Thursday, January 31, 2019

How to Change for Good

Sometimes I get the pleasure of teaching Stanford undergraduates. How very bright they are. And the best part: Give me an hour to lecture the undergraduates, and I can send them away completely changed. The problem is, then they go to the next professor, and she changes them right back again!

The lesson: Easy changes are easy to undo, so easy change is temporary. And the easiest changes are the snap decisions, made in a moment, since they can be unmade just as fast.

Sound familiar? If you are an experienced executive, you no doubt have tried to change your approach to leadership. Perhaps you've tried often. Did the changes stick? If so, good for you. But very often our attempts to change ourselves are foiled by the forces of inertia: routines at work; calendars so full of meetings they leave no time for thinking; colleagues who look skeptically when you behave unexpectedly - especially if you've been to a leadership training. The forces of inertia are strong.

Yet every summer, for six weeks, I see a couple hundred talented executives change their lives forever.

Wait. Bear with me.

Yes, I'm plugging the Stanford Executive Program (SEP), which I direct. But I'm talking about how to change as a leader - how to change for good - and you can use the ideas here even without coming to SEP.

To see what makes change stick, it helps to see the difference between one-time change and trajectory change. One-time change happens in a moment, like when I lecture the undergraduates. Such change often happens in a big announcement: "turning over a new leaf"; "from now on..." But well intended though they may be, loudly proclaimed changes made in a moment can be reversed just as loudly in the next moment. Like young love, no need to worry. Just wait a day.

Image may contain: one or more people, sunglasses, ocean, sky, outdoor, nature and waterTrajectory change, on the other hand, is hardly noticeable at first but over time leads to a big difference. Those who navigate the sea, like Paul Barnett, shown here, know the problem. Leave something metal next to your magnetic compass, and the trip from San Diego to Hawaii could end up in Panama. The slight initial change in trajectory would hardly be noticeable at first, but held long enough the new trajectory leads us to a very different place.

Image may contain: sky, ocean, outdoor, nature and waterSo how do you change your leadership trajectory? (First, get past the trajectory metaphor; countless self-help books tell you to change trajectory, but you are not a boat.) To apply this idea to leadership, replace "trajectory" with "understanding." The way you understand the facts gives direction to your leadership. When you change understanding, you change the direction of your leadership.

For instance: Is the controversial new employee a deviant or an innovator? Your answer depends on how you understand your people and their role in creating new ideas. Is the recent failed project evidence of incompetence or of learning? Your answer depends on how you understand your organization's approach to experimentation. Is the new competitor a reason to withdraw or a call to action? Your answer depends on how you understand your strategy and the opportunities in your environment.

When you come to understand in a new way, you change your trajectory as a leader. And better yet, you now have the forces of inertia working in your favor. As your new understanding becomes a habit, it also becomes the status-quo - very hard to undo. Guided by a new understanding, and given time, you and your organization will be in a very different place.

Want to change your leadership trajectory? Come change your understanding at the Stanford Executive Program