How to Be an Effective Change Leader

By Jon Miller Updated on September 24th, 2019

A Knowledge @ Wharton article titled How to be an Effective Organizational Maverick is worthwhile reading continuous improvement leaders, lean managers, change agents or anyone refusing to accept the status quo as the best or only way to do things.

We use the word “maverick” to mean independent person who does not go along with the group. In ranching terms, it describes animals that are unbranded. By extension, it refers to the person who, unlike other ranchers, doesn’t brand their cattle. The original maverick was 19th century Texas rancher Samuel A. Maverick who refused to brand his cattle.

In many ways, those of us who are part of an organization and are trying to change it from the inside are mavericks. We do not conform to the so-called normal way of doing things. Our eyes are open to the difference between value and waste.  We refuse conform to the prevailing culture that lets problems remain hidden, unexamined and unaddressed. We have seen a better way. We want others to see it also.

The maverick lean leader who has tried to change the mindset and behavior of an organization from within is familiar with the many challenges this presents. Telling the other ranchers that they are stupid and wrong will not get them to stop branding their cattle. But we can’t leave it alone. There is a very real need to change the ways of the other ranchers. Unbranded cattle do not stay that way for long in a world full of ranchers with hot brands. In organizational terms, the prevailing culture is stronger, and will erode away any improvements we make to the system.

The article describes what makes organizational mavericks effective, restated here in lean management terms

1-Leave ego aside and put the organization’s success first. If it is more important to win an argument or be right than to make another ally, ego is getting in the way. A very common conversation I have with lean leaders or CI managers is “How do I convince my boss?” or senior executives. This is the wrong question to ask, if it is coming from a place of ego and self-interest. Instead, the same question asked from a desire to serve may be “How can I understand the challenges my boss is facing and how CI can help address them?”

2-Hold steady purpose based on sound principles, facts and morality. The effective maverick has a well-developed belief system based on experience and learning which can be logically argued. It is not dogmatic and is open to further development. For lean leaders this should be the easiest part, due to the nature of the subject matter. However, if they have not done their homework, or if their purpose and belief system is half-baked or subject to change on whim, they will not be effective.

3-Stay cool, civil and respectful in the face of resistance without compromising the substance of the message. Being right is not enough to persuade people. Evidence is not enough. We have to meet people where they are. If people are opposed to the change we propose, we need to understand their reasons why, and accept that some may not be rational. How we say it is often more important than what we say, in these situations. This mix of being rational but accepting that others may be irrational, being passionate while not being emotionally threatening, is not an easy balancing act.

4-Protect the organization. Part of the maverick’s role is to stir things up. This may cause conflict that boils over beyond the team, the site or the organization. When the maverick forgets rule #1 they may express frustration to people outside of the company, get involved in personal politics, lose their objectivity and ability to facilitate positive change. It’s time to revisit rules #2 and #3.

Two key points from the article, in conclusion; “being right doesn’t automatically produce success” and you won’t get very far if you “fail to build human relationships and articulate their divergent views in ways that invite others to listen.”

  1. Brandon Beierle

    September 18, 2019 - 10:31 am

    Hello Jon,

    I am a senior Supply Chain Management major at the University of Rhode Island and I really enjoyed reading your post. I recently obtained my yellow belt certification which gave me a brief overview of Lean Six Sigma. Now that I am working on my Green Belt, I found this article to be very interesting to me. Although I have yet to obtain a full-time job, this has caught my attention and gave me a better understanding of what to think about before working at a company. What I found really interesting was when you said “being right is not enough to persuade people.” I have noticed that working on my yellow belt project that everyone’s opinions truly matter.
    Do you have any advice for me before I take on my project? I am interested in what input you would have for me that can not only better me as an individual but help me attack a Lean project.

    Thank you,
    Brandon Beierle

    • Jon Miller

      September 19, 2019 - 5:19 pm

      Hi Brandon
      Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure what advice to give you. Probably need a bit more information about your situation, goals. You can reach me via https://www.linkedin.com/in/gemba/

  2. Jamie Jollands

    September 23, 2019 - 5:32 am

    Hi Jon,

    Well written piece, If you don’t mind I would like to share my experience with you in hope that this may also inspire and help anyone who is a pioneer of change.

    I have worked within Continuous Improvement for a while now under three different organisations and three very different cultures.
    What I can share is that there is no one blue print fits all and at times you may need thick skin.

    I have learned to become an affective change agent by listening, adapting, being transparent and to honour my commitments.

    Listening – create a platform for people to share ideas and opportunities, this creates positive thinking.
    Adapting – exercise every form of communication that is available as no two people communicate affectively in the same way… it about getting into the details.
    Transparency – Every task you do, be transparent. Let people know what you are working on, who’s idea it was and what are the benefits.
    Honour commitments – If you commit to a task, meeting or follow up on a request, you do it. It takes time to build trust but it takes one commitment not to be honoured to lose it.

    Lastly… share success! Most of my success has been through other peoples ideas, after all our main objective is to facilitate! If you want any change to sustain you should listen to the experts and help them deliver their ideas.
    What we do counts!

    As I said at the beginning, there is no blueprint. What works for me may not work for you and that’s the same for different organisations.

    I would recommend finding a mentor within the organisation to help understand how to adapt to your surroundings. I have always had one in every organisation, I still speak with all of them and I have been very fortunate to gain from their knowledge.

    Hope this helps anyone that wants to listen 🙂

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