A question I frequently ask CEOs is whether the ownership/board and C-Suite executives have five years of patience.
This is because I’m usually engaged in a conversation they initiated about working through major, disruptive or transformational change.
Change at this depth usually takes:
1-2 years to intentionally create the awareness of the need to change and to build the desire to change;
a year to implement the change and for people to become comfortable in their knowledge of its requirements and their role (this is sometimes noted as the year of working without a net);
a year to live into the change, during which the ability to live into the new reality grows. This year becomes a baseline year upon which trend lines can be established;
a year in which changes are reinforced. This fifth year is the comparative year, during which new trend lines can be measured.
There is a lot of resistance to the notion that it takes five years to foster needed and lasting change in an established organization. CEOs are tempted to think they or their company is the exception. They think their level of experience, the force of their will, or the demands of a changing marketplace make them different than others who proceed more thoroughly and deliberately. They too often close their minds to the care and detail it takes to implement major change and make it stick.
- Go faster and watch the carnage pile up. Perhaps extensive personnel turnover is needed to rescue a company. Major personnel change quickly becomes the exercise of years 1-2, however, rather than a means to speed it up.
- Plan for a shorter horizon and remove the ability to learn as you go. Perhaps you know the right answer, the best solution and the correct tools already. Implement these by throwing everyone into the deep end of a new pool, however, and the time that it takes to get in a new flow together quickly uses up 1-2 years.
- Fail to account for a five year horizon and discover how difficult it becomes to manage contingencies and incorporate new insight. Perhaps you’ve lived through such a change elsewhere. It wasn’t here. Think through the time it took you to learn and develop new ability that first time and realize others need the same level of development.
Can major change go faster than five years? Under unique circumstances, perhaps. However, the CEO might grow by also understanding change will likely go more slowly than they prefer. Regardless of the time change takes, fast or slow, leadership craftsmanship requires focused attention for a sustained period of time. Fast or slow, there are no shortcuts.
Do you and the leadership alongside you have this length and depth of attention span to foster and implement major change? If the answer is something other than yes, your alarm bells should be ringing.
When I ask the question and the answer is anything other than yes, I like to turn the conversation to how they would like to use the next 1-2 years to create the awareness of the need to change and to build the desire to change.
Patient and sustained attention is a leadership virtue, distinguishing management of what is from movement toward what needs to be.