in dialogue with Walter Link
[00:00:13] The positive motivations are the ones that sustain people over time, produce more energy and the negative ones can get you a burst of action but it drains out. Pretty fast.
[00:00:30] One of the things we found is that when we have enough people urgent about an opportunity and enough people understanding that they have a role, an opportunity to play a role in that, that the momentum for change becomes irresistible.
[00:00:50] It has been my experience that if you get beyond that, if you can go deeper inside of folks the sort of world that we’re talking about, 99% of the people want, you just have to get them in touch in a sense with their own feelings which a lot of experience just detaches them from.
[00:01:16] Welcome to GlobalLeadership.TV, my name is Walter Link. I’ve always been fascinated by the question of how we move from our many challenges into our full potential as individuals, organizations and whole societies. In this television series I inquire with some of the most innovative leaders from around the world about how they manage to move from inspiration to real change. Please join us in this exploration because we all make a difference and we all can get better at it. Therefore, on our website, we not only show other dialogues and publications but also the kind of practices that these leaders and their organizations use to move from inspiration to real change.
In this episode I invite you to join my fascinating dialogue with John and Nancy Kotter about the heart of change. They co-lead Kotter International to empower leaders to transform themselves and their organizations and through that to co-create a better world. We are meeting in their offices near Harvard business school where John was appointed a full professor at the tender age of 33. This gives you a bit of an idea how brilliant he was already then.
Also, based on a survey among 500 major corporations, Business Week rated Kotter America’s number one leadership guru. His 17 books, 12 of them bestsellers, have been translated into 120 languages. John and Nancy’s keen insight is that people don’t change because of intellectual analysis but because of being deeply impacted by a truth that touches their feelings. Please join us as we explore together the heart of change.
We were just talking about how important the humanity of people is and that somehow in the management world, in the leadership world, in companies, and government, even in civil society, the behavior patterns are that somehow we have to be a little machinelike. And that somehow if we can trim the humanity out of us which is really for our private lives, then we are going to be great in functioning and bringing about a more successful organization in society. And I think what is important in your work is that you point to the importance of feelings, of the heart and of the integration of the emotional dimension, the inner dimension of leadership with the analysis and with the action, with the modeling. So maybe you can say something more about how that plays out in your work, and especially in regard to change in these big, innovative moves and the creativity that has to be set free to allow for this innovation.
[00:04:30] I think personally I changed a great deal. I was an undergraduate math major, a graduate in statistics and I really believed, early in my career, that if my data were right then my point of view must be accepted. I had no idea. It took me – and I wasn’t taught that way – it took me quite a while of living and working with John Kotter to understand that my data – while they were a part of it – was secondary to how people felt. And that, yes, my data needed to be right, but it needs to have an impact on how people feel. And that if you couldn’t make that connection you’re not going to make a difference. Changes are just not going to happen. So I experienced it personally through growth but it took longer. I think we don’t do enough teaching it in our classrooms, with our kids, in our graduate schools. Worse in our graduate schools where it’s all about the data.
[00:05:57] But it’s also being professional. And being professional means leaving everything you do at home. There’s something about the tenderness and the warmth and the love and all kinds of words that are appropriate for home, but that’s not professional. And that’s what we are taught by our companies and by our schools. And the reality is – I mean there is some truth there obviously. You don’t treat a business meeting the same way you treat a softball match with your four-year-old kid. But people are people. Human beings are human beings. Compartmentalizing, the brain doesn’t like to do. By the way, I think the role reversal here of the male teaching the female more about being human is vastly amusing, but we will pass by that. And all great leaders, to go back to that again, are just good.
And sometimes it requires them making themselves a little vulnerable because it is against the norms or the traditions or the beliefs of showing their basic humanity. That they are not this stronger, tough, robotic creature that you’d better not fool with. Even to go back to some of my favorite political leaders from the last century. My two favorites are Mandela and Churchill who on the surface look so different. But fundamentally it’s the same thing. It’s mobilizing large groups of people to make something astonishing happen with the benefits for a broad community and doing something that a lot of people would say beforehand is impossible, both with some very simple, not complicated visions of what is possible, some capacity in their own ways to communicate through word and deed that and giving people some rope.
So it’s empowering them to action. And it doesn’t come through, again, the stiff professional thing. I mean Churchill, the whole image – which everybody knew – of him sitting in a bathtub smoking his cigars, that doesn’t sound like a president or a prime minister. And the British who have the stereotype of being so stiff and formal. And yet that’s a part of what made him work. And effective as a leader. He was this kind of little bit weird human being. And Mandela was just kind of an astonishing human being in the fact that he could still not just hate but feel some empathy toward and affection toward people who had been very, very cruel to him for a lot of years. And demonstrate at a very human level these feelings that we all have to work together to make a great nation for all of us.
[00:10:14] It feels like people are surprised but also deeply touched and inspired when what we somehow all know that it’s our potential. In a way, somebody like Mandela or in this country maybe King or other people somehow show humans their potential. What’s possible for them. Whether it’s in an organization or in a whole nation or even worldwide. And people respond to that. Even though it’s not part of the norms. Even though it’s scary to enter into that level of innovation, that level of change, somehow people wake up and that’s what you were talking about earlier.
But how do you get people to be motivated enough – even when you talk about the sense of urgency. When many people hear the word urgency they think of almost fear, panic-driven fastness rather than of being deeply touched in your core and out of your core, you then have this profound commitment that allows you to not only start something but to stay with it and to keep that deep sense of motivation that allows you to do what seems impossible. At least to attempt to do it. And then we have seen many things that seem impossible become possible if that deep level of commitment and engagement is there and I think that is what you are talking about a lot also in your latest book.
[00:11:46] And we’ve learned a lot in the last couple of years, since the founding of this Kotter International company. How much – the urgency around this big idea or this big opportunity for us is so powerful. It takes it out of the realm of, I’m feeling urgency to get my slides right for the next meeting. And all of that other stuff that is more anxiety-driven, is more short-term, that wears us out among other things. That the sense of urgency around us, the big opportunity can be energizing, not deflating. It leverages off of positive aspirations and feelings that all human beings, again, human beings have. Not the anxiety and fear that does burn people out.
[00:12:40] In fact you were talking about how the CEO of Nokia was saying, we are on a burning platform and kind of inducing this level of fear into the organization to bring about motivation for significant change. And you are pointing out that not only is this not a positive motivation but is something that can actually make people leave the platform while it’s still possible for them to leave. And the people who leave are often the best people that first leave. And yet we often seem to have this mean in our culture that in order for people to do something they need to be afraid. And you point out that actually positive motivation is not only more powerful, it’s especially more sustainable in terms of it lasts.
[00:13:35] With one group we were working with, two years ago they were looking at the advent of cloud computing and saying, if we don’t change the way we do things we will become essentially buggy whip manufacturers. A few people will need what we do but not many. That was the way they were talking about it. And that created I think a lot of fear in the organization.
[00:14:03] Again, it’s market share is going down because of these reasons. Share price will go down, we will be eaten up. And this baby that we have created, the company, which we do have feelings about, is going to be destroyed. But it’s not unusual – they start off with on the negative side. So also the guys that study the brain tell me that that’s the way it got created. It goes to the problem much faster than it goes to the opportunity.
And if you use a little bit of Darwin you can kind of think that through that the people whose brain didn’t go to sabertooth tiger over there pretty quickly – the guys that – no, there’s a nice opportunity over here. Their gene pool is probably drained out completely. So our brains are set to do that. There’s nothing wrong with using that for just a little bit. It’s the old, sometimes I have to hit you just to get your attention. But once I’ve got your attention it’s like, I’m sorry about that. Now let’s talk about –
[00:15:12] And then what I think we are able to do though is to say, well look, if this is affecting us, it’s affecting all of our competitors. If we figure it out before they do and move faster than they do we can take market share away from them. And that was the one – a young bunch of high-tech people that they went, yeah, I want to do that, I want to be on the bus that’s winning the race as opposed to the one that’s going off the cliff.
[00:15:39] But in our big opportunity session, again, with us I suppose just because of the way we are, this is again role modeling through example, these guys – engineers again – took it themselves beyond that to, okay, what else are you going to get out of this? Well, they start talking about the pride. They have done very well on a couple of dimensions. Winning prizes for being a good place to work. And how proud they are about that.
Well, if we were able to do what we are talking about now we could sustain that over time. We would love to do that. And they started talking about other things that are less directly economic and more kind of psychological and how important that is. And here the engineers are doing this. And that became a very, very important part of this little big opportunity statement that they put together which their managers and employees, after a while, became very attached to. They loved it.
[00:17:32] You are speaking I think very succinctly in saying, see, feel, then change. And I think you are adding a very important component that the seeing has to do with seeing something that is true. So people kind of get touched – a word that’s also challenging – truth. We in academia and in many places there’s a lot of baggage around the term truth. And yet you use it I think in the intention to say that something really hits you. It’s just true.
And the truth is not something that you know through analysis. It’s something that you know directly. That you feel. Of course your brain is engaged in that. But there is a deeper perception of something is true and if I see that and I know that through a deep feeling of what is true, now I move forward and act in this new way. How do you support people practically? Maybe you have an example or a way you do that to support people to recognize this truth and then to move into action?
[00:18:49] Well again you role model yourself, B, you show them examples, like the films that we create just capturing the reality of some interesting situations at the lower levels and at higher levels great leaders etc., seeing is believing, they begin to, okay, I’ve got it. And it does feel right. But truth, it’s just so – I talked to – for years now I’ve talked to CEOs about their annual management meeting because I used to do – well I still do it a lot – but a lot less now that we started this company – of making speeches at the annual management meeting. So you’ve got the 200 most important people in the company and the meetings by and large are horrible. I don’t see – I mean people – they enjoy the evenings and drinking and talking with the guys about this and that.
The meetings themselves you know they are sitting, they’re looking at 10,000 PowerPoint slides, people are drawing behind podiums and they are doodling. Nowadays of course, oh yeah, you look and people are doing this just below the table. So the meeting really isn’t happening. You’ve got 200 different meetings going on. It’s hilarious. So I just say, be real about it. This is really an artificial creation that we’ve got here, this kind of meeting with everybody kind of cramped and everybody listening and looking. And people don’t trust it anymore either. They are wondering, okay, what’s the game they’re playing? How many meetings did they have to put together this presentation? What are they trying to do to me with this presentation?
Some of the worst of all now is they are picking up what the politicians do is they are using this very simple technology with the two screens where you’ve got two TVs down here and two screens that are glass and you can’t see it from the audience side, you just look through the glass. But that’s their speech. And it looks like it’s just coming off the top of their heads but all they are doing is they are reading the speech. Well, after a while people become very cynical about that too. It’s like why – what you need to do is read the speech – just read the speech. What you are suggesting is I’m stupid. That I can’t see that you’re reading a teleprompter.
The credibility with the people goes down. They wonder what other games are being played. You know, it’s the ultimate of an untruth. And some of the most effective CEOs I’ve ever known not only don’t they work off of that, they don’t even sit behind podiums. They are out wandering around the stage, talking, telling stories.
[00:22:20] If you would walk us through the eight steps of your change process and integrate let’s say the heart and the mind into it. How would you – and maybe a story if you want or something that makes it tangible so that people get a feel for what you are doing in this process.
[00:22:45] We are helping them build in a sense something that’s missing inside the organization. Which is why they can’t make these big changes. Which is why they can’t handle some of these volatile things that are happening around them that can be bullets or can be wonderful opportunities. And this missing element is kind of a networked structure that reaches out to lots of people and it’s a want-to organization. Hierarchies are have-to organizations. I have a job, I have to do the job, that’s the deal.
This thing is much more of a want-to in the sense that people are volunteering for it. This thing is much more about, not just a head organization which the hierarchy runs on plans and everything. It’s much more just the head side. This is a heart and head side. You don’t throw the head away. But it’s much more heart-driven. It involves in making something important happen, large numbers of people, not just small numbers of people. It’s not 17 executives. You can get the welder and the middle manager and the executive and you multiply the number of people that are actually playing some important role in making something important happen.
So it’s large numbers. Imagine it’s a solar system where the moons and the satellites and the planets come and go. Hierarchies, how often do you reorganize? It’s a lot stiffer, it’s a lot slower. And to make that thing and to run it, there is this process we have found in which you create this large sense of urgency around some big opportunity and you start building this structure, the core of which we just call it a guiding coalition of people from throughout the organization who feel a strong sense of urgency or are willing to stick their hands in and say – we have them fill out applications. We say, would you like to be on this – by the way you get no extra pay – you get – you still have to do your day job etc. – but if you like this, here is your Harvard application.
[00:25:02] If you want an opportunity to make a difference, taking advantage of this opportunity, you have to fill out the application.
[00:25:11] And for the size organizations we’ve been working with which are in the one, two, three, 10, 15 billion range, not little organizations but not gigantic so far. Or if they are big organizations they are more like divisions. We will get 400 applications for 40 slots. That’s the same ratio as Harvard – gets students to applications. And you can – which of course also blows the executives minds who are wondering, will we get enough people to actually fill out an application? No, you’re going to get 10 times. And part of the problem then is using all of the rejects so to speak and keeping them saying, no, we’re not rejecting you, you’re just going to play a part in the process that’s not in the first center of our little universe that we’re building.
They focus on getting some clarity about where they want to drive this thing. The opportunity is this big thing. Where do you want to position yourself that will take advantage of the opportunity and start thinking strategically about how you’re going to get there. Pumping that out to get more and more people to understand it and to buy into it. And so much buy-in. It’s not just an intellectual process, it’s not just this makes sense, it’s an emotional thing.
So we’re back to the heart again. And then people will start taking off. They’ll start figuring it out. In my job I understand what it is, I buy into it, that probably means that these six things that I have seen wrong over the years lines up perfectly with this. Let me start seeing if I can do something about it. People then start to run into barriers, bureaucratic barriers, and part of the name of this central group is to start creating initiatives to get rid of those barriers.
So it empowers people in a sense to make things happen, make sure you get some short-term wins because people need credibility. The skeptics need some proof. Nothing wrong with skeptics. And when they start seeing, win, win, success that’s related to this vision of taking advantage of the big opportunity, they start saying, well, maybe there really is something here. And then just going around and around and never letting up until you have achieved the vision which takes advantage of the big opportunity. And not even stopping then because even as you’ve got a lot of people to do something in a whole new way, the forces of tradition and of the old culture are enormously powerful. So you have to kind of institutionalize it and make sure that you don’t have any powerful thing like the compensation system that’s pushing against it.
And hold it in place long enough that it starts to sink into the DNA, into the very bloodstream of the organization which ultimately is the culture. And then it will hold itself. That’s it. That’s a bit abstract in describing it but that’s it if you add it all up, it’s about eight phases that you go through. And we’ve studied it to death over about 20 years now in all kinds of settings around the world. And now for the last two years we’ve been working very closely with corporations to see if indeed we can help guide and inspire them to make it happen.
And so far the data suggests, it works. I wrote a memo on the plane yesterday saying, we constantly say, I’m beating on them as chief kind of R&D head, we’ve got to learn every day. Learn every day. So trip reports always have to have at the beginning, what have we learned? And then they go into telling what’s gone on. So I always put – and one of my learnings was, we’ve got to keep reminding ourselves, like Dennis keeps reminding us, the process works. Stick with the process here.
[00:29:16] You know, I point out to people, John didn’t make up the eight steps. He spent 30 years studying what is it that leaders do? Oh, well, they make change happen. Well, when they are successful what is it they have done? When those organizations that have attempted changes and that have failed, spending lots of effort, lots of money, not to mention creating lots of cynicism in their organizations, where did they fail? Could he delineate at what stage, what did they fail to do? And through that study it was ultimately the eight steps. You know, he didn’t make it up.
[00:30:19] Many people like change. The idea of change has become very popular. But it is of course others that have to change – society has to change, it’s always out there. But how about the people themselves? And what do you do to support them to not only recognize that they need to change but also support them in the process of change?
[00:30:46] We certainly start the whole idea with individual change and point out to people, with various exercises that are relatively simple but effective about personal change. And we can move from personal change when people are thinking about, yes, that’s the way I approach personal change. Or that’s the way I think about it or, yes, that’s where I tend to get blocked. And then bring organizational change into it. It helps unblock people from the natural barriers of change.
And one of the things we’ve found is that when we have enough people urgent about an opportunity and enough people understanding that they have a role, an opportunity to play a role in that, that the momentum for change becomes irresistible. Will there always be some group that doesn’t want to or that will try to pull back? Yes. But if it’s a small enough group they won’t have an effect. It’s the momentum that will carry the change forward. And that momentum that you need enough people saying, yes, that’s an opportunity, I want to help take advantage of it.
[00:32:15] But see we do talk up front about complacency. I mean complacency is everywhere. And the ultimate complacency is not that people don’t say that there are problems but the problems are over there. And the guys over there are saying the problems are over here. And so everybody’s basically saying, I don’t need to change, these guys do. And if everybody’s thinking that way you end up with complacent groups, complacent organizations. And nothing changes. And just making that observation, which everybody can relate to pretty quickly, is useful. Again, if it’s done not in an accusing way but in a way that is – it’s kind of funny if you think about it.
But the more you get caught up in, emotionally, in some broader view that, darn it, there is a bigger opportunity out there for me personally, for the organization that we’re not taking advantage of it. But life is short, why not? Life is short, why not? They will start propelling themselves to trying some new things. Not just expecting somebody else to change for them. And then getting the organization through that to become more and more people to do the same. Which isn’t to some degree habit because of the culture of the organization that’s pushing against you, personal habits that are pushing against you, I mean there are a number of things that we could list that hold people in place is huge. And if you just stare at that list and think of, well, it’s inevitable. A, it’s depressing and, B, you don’t try. But one thing you can do is show counterexamples. You tell them stories.
[00:34:21] Better yet, show them stories. That’s why the filming I think is so important and John has found some films that have a lot of impact in that regard.
[00:34:34] Telling the story actually has some impact. Showing is better than telling – I guess people have known that forever. But we don’t do enough of it.
And concrete is better than abstract. People have probably known that forever too but they don’t do enough of it. They are trained just the opposite. We have trained generations of managers now to deal at very abstract levels, to deal with just one side of the brain, to deal with these interminable 100-slide PowerPoint presentations.
In a sense what we’re doing, we’re going to untrain that – to some degree that’s what we have to do. We have to untrain them first and help them to see the better way.
If you look back in history and come up with names and expose people to those and ask them, were these good leaders or bad leaders? Did they provide any leadership? The goods all have some things in common. And that’s what we’ve learned about over the years and that’s what we try to figure out how to help more people become like them. But one of the things – the people that we at least today look back and say, they were a good leader, is indeed the general direction that they mobilize people in is a direction that ultimately helps the broader community. That does create the wealth. The products and services that people need.
The jobs that are – not only pay the mortgage but make life during the day meaningful. To keep the planet from exploding or whatever. And that everybody in the other camp is very clear too. The bad leaders help mobilize people who ultimately kind of go off a cliff. They tend to work on negative emotions more than positive emotions, they often mobilize people by demonizing others, demonizing the opposition and working off of fear and anxiety and anger. And they don’t think in broad terms. They think in narrow terms, often ultimately in terms of their own power. Well, that is not only what we don’t want, that’s not what we’re going to – we’re going to work very hard at making sure that when we try to help more people to provide more leadership it doesn’t even go remotely in that direction. So there is a value stance on this. There’s no question about that.
[00:38:14] And how do you make that possible to orient them toward these kind of values of better humanity, greater sustainability, whatever terms you want to put to it, how do you support with these processes that you are offering to people and the orientation to come up with these values?
[00:38:39] I think there are a number of ways. Certainly it’s not lecturing people, wagging your finger at them telling them that this is the way that they ought to do things. It’s more almost drawing out what’s already inside of them. Everybody knows deep down some sense of right and wrong. Some sense of wanting to contribute to something that is a broader cause. Life beats a lot of people down, turns them into cynics, makes them think that it’s impossible to really do something that is good for a lot of people.
That that is just unrealistic. But it has been my experience that if you get beyond that, if you can go deeper inside of folks, the sort of world that we are talking about, 99% of the people want – you just have to get them in touch in a sense with their own feelings. Which a lot of experience just detaches them from. The last thing that you want to do though is push it in their faces. You should be like this. That doesn’t work. Help them to get in touch with what they already know.
[00:40:24] You know, we were working with an organization that was facing an opportunity. They said for the first time in a number of years, our industry has an opportunity to grow.
[00:40:40] And grow greatly.
[00:40:41] And grow greatly. And in fact the CEO was talking about it as a revenue growth. And he said, if we do it right we can grow revenue by 10 times. And we said, well, how many people in your organization have to change to achieve that? And he said, well, everybody. So we talked about how that resonates, that idea of 10 times revenue growth, resonates with everybody in the organization. And we asked the question, what else will change? If you achieve that 10 times growth, what else will look different about your organization?
And the conversation became, well, it’s not only obviously very good for the company but it’s good for our country and it’s good for the planet. Well, now he’s getting me. Now I want to help with it. He’s getting at the heart of what a change would mean for people. And when you can do that you can get lots of people who want to help, lots of people to say, let me help lead that. I think I can help with that. In my sphere I think I can help make that happen. Because you’ve bought me. I’m bought in. You captured my heart. And that’s the critical element that, it’s there. It was there in this CEO and it was just getting him to start talking about it and seeing the power of it.
[00:42:30] See, it’s fascinating how many CEOs I’ve known over the years who get beaten down of course by the financial community and this noise that has grown so strong in the last 20 years of the purpose of the corporation is to maximize shareholder wealth. Well, that’s really ridiculous. And nowhere are there laws that say – and everybody knows it. But CEOs have been – so many have heard that so much and have been taught that indeed at least that’s the mantra. But even the ones that I’ve known, know that’s not true. That that’s narrow and silly. But they’ve got to say it too to keep their stock price up so that it doesn’t create problems for them or their companies.
If the stock price goes down too much they get gobbled up by some other corporation and sliced and diced out of existence. Or worse. But there is also this tough, realistic, realpolitik macho thing where it’s tough for people in positions of power sometimes, and corporations in particular, to say what they deep down want which is, yeah, we have to create wealth. That’s what economic organizations do. But I want to create – I love this product or service or this industry I’m in and I really think it can do something useful. We are giving people something they need. And as we grow we are creating a lot more jobs.
And for every job we create it has an impact on society – I forget what the ratio is of how many more people are affected by simply one job economically. And it saturates. It’s a much bigger picture. And the great leaders, the people who really are able to mobilize that large number all the way down to the janitor understand that if they are willing to – it is a little bit of a risk to talk that way and risk being labeled naïve by the tough guys. That that is of course part of what can make them a great leader. Because they really can mobilize everybody. Not just a few people in the financial community to say, I want to help. Sign me up.
And of course that’s what great leaders do, they get a lot of people who essentially are volunteers to help around some vision of the future.
I did a biography on Konosuke Matsushita who people outside of Japan haven’t heard of. His firm is now called Panasonic. That they would recognize. He used to say things that are almost laughable today about what they might be able to achieve in 400 years. I mean that alone makes you smile. 400 years. But ultimately – I mean he became a hero in the country. A hero in the company. Not just because of the achievements but because of something he did to people in making them feel that they were doing something that was more meaningful and more important which made work more than just slaving away at some job which is what all great leaders have always been able to do.
And leaders really do keep the basics simple. Mandela was amazing in that respect. It’s a simple, very inclusive vision. It would’ve been very simple to go in there and have a vision of a black society that had power making up for all of the injustices of the past. And if that meant that the whites suffered greatly and left the country, fine.
I mean the guy was imprisoned for 27 years. And he was smart enough to know, no, that was a mistake. That wouldn’t work. For lots of reasons. And he was – not only talked about it but he was a walking role model. I mean he didn’t throw whites off the staff in the government. He treated everybody with respect. Black and white. He worked to get them to work together. He was marvelous at communicating that and getting people to buy into it. Not only with words – he wasn’t the best speaker. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen him in front of a crowd. He’s a little stiff. But in small groups and one-on-one, he is just amazing.
And so much of his communication that helped people to get it was from what he did. Less than just what he would say in great speeches. He became the great role model of the new society.