Last week, I had the pleasure of working with a national retailer whose leadership team has established some bold goals to transform the culture and reinvent the customer experience. It’s a heady vision that, given their size and structure, will likely prove to be ambitious.
Yet, given the distance this organization must travel and the importance of the initiative, it’s not calling in the brass band, turning the organizational chart on its head or asking associates to ceremonially sign on to the new mission. Rather than taking big steps in the direction of the goals, the organization is consciously and deliberately taking small steps.
The first step leaders have chosen to take is modest and simple: They’re preparing store managers to have 10-minute conversations with their associates. That’s it. And they are banking on those small steps driving significant change.
The Small Step Advantage
The natural assumption that too many leaders make is that big change requires big steps. And certainly that’s one strategy. But the history books and business journals are littered with stories of audacious, big, visible change efforts that failed miserably despite elegant execution and colossal investments of time and money.
Small steps are a powerful and effective alternative for a variety of reasons.
They are doable. Leaders and employees alike operate in a time-starved environment where every minute matters. Give them a 17-step process, and it will likely be discarded before step 4 is even read. Undoable, unrealistic requests breed ambivalence and resistance, which create their own inertia to change. But suggest a small action that can be embedded into the workflow, and implementation is far more likely.
They are sustainable. Most change requires a long-term commitment on the part of management and employees alike. Genuine transformation doesn’t occur quickly. As a result, everyone must pace themselves. Big requests, extensive demands and complicated actions may be implemented briefly; but people quickly tire, burn out and turn their attention to other matters. By contrast, smaller, incremental steps can be maintained over time, enhancing the chances of ultimate success.
Missing one or taking a break isn’t a showstopper. When what’s expected of others to support change is substantial, it becomes a bigger piece of the puzzle. Lose a few pieces, and the picture becomes much less clear. But when more people are contributing in smaller ways over time, missing pieces create less significant gaps.
The effect is cumulative and reinforcing. Small steps beget more small steps, with each building on the other. When leaders or employees take action and experience positive results, the satisfaction creates an upward energy spiral and encourages more of the same behavior. Over time, these small steps can contribute to a self-reinforcing tornado of commitment and action in support of the desired change.
So the next time you’re faced with implementing an ambitious change, challenge the natural inclination to think big. Instead, think small – doable and sustainable. And consider:
How do you eat an elephant? One (small) bite at a time.
‘Tis the season… when leaders everywhere scramble to find the perfect holiday gift for their staffs. This year, will it be:
The latest business title?
A gift card for designer coffee?
An outing featuring laser tag, team building and pizza?
Perhaps you’d like to do something entirely different. Why not give employees something they really want this year – a gift that will keep giving long after the egg nog is gone? Consider something from my Holiday Gift Guide for leaders who want to delight employees and deliver results. 1. Encourage career development. Employee Delight: Price: $0 According to recent research conducted by Aon Hewitt, 91% of all employees report that career development is among their top priorities. Yet, in engagement survey after engagement survey, managers consistently earn their lowest marks in this area. Imagine your employees’ delight if this holiday season you invested some genuine attention in understanding who they are and what their hopes and dreams are, as well as toward helping them develop plans toward their career goals. (This gift teaches why giving is a good as receiving because, as you grow others, you’ll also deck your own halls with greater capacity and capability.) 2. Remove roadblocks. Employee Delight: Price: N/A Forget the visions of sugar plums. What employees really dream about is working without unnecessary obstacles, fire drills or other irritants. Ask them about what gets in the way of their best work, and you’ll likely be surprised by the struggles and workarounds that are part of their daily routines. Watch employees light up brighter than any holiday decoration if you take even small steps toward clearing the way for them. 3. Express genuine appreciation. Employee Delight: Price: Priceless Spread good cheer in the form of recognition and positive feedback. Too frequently, leaders become inadvertent Scrooges, withholding praise and wondering why performance is lackluster and morale is low. Catch people in the act of doing things right. Be on the lookout for contributions — large and small. “Thank you” doesn’t require fancy wrapping or a bow, yet it’s warmer to the hearts of employees than chestnuts roasting. These Holiday Gift Guide suggestions come with a range of benefits. They’re value-priced to fit any budget. There’s no tax or shipping. And you can even hope that they’re “re-gifted” as employees find ways to extend the positive practices you model to others. So, with the number of holiday shopping days quickly dwindling, skip the malls, dig deeper — within yourself, not your wallet — and experience some real magic this holiday season… and all year long. “Gift me” with your own thoughts! What do your employees want most? What gifts are you considering this holiday season?
This is interesting data for organizations and leaders everywhere. First, it might settle the nerves of managers and supervisors because it confirms that not every employee is looking to rise up through the ranks. My research with Beverly Kaye found that one of the key reasons managers don’t engage in career conversations with their employees is fear. Fear that everyone will want a promotion. Fear that they can’t deliver on those expectations. Fear of the disappointment and disengagement that will ensue when these two conditions collide. But the good news is that two out of three employees aren’t coveting the manager’s – or any other leaders’ – job.
At the same time, this data is also unsettling because it demonstrates a fundamental challenge with the way organizations are structured. Unfortunately, some of the 66% of employees who are uninterested in leadership positions will pursue them anyway. That’s because, in too many organizations, “up” is the only way to develop. Those without a genuine appetite to lead will chase down promotions because it’s their only chance to grow.
So, what’s an organization to do? Plenty!
Distinguish between the 34% and the 66%. Ensuring job satisfaction, engagement and, ultimately, results demands that you understand employees, their motivations and their aspirations.
Work with those who possess an authentic desire to lead, finding ways to cultivate these skills and talents – even before opportunities for promotion open up. Leadership isn’t reserved for certain levels. It’s a state of mind and a set of skills that can be practiced regardless of role.
Don’t assume that, just because people don’t aspire to leadership, they’re happy where they are. Many aren’t. Many of your 66% are bored, going through the motions and not contributing to their greatest capacity. Figure out what interests them, where their passions lie and what they would like to accomplish. Then work collaboratively to help facilitate opportunities for development and growth in their current roles.
Find ways to reward employees for deepening their knowledge and skills… without changing roles. (Let’s be honest, many of the 66% are pursuing leadership because it comes with a pay bump.)
Consider treating leadership as a discipline rather than a level. What if advancing to leadership was a lateral rather than vertical move? What if it didn’t come with an automatic raise? What if people moved into leadership because they really wanted to do that kind of work?
Information like that generated in the CareerBuilder study can be a powerful tool for organizations to look differently at leadership, who wants it and why. The information also helps organizations produce better results by ensuring that 100% of employees are doing the work they want to do most.