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Managing times of transition

LiveMint logoLiveMint 03-06-2014 Raghu Raman

As a young lieutenant, I had the opportunity to observe a brilliant commanding officer (CO) turn around a battalion of the Indian Army that had gone bad. The army, like all great organizations, has its share of instances when certain units require a turnaround. In such cases, a hand-picked CO is sent to fix it. Upon his arrival, this new CO called a meeting of the officers and junior commissioned officers (JCOs) and asked them three ostensibly inconsequential questions.

His first was: “What time does the morning physical training parade start in this battalion?” The senior JCO replied, “At 6am”. The CO instructed, “From tomorrow it will be at 5.30.”

His second question was, “What time do evening games start?” The JCO informed him, “From 4.30pm to 5.30pm.” “From today evening it will from 4pm to 6pm,” ordered the CO.

Lastly, he asked when the mandir parade was scheduled every week (attending a place of worship is a mandatory parade in the army). On finding that this battalion’s routine was Saturday morning, he promptly moved it to Sunday, thus removing the only day of complete leisure that the troops had.

Three arbitrary and harsh orders were shot off the hip, seemingly without any thought. But the CO was sending a strong and an important message, essential to begin a turnaround—that there was a new sheriff in town. That was vital in a scenario which required a firm turnaround. But had he tried the same strategy in a unit which was doing well, it would have blown up on his face.

As Michael Watkins, author of best-selling Harvard publication The First 90 Days, explains, those initial months are most critical in any transition because that’s when leaders and followers have the best window of opportunity to make the transition successful.

All organizations fundamentally fall into these four categories. Start-ups, those requiring realignment, turnarounds and steady state organizations that are doing well. The style of leadership required in each of these categories is radically different. According to Watkins, leaders make eight predictable and common mistakes which could doom the transition from the very beginning.

The first of these is failing to identify which category the organization falls under. For instance, a turnaround requires a relatively strong hand and a philosophy of ready-fire-aim. The intention here is to send a signal that there is change in the air while the particulars of the change are not really important. On the other hand, in realignments and steady state organizations, leaders have to spend considerable time learning what works well and what needs to change before issuing the first instructions.

The second fallacy is that what worked well for the leader in the past will carry them through the new role. They fail to identify competencies they have to shed and new ones needed to be learnt. This leads them to try techniques that are completely out of context in the new environment and predictably fail. Thirdly, leaders succumb to the urge to be visibly seen as men of action. They are too busy to learn and instead diffuse their energies driving action, which is met with latent resistance and thwarted.

The fourth mistake is not managing expectations and, ironically, even if they perform well, the stakeholders feel let down because their anticipation is much higher than what is achievable. The fifth error is trying to do too many things in the hope that some of them will pan out, thus not being able to arraign critical mass of resources behind any initiative.

The sixth mistake is situating an appreciation rather than appreciating the situation. This attitude prods leaders to come up with preconceived solutions to problems whose nuances they haven’t fully understood. The next blunder is to focus on the wrong kind of learning. Too much time is spent on learning the technical aspects of the problem at the cost of ignoring the cultural, political and undercurrents of what is really going on. PowerPoint presentations seldom capture the full shades of reality. And the last mistake is being focused on vertical relationships with bosses and subordinates at the cost of ignoring peers and horizontal stakeholders, who have the ability to support or stymie success.

Action taken in the early days can start a vicious or virtuous cycle. If the transition leader makes early mistakes, his judgement comes under question and subordinates don’t trust him, thus cutting off the leader’s learning conduits, undermining his efforts and eventually his credibility. On the other hand, if the leader is able to implement small but good steps, his personal credibility is enhanced, and over time, he is able to take stronger and more controversial decisions.

Times of transition are rich with opportunities, not just for the leaders and well-meaning followers, but sadly also for naysayers and perpetual pessimists within the ecosystem. Hence, it is not just the onus of the leaders, but all stakeholders to recognize the strategic impetus of leveraging the first 100 days and working together, setting aside parochial or petty agendas.

Raghu Raman is a commentator on internal security, member of the www.outstandingspeakersbureau.in and author of Everyman’s War (www.fb.com/everymanswarbook).

The views expressed are personal.

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