Prime Minister David Cameron’s resignation following the UK’s vote to leave the European Union clearly reveals that his position was untenable. Can people in business lead change they don’t support?
David Cameron decided he couldn’t do it; he couldn’t lead a change which he had passionately campaigned against.
By October, Britain will have a new Prime Minister after Mr Cameron said he was stepping down following the exit from the European Union, to ensure the country has “a strong, determined and committed leadership”.
Mr Cameron clearly decided his position was untenable. But, is it possible, in business, to lead change which you don’t support?
Providing strong leadership when you are 100 per cent behind transformation is easy, particularly if it is your idea or your initiative.
But there are many scenarios when leading through change is tough. You may have to downsize your budget or your department, making difficult decisions about redundancies. Your own responsibilities may be changing. Your firm may be involved in a merger or an acquisition.
Every leader, at some point in their career, will be challenged with putting in place changes they disagree with. This situation is very often the case for middle managers in any business when the top team decide on changes and the middle managers are required to implement them whether they agree or not.
It is at that point, as a leader, you face a tough decision. Do you feel you must leave because you are morally opposed to the changes, as Mr Cameron did? Or, can you see the business reasons behind the new regime? If the later is the case, then it’s vital to commit to implement the change painlessly, effectively and for the benefit of the firm. Challenge privately and then provide support and become a role model for change for the rest of the organisation.
First of all, it’s important to understand the reasons behind the change. Understand why it is happening and what the business goals are as a result. That will help you to get into the mindset you need to to take changes you initially argued against forward.
It’s not hypocritical
There is a difference between agreeing with change and supporting it. There’s nothing wrong with being open and honest about your opinions in the lead up to change but then recognising that you need to accept the decision which has been made.
It sounds like a cliché, but thinking positively about the change can make a huge difference. While you opposed it because you felt there would be negative outcomes, nothing in life or business is ever so black-and-white. Focus your mind on the positive outcomes of the change because there are certain to be some. Does it mean you and your workforce will take on new responsibilities, resulting in a broadening of yours and their skillsets? Does it mean a cost-saving which can be used elsewhere? Can you use it as a fresh start to make sure your team, even if it’s smaller, is performing better?
If you have put forward your case as strongly as possible and the decision has gone against you, then it’s time to accept that. Energy spent looking back is energy wasted. It’s fine to take stock of why the decision has been taken and whether you can learn any lessons from the way you presented your case. But once you’ve done that, then move forward.
While it can be hard to summon up enthusiasm for change you do not want, you do need to get on with it. If your workforce is aware that you were in opposition to the new measures, it’s okay to acknowledge that with them when you talk about how the organisation is moving forward, but then your future words and actions have to be focused on implementing those changes within the agreed timescale. Your own superiors will be judging you on how well you do that.
As a strong leader, you should be able to take a challenge in your stride and remain focused on selling-in the company vision internally and externally, and successfully implementing agreed change. If you can do that, even if you have a different opinion, your career path will remain on an upward trajectory.
Sue Alderson is a director at Azure Consulting.