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Where the former Mediaworks boss went wrong

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Professor Kevin Lowe is the Director of the Graduate School of Management and the Fletcher Building Employee Education Trust Chair in Leadership at the University of Auckland Business School.

The public vilification of MediaWorks’ former chief executive Mark Weldon serves as a reminder to business leaders that it is crucial to have staff on board during organisational change.

“The most effective leaders of change are often skilled storytellers, who skilfully and smoothly embed the rational logic for change in a purposeful message,” says the Director of the University of Auckland’s Graduate School of Management Kevin Lowe, an expert in leadership and cross-cultural management.

Research published by the Harvard Business Review shows between 50% and 70% of organisations fail to successfully manage change, although unlike Weldon’s disgruntled staff, the employees of these companies do not have the resources or contacts to try their grievances in the media.

“No one ever wants to hear you are going to lay off 300 people, but if they understand that if we you don’t do it today it’s going to be 3000 layoffs five years from now, then they can sometimes get behind the business case for the current redundancies,” he says.

The fact that the media industry so obviously needs to change because of digital disruption could have led Weldon to believe he didn’t need to invest the time and energy in convincing his staff of the need for restructure.

“Often you have a leader who thinks the logic is self-evident and that people don’t have to be sold on the change story.

“Leaders who fail to sell the story come across as arrogant and autocratic, sounding like your mother saying ‘now I told you once and I don’t want to tell you again’, and that’s not how you bring adults into a story,” Lowe says.

The need to constantly reinforce a story or idea is backed up with the “rule of seven” – an idea derived from marketing theory that says you need to tell someone something seven times before it starts to sink in.

Lowe takes the rule one step further. “I think you need to tell them in seven different ways. Techniques for communicating change are often analytical, which is essential to convey the logic of the organisational change.”

However, Lowe warns against using only rational reasoning when outlining a proposal to staff.

“This is insufficient as human behaviour is driven more emotively. Emotive messages that convey a sense of purpose in the change effort are equally important and all too often overlooked.

“Change messaging which combines both rational messages that appeal to the head and emotive messages that appeal to the heart have been shown to be more effective than either approach alone.”

Part of this process is convincing the real influencers in the organisation of the story, and having them promote the story.

“Judging from afar, I think Mark Weldon needed to work out who that ‘powerful coalition’ in the organisation was. Power doesn’t come from job title, it comes from who gets listened to. Sometimes people have power because they are in a powerful position, but sometimes they get it because they are a powerful personality or hold critical information” Lowe says.

“I just read a cynical piece that said successful CEOs know what the real networks were and used the organisational charts as a distraction. I’m not that cynical but do believe that organisational charts are just one clue for how things really get done.”

Successful change requires patience and direction, he says.

“Often considerable time and effort is required at the highest levels of an organisation to identifying the rationale for change and to achieve some sense of agreement about how to move the organisation forward. Too often a sufficient amount of time is not allocated at other organisational levels.

“Change efforts often derail when organisations fall prey to the illusion of speed and accelerate the change process – often with a ‘one size fits all’ message that engages some stakeholders but not others. They then wake up one day and wonder why everyone is not on the same page.

“If you think you have got it figured out and that your staff are just people who implement your wisdom, you are going to get in trouble.”

Professor Kevin Lowe is the Director of the Graduate School of Management and the Fletcher Building Employee Education Trust Chair in Leadership at the University of Auckland Business School.

 


          

       

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