Disruption is the new normal, and change is inevitable, at least for technology-driven industries like accounting. That brings winners and losers — organizations and entire sectors are going to be left behind based on the viability of their offerings and how they react to change. The former is difficult (although not impossible) to shift, but the latter presents an opportunity for strong leaders.
The most important leadership attributes and actions in times of rapid change were the topic of Dr. Tom Epperson’s keynote session at the VSCPA's 2018 Business & Industry Conference, “Leading Through Change.” He discussed how crucial it is for business leaders to react properly in making and reacting to changes.
“Change always starts with us,” said Epperson, president of the Richmond-based InnerWill Leadership Institute, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit committed to transforming companies and the people behind them through Values-Based Leadership (VBL). “You think about a leader in an organization and the first step is always about looking in the mirror and seeing ourselves clearly. What are our strengths, what are our challenges, what are we doing well, what are we modeling?
Driving effective, sustainable change within organizations, starts with changing our own behaviors. If you want to change your organization from being really conservative to being more risk-taking, you have to model risk-taking. If you want your organization to be more nimble and innovative from a values base, you have to model those things.”
Why? Because we fall into the trap of projecting our feelings onto others. Leaders at organizations spend the bulk of their time coming up with the perfect plan and give short shrift to how they’ll roll it out to their employees. As Epperson puts it, “We have a big party and expect people to get it.” But not unlike the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, people go through a series of emotions when faced with a major change — and the final stage in the Kubler-Ross cycle is only the third on what Epperson calls the steps of learning: Awareness, understanding, acceptance, application and integration.
Employees start out by making sense of a change, then they accept the change, then they act on the change. Where they are in that process almost certainly won’t be the same place as the leaders who thought up and decided to implement the change. It’s the job of those leaders to get employees ready for their own roles.
That process can either center on courage or compassion. Leading through courage requires providing direction, trusting and empowering others and giving ample feedback, which is provided with a hefty dose of accountability for all involved.
Leading through compassion starts with providing the emotional support necessary for employees to adapt to change. Leaders must listen, empathize and, as in courage, provide ample and appropriate developmental feedback. Both approaches require accountability and honesty.
“Can we be transparent about what’s going on?” Epperson asked. “We’re not going to cry and wear destructive emotions on our sleeve, but we’re going to be honest and not fake it till we make it.”
Transparency and honesty are two pillars of Values Based Leadership (VBL), the core leadership philosophy for InnerWill and its associates.. The key to VBL is that by living, working and leading in alignment with one’s core values, a leader is more effective, engenders more trust and inspires others to act in a similar way.
VBL requires a good relationship between leaders and employees, and it takes a leader who can adapt to what his or her employees need.
“It’s about building commitment, not compliance,” Epperson said. “Change is not sustainable in compliance-driven cultures. Once that stick goes away, the change stops, as opposed to building people’s commitment to a change by connecting with what they value most deeply."
That’s why it’s so important to shepherd employees through the steps of learning through courage and compassion. Helping them arrive where they need to get at as close to their own pace as possible builds in a degree of confidence in implementing the change.
“You’re building people’s emotional acceptance of a change. They understand it, they get the why, but they don’t understand what to do or how to do it,” Epperson said. “The application phase is helping them make decisions around that change, develop skills around that change, try some things out. Then comes integration, where people have developed their skills and you no longer have to spend time and energy driving this into the company because it’s there, and it feels like it’s always been there.”
If all of this sounds like the most important factor is to hit the sweet spot in allowing employees the freedom to process and implement changes, well, that’s not far off. Striking the right tone can empower employees to soar to new heights, and getting it wrong can undermine a leader’s plans.
“Freedom and fences,” Epperson said. “The organization provides fences for decision-making. Inside the fence of your values, you’ve got all the freedom in the world.
“The overall message is how vital leaders are in this whole process. So goes the leader, so goes the culture, so goes the change. As leaders, we’ve got a responsibility to lead people through it. We can have a really negative impact on people or a really positive, sustainable one.”