Growth is change. We should intentionally manage it that way.

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I was talking with a senior leader the other day, and she was discussing the hyper-growth environment that her organization was experiencing.  Importantly, she was describing the strain on the organization of continuous long hours, ever expanding teams, new responsibilities for existing roles, new functional departments that were created, and the new processes that resulted from all those activities.  It is full-blown chaos. 

I asked her a simple question.  How is the senior leadership team guiding the organization through the change management process?  There was a pause.  “We aren’t, we are managing growth,” was her response.

Growth Demands Change “

– Virend & Virusha Singh

The truth is that growth is a continuous process of change.  Moreover, the more aggressive the growth, the greater the need for an active change management process.  We, as leaders, do not consciously think about it that way.  Nevertheless, our teams experience it that way.

Consider the characteristics of growth.  There are increased workloads.  There are new team members.  There might be entirely new functional groups created.  There will certainly be new processes.  There will likely be teammates who take on new or increased responsibilities.  They may not receive any training or mentoring in taking on those new tasks.  There may even be a new business objective or strategy.  The common theme is “new.” Most people can’t handle that much “new.” It is overwhelming.

Driving growth is a change management process.  However, it is hidden under a veil of enthusiasm and euphoria over what is occurring for the organization.  For the leaders, the need for change management may be neglected due to aggressive goals or expectations.  Either way, we tend not to view growth through lens of change management.

 “If we are growing, we are always going to be out of our comfort zone”  – John Maxwell.

As leaders, what do we do?

There are an armada of books on how to manage change.  Maxwell.  Lencioni.  Drucker.  There is a long list of brilliant minds who will set you on the right path.  In putting those great works into practice, I have found that you can often simplify it down to a handful of items, and repeat them. This is my formula.

Identify a target, and keep it in sight.

Create a vision and a goal.  Sometimes the vision could be an aspirational goal for what the organization will become.  “We will become that finest innovator in the industry.”  Most often, it is a target that can be easily measured.  “We will reach $100m in revenue by year’s end.”  Either way, you must have that target for people to track.  I’ve found that many times we as leaders wait for a “perfect” version. The reality is that often it doesn’t have to be. We all like to have a north star.  Give it to your team.

Provide a map to get there.

This is a strategy.  Experience has taught me to that having “A” strategy is better than having a perfect strategy.  Sometimes you simply do not have the time to devote to a fully baked strategic planning process.  Creating a strategic framework that your teams can use to prioritize their efforts, and develop their operating plans, is enough to keep everyone on-track. If your team is growing, the organization is maturing and succeeding, that strategy (or framework) will morph over time to suit your needs. Often is simply gets more focused. The point is, people need the map to plot a successful course.

Give people clear ownership.

Most authors stress the need for individual clarity when effectively managing change.  This is true.  But, I have found that you can provide even greater clarity by going beyond a job description or organization chart.  Provide a clear statement of ownership.  “I own the processing of orders for Walmart.”  It is simple.  It is easy to remember, and even easier to reinforce.

Now, that is not as comprehensive as a full job description.  However, as a teammate, that simple statement allows me to take ownership of my part in achieving our goals.  Ownership of our role brings with it the potential for innovation, as the teammate is bought into our collective success and will seek creative ways to deliver. Serendipitous innovation is my favorite kind. We can build a foundation that fosters it by establishing individual ownership.

Establish behaviors.

Often, leaders will move to process at this point.  I have found that in times of change, process development can be very difficult.  A group is too new.  There is a missing leader.  The optimal final outcome is not yet well understood.  And of course, process development takes time.  Sometimes you do not have it.

If a team is behaving correctly, you often do not need process to thrive. 

How do you establish behaviors? 

First, set expectations.   I always “call my shot” before I embark on establishing behaviors.  Whatever those things are that you expect to see, make sure that everyone knows what they are up front.  Then when you are reinforcing later, there is no guessing and certainly no surprises.

Second, you should only focus on the behaviors that will yield the greatest impact.  For me, I have two that have universally worked well – partnership and cadences of accountability.

Partnership sounds like a no-brainer.  I am always surprised how many groups say they “partner”, but when you observe the behavior, it often defaults to someone simply handing off to another group, without any meaningful engagement.   For me, true partnership has to meet a clear litmus test – are we bringing everyone along in the journey?  If the organization’s bias is toward bringing every impacted group along in the journey, by default you will be partnering.

The second behavior is utilizing cadences of accountability.  Within the recurring meeting structure, teammates make and review commitments toward completion, discuss roadblocks or resource needs, and finally confirm the next meeting.  The cadence can scale and contract based on need.  Daily.  Weekly.  Monthly.  Whatever is necessary.

The key is the ruthless enforcement of the cadence. (Yes, I typed ruthless.) But you must stick to it. If we meet every Tuesday at 10am, then we meet. If someone can’t be there, send a surrogate. We are teaching everyone to stay on task, keep commitments, and make sure the right people are involved. The power of cadences of accountability is remarkable and cannot be underestimated.

Reinforce.  Reinforce.  Reinforce.

The enemy of most organizations unlocking their full potential is usually a lack of communication.  Successful change management is anchored in consistent communication.  I have modified my communication styles to suit the needs of the organization – size, maturity level (of the organization), business conditions, etc.

My current cadence includes a weekly all hands meeting, where we reinforce strategic priorities, provide functional updates, and reinforce behavioral expectations.  Within each functional leaders staff, there is a review of those same strategic priorities, along with accountability tracking, to again reinforce partnership and cross-organizational collaboration.  The net effect is that each week, every team member is exposed to elements of the vision, goals, strategic priorities and key behavioral expectations at least twice, and sometimes more.

Where ever you are in the change management process, you need to reinforce continuously.

Driving it home.

With your vision and goals readily apparent, with your strategies understood, and with behaviors established, you can then begin to look to processes. But, I won’t delve into that here.

All these change management techniques have been very well documented. For me, leadership is about staying ahead of your team – strategically, in organizational and individual development, and cultural development. The key to managing change has been about being aware of the strains you were putting on the organization (and yes, we put those there), and proactively preparing for each step. Being able to synthesize the others’ great work, and making it my own, in the form of these 5 steps, has enabled me to step into different organizations, industries and market conditions, and adapt my playbook to our collective needs.

I hope you find my specific examples useful.

Mike Ulwelling

Author: Mike Ulwelling

I've had the privilege to have a dynamic career as both an executive in small, medium and large companies, and an entrepreneur leading my own companies for over a decade. I hope you find my thoughts and ideas interesting and thought provoking.

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