities, allocating resources, coordinating efforts, and communicating progress.  Most importantly, you must be pushing people to carry out the plans on schedule…finding ways to get it done…ensuring that all parts of the organization are moving forward in lock step.

You may notice a common theme developing over these last few posts…successful leadership requires strong process, systems thinking and involvement of stakeholders.  It seems simple, and to some degree it is…strong process and involvement of stakeholders.  In other ways it is complex, particularly when it comes to balancing the conflicting interests of your stakeholders.  There are always trade-offs…and in a dynamic world, the variables affecting your decisions are always changing.

In the next post I will address communications of the plan and building a common understanding.  Later on we will get to monitoring progress and managing performance.

Published by Scott Neilson on 10 Sep 2012

Where are you taking us?

As promised, here is a follow-on to last weeks post on establishing clarity, and using this time before the start of the new fiscal year (for some of us) to get clear on our direction and our plans for achieving those goals.


Some people believe that having a compelling vision is THE KEY ATTRIBUTE of a good leader.  Most people believe it is at least ONE ATTRIBUTE OF MANY of a good leader.  Either way, there is clearly a consensus around the notion that leaders must have a vision…a direction…for the business.

The process of setting a direction requires understanding the interests of all those who have a stake in your business, and synthesizing them into a single direction which strikes the best balance between them.

It has been my observation that many leaders put the entire burden on themselves to come up with that vision for their companies, and I think this is one area in which they fail.  They feel that this vision must come from them as the leader.  It is their job as the leader.  If they do not have this vision then they are not competent to be the leader.  They feel that involving other people in developing this vision would make them look weak as a leader…so they do not.  As a result, the plans they develop do not adequately represent the interests of their stakeholders.

They put this pressure on themselves to have an “on-demand” moment of creativity and inspiration that will crystallize multiple abstract concepts and clarify the single magical route to having a successful business.  Sometimes that happens, but most often it does not.  Does that make them bad leaders?   No, I don’t think so.  In this situation though, there is a leadership failure, and that is thinking that they have to create this vision themselves.

Creating a compelling vision is not an indispensible leadership skill, it is the RESULT of an indispensible skill!   It is the result of strong process employed by the leader.  Utilizing strong process is the indispensible leadership skill in this case.

In creating a vision there are a few elements that need to be satisfied:

  • it needs to be a state that does not currently exist;
  • it needs to be a state that CAN exist;
  • it needs to be inspiring or motivating to the people who will be effected by it.

So, what will get you there?  What actions on the part of a leader will result in that outcome?

Think about it.  It needs to be inspiring or motivating to the people who will be effected by it.  The process of creating a compelling vision requires understanding the combined visions of all those who have a stake in your business.  It requires knowing who those people are.  It requires listening to them, understanding what that preferred future looks like to them, and incorporating their interests. It involves incorporating your own interests. And, it requires synthesizing all those interests into a single direction which strikes the best balance between them.

Let me be clear, I am not suggesting that you should go ask your customers or employees how to run your business.  However, I am suggesting that there are many sources around you who have very clear and well thought out opinions on what is working well, what is not working well, and what the future might hold in terms of growth of your industry and needs of your customers.  There is a world of information out there available for the asking!

Do not forget that YOU are one of those stakeholders.  Do not discount your own interests or beliefs about what that desired future should be.  As the leader you must believe in that vision in order to draw your own highest level of commitment to it, and you MUST be totally committed to it.  Anything less will be evident and will weaken your ability to inspire and motivate others.

The result of this kind of process is a vision that is owned by all of your stakeholders and supported by them.  That involvement makes the vision clear and understandable to them.  That involvement builds ownership and commitment.  That ownership and support generates the energy necessary to make that vision a reality.

Next up…Translating those plans to action!

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