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How do you lead change in different organizations?

By Dale Pearson

By Dale Pearson

Most good leaders know that leadership is all about context. The most effective leadership style in a multi-national bank may be very different to the most effective leadership style in a small charity. So how does the structure of your organization change the way in which you lead? And how does it affect your leadership style when you are trying to lead change? We’ve collected personal stories from four leaders who have attempted to lead change in four very different organizations.

The monolith

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“Like most large hierarchical organizations, the armed forces are very good at doing repetitive, similar tasks quickly and efficiently. They are also very good at analysing problems and generating problem plans – providing the problems are of a particular type. But they struggle with change. Everyone is either looking up or down (…mainly up). So when you try to lead change in the organization, you can find there are blocks above you which are impossible to navigate through the established hierarchies. You have to go around them. In my case, I worked with other senior army officers in different areas to influence my blockers. I paid particular attention to what regiments and specialities my proxies represented as it meant they were more likely to be listened to. I even went outside the Army to DFID and the FCO to find people who outranked the poor brigadiers.

But be warned, whilst senior officers will love you for shaking things up, you can expect your immediate superiors to hate you for circumventing the chain of command.”

 

- Mike, Former British Army Officer

Characteristics:

Characteristics:

  • Enormous
  • Many levels of seniority
  • Hard to gain exposure to broader parts of the organization
  • Difficult to be heard at the lower levels

Examples: Large financial services companies, the military

The cycle

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When you work in government, long-term projects are very much at the mercy of public opinion and the electoral cycle. This can be a real challenge for infrastructure projects which, by their very nature, need to be planned in the long-term. Of course you can build in flexibility and caveats to address this but, in my experience, the best strategy is to make sure that whatever you are doing creates enough positive change that it becomes irresistible and irreversible."

- Rob, Government Consultant

Characteristics:

Characteristics:

  • Senior leadership is on a rolling electoral cycle
  • Hard to lead change beyond the duration of the cycle
  • Long term planning can be volatile and uncertain

Examples: Civil service, civic governance, police services with elected commissioners

The start-up

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Start-up culture often means few or no layers of hierarchy, enabling fast decision making. Achievements are quick but mistakes are also amplified. I love how quickly an idea can become a reality; giving you the ability to test concepts and scale them or kill them in a matter of a few weeks.

Unfortunately, so much flexibility means the real challenge for leaders is tying down the processes and changes you have enabled. Functions like HR, operations, even finance, are completely dependent on the people who lead those functions. Since resources are crunched, it’s possible that one person leads more than one function. And if an employee ever leaves it can mean a big loss of organizational history and memory: a resource that’s very valuable for any new company."

- Aditi, Former Operations Director at a Start-up in India

Characteristics:

Characteristics:

  • Small, dynamic team
  • Blurring of job descriptions
  • Changing environment

Examples: Uber, Airbnb, Deliveroo

The rolling workforce

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Working in film and theatre means you don’t have a consistent working environment. It’s product driven so leaders are judged on what they have produced more than their capabilities. Networks and relationships are also very important.

The fluid nature of the industry presents challenges for anyone who wants to lead long-term change. As a disabled actor, I try to challenge the perceptions of disability in the media and act as a role model towards people I'm working with and the audiences who see me. It’s through exposure that I hope to become in a position of leadership whereby I can change perceptions of disability in society and empower more disabled people within the media to have the influence to do so too."

- Genevieve, Actress

Characteristics:

Characteristics:

  • Organizations and projects largely use freelancers
  • Contracts are short-term
  • Networking and reputation is key to growing career
  • Can be hard to lead agendas in the industry without job security

Examples: Film and television industries, creative agencies