Leaders are the drivers of change in companies

Although experts can be employed to help, successful change comes from within, writes Sabah Al Binai.

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The change management industry is doomed. Change means uncertainty. Uncertainty means risk. Risk means danger. Humans are genetically coded to avoid danger. Therefore they will always resist corporate change.

Change management consultants (CMCs) will advise that winning employee buy-in is critical. But how do you do that? How do you convince employees that an unknown future is better than a known present? Maybe if the present is really bad, but by then it is usually too late.

But what if the CMCs win employee buy-in that is only the conscious buy-in while the subconscious remains resistant to change? No amount of MBA education is going to overcome a billion years of evolution. To understand this, consider how many times you have tried to personally change – to go on a diet, to stop smoking, to cut out caffeine, to cut out sugar, to wake up earlier, to spend more time with your children.

It was probably difficult, and if it is difficult to change for yourself then how much harder is it to change for a company?

The difficulty in enacting corporate change is why companies have a difficult time staying at the top of their sector, at least in free market capitalism. Microsoft takes over from IBM, Apple takes over from Microsoft and so on. The majority of corporate titans are one-hit wonders – innovate once and then milk it for as long as possible.

Companies in the UAE, as an emerging market, face even greater pressure to innovate and evolve. As the protectionism falls away, such as monopolies and ownership restrictions, Emirati firms will face ever increasing pressure to change or risk extinction. The sooner they plan, the better their chance to survive and flourish.

First, what will not work is hiring a chief change officer or consultant when the time comes.

Trust is critical during times of change and employees will have a hard time trusting someone who has just started at the firm. Although experts can be employed to help, successful change comes from within.

This means that within the senior management team there needs to be the type of people who can lead this change.

This brings us to the first desirable characteristic of such management – leadership. There is a lot of discussion on what a leader is, and in comparison to a manager. The two are not mutually exclusive. A leader is someone who gets people to want to follow him. It does not mean he explains things, or asks for input, or is even nice.

Cultivating leaders within a company’s management is not easy, and certainly not straightforward for a Middle Eastern culture steeped in hierarchies and deference. Too often a leader is seen as a threat rather than asset. The subtlety here is the threat is to the chief executive and other senior executives, whereas he is a clear asset to the company.

The executive leading change must be a leader but there needs to be leaders at all levels of the company for change to succeed. There does not need to be a formal hierarchy, leaders by their nature will step into the void created by change and, well, lead.

There also has to be an adjustment of the corporate culture. A patriarchal or central command-and-control culture will clearly fail any attempt at change. Change has many unintended consequences and a culture that nurtures individual innovation and is tolerant of mistakes is key to successful change.

If operational change is not preceded by the right cultural change the former will remain stuck in its initial phase for years.

Large-scale as well as continuous change are both elements of the evolution of a successful business. Also challenging is the human characteristic of change resistance.

So called “champions of change” should not be selected for their cheerleading ability but for their leadership skills, and a culture of delegated authority that is tolerant of initial failures is necessary.

Change management then is not an overnight project. It is not even an endeavour taken over a year. It is positioning the company to be able to change as and when necessary. The consultants that a company needs are not CMCs but HR and recruitment specialists to identify, recruit and retain leaders.

Sabah Al Binali is an active investor and entrepreneurial leader, with a track record of financing, building and growing companies in the Mena region. You can read more of his thoughts at al-binali.com

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