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I recently worked with a coaching client, a senior executive at a mid-sized pharmaceutical company.  "I don't understand it," she said.  "I work hard, everyone likes me, and I've met all my targets for the past 5 years.  But I just can't seem to get promoted to VP, while other people who I know aren't performing as well as I do are moving past me up the ladder.  What's going on?"

closing the perception gap

Having worked with her organization in the past, I knew what the problem was:  Yes, she had a reputation for reliably delivering against targets.  But what she called 'working hard' was perceived by her co-workers and direct reports as 'obsessive and unable to let things go', and her desire to be 'liked by everyone' was seen by management as an inability to make the big decisions if she were put in a VP-level role.

The gap between my client's perception of herself and the way others perceived her was getting in the way of her career - and she's not alone.  Over the years, I've seen many people get stalled in the same gap.

So what can you do about it?

Closing the perception gap

No matter where you are in your career, knowing how the people you work with perceive you - and that it's the way you want to be perceived - on a day-to-day basis is crucial to being able to get ahead.

It's not just about being able to get that next promotion, either.  In my experience, the 'perception gap' can be your biggest obstacle when it comes to getting your projects completed on time, on budget, and with a minimum of headache.  When you're encountering resistance to your efforts to push a project through, you may not realize that you're in the middle of a perception gap.  You may be reading their resistance as concerns about budgets or timelines; in reality, it may be stemming from their concerns about your credibility within the organization based on their (possibly unfounded) perceptions of you.

You may never be able to close the gap completely, but you can make it lot smaller.  Here's how:

1.  Recognize that there is a gap.

It doesn't matter how self-aware you are or how honest you are with yourself:  There is going to be a gap between how you see yourself and how others see you.  Your self-perception includes information and experiences from all facets of your life; your co-workers only know the you they see at work.

2.  Understand that the gap isn't necessarily negative.

You may in fact be harder on yourself than others are.  My client, for example, had never taken accounting classes and assumed 'everyone' thought she was deficient in reading financial statements.  Her co-workers, in fact, had no such concerns - they thought she was perfectly capable.

3.  Solicit honest feedback - in writing, if possible.

Approach one direct report, one peer, and one senior manager with whom you've worked for at least a year and ask them for insight into your strengths and weaknesses.  (Tell them that you're looking for honest answers as part of your personal growth.)  What do they think you're fantastic at?  What do they think you struggle with?  What skill or trait do they most admire about you?  What characteristic drives them most nuts, or do they think gets in your way?  I guarantee you'll be surprised at the responses.

4.  Look for patterns.

If one person criticizes something about you, you can safely ignore it; but if everyone has the same criticism, it's time to at least consider they have a point.  So examine what your three co-workers had to say and look for consensus.  Anything that all three mentioned - as a strength or weakness - is probably a good indication of how most of your co-workers see you.

5.  Determine what's perception - and what's reality.

Maybe all three of your co-workers said that you seem to be a workaholic who doesn't know how to relax, and that sometimes alienates you from your team.  Now you have to ask yourself whether you are a workaholic - or whether you've just been trying to give that impression because you thought it was a positive trait.

6.  Create an action plan.

This can be the toughest part of the process, because it can involve changing yourself - or changing your job.  For example, if you're being perceived as a workaholic, but know that you're not, you may simply have to stop talking about how much you worked on the weekend all the time.  On the other hand, if your tendency to be a consensus-builder rather than a top-down leader is being perceived as a negative trait, you may want to consider finding a new job in an organization that values consensus-building.

The bottom line is that the more you know about the way you're being perceived within the organization, the better you'll be able to manage your career in the long run:  You'll be better eqipped to work effectively, and you'll be better positioned for long-term success.

 

Published in News

 

6 ways to get ahead of the problem

It's every CEO's worst nightmare.  You're in the midst of a change initiative, but you've had to make some tough decisions, and a few people have been asked to leave.  But you're sticking to the plan, and you think things are going as well as can be expected.  You can see the light at the end of the tunnel.  

Then one of your best clients calls to say that they're worried about next year's contract and thinking about reducing their spend with you.  You reassure them that everything is fine - and you think that it is.  But then you hear from a supplier who's wondering if you're still going to be paying your invoices on time, and expressing concern about their long-term relationship with you.

You're perplexed - until you happen to call a former colleague with whom you've stayed friendly and he greets you with, "What the hell is going on over there? I hear you won't be around this time next year!"

alt

And suddenly you discover that a couple of employees involved in the change have been more confused and disgruntled than you realized.  They've been spreading the word, and it hasn't been positive.  They've been so vocal, in fact, that the word on the street is that your organization is on a collision course with disaster - and that's starting to make your clients, suppliers and other stakeholders nervous.

So what do you do, before someone forwards a confidential email to the competition, or, worse, decides to pen an op-ed about the state of affairs in a daily newspaper?

Managing change communications in a crisis

1.  Don't panic.  When you start hearing negative rumors from a couple of different sources, you can start to think that 'the whole world' is saying you're about to capsize, or that your entire workforce is staging a mutiny.  Chances are, things aren't that bad, and you've probably caught it early.  So don't go into full-on crisis mode until you've had a chance to speak to your senior management team and get an accurate assessment.

2.  Don't look for scapegoats.  You're probably feeling betrayed and angry, but looking for someone to blame, fire or castigate is only going to exacerbate the problem.  What's really happening is that you're getting negative feedback about the change - you're just not getting it through the most productive channels.  But negative feedback can be a good opportunity to gain insight about how the change is being implemented - so instead of looking for someone to blame, look for the opportunity the situation is providing you to improve the change.

3.  Help employees to see the big picture.  When quite a few of your employees are speaking to outsiders in a negative way, it's usually a good sign that they don't really understand why the changes are happening or why they're a good thing for the organization.  So you probably need to beef up your messages about what these changes mean for the long-term health of the company.

4.  Help employees to see the little picture.  If the source of the negative messages is a handful of people or a specific department, it's likely that those people or that department is feeling disengaged from the change or that they're being shortchanged in some way.  Arrange for one-on-one (or one-on-small-team) mentoring and communication to help thosse people understand their role in the changes and how their full participation is important.

5.  Be as honest as possible, as often as possible.  I've said it before and I'll say it again:  During a change process, it's virtually impossible to communicate too much or too often.  The more honest information you can share with employees, the more likely they are to 'get' the reasons for the change, and the less likely they are to spread negative messages outside the organization.

6.  Revisit your communication plan.  It's always better to prevent a crisis than to have to address it after the fact - that's why every change management initiative should have a well-defined communication plan built into the overall strategy.  However, if you find yourself facing challenges, don't just go into defensive mode:  Revisit your communication plan and make adjustments (more communications, additional channels, refined messages) as required.

 

Published in News

We often talk about change leadership within an organization:  Whether the organization is changing their software, the sales function, or the entire business focus, having the right leadership is crucial to success.  And in many cases, leadership starts with the president or CEO - it's important for the person at the top to be a positive, engaged role model for the change.

dueling banjos in change management

But what happens when the change is happening in an M&A (mergers and acquisitions) context?  In those cases, there is often more than one person 'at the top' - each organization has a president or CEO or chairman, and it may not immediately be clear which of them will, ultimately, be in charge, or who will ultimately wield more power.  This can create serious problems for change management, particularly in change leadership.

A few years ago, the British Journal of Change Management published a study in which several organizations were studied over the course of 7 years.  One of their findings was that during the M&A process, change was derailed when individual workers felt that change had been imposed on management, rather than being led by management.

It's not surprising:  In most mergers and acquisitions, one company is seen to be dominant, while the other feels like it's getting 'swallowed up'.  It's not unusual for the senior leadership of the 'swallowed' company to feel like they're just marking time until their position is made redundant and they're given a nice severance package.  It's hard to lead anything - including change - if you're just waiting for your pink slip, even if that pink slip is going to come with a lucrative cushion.  And that's the best-case scenario.  If the merger/acquisition has been acrimonious, there may be active negativity emanating from the executive suites.

When leadership figures appear to be ambivalent (or actively disparaging) about the changes happening to the organization, two things happen:

  1. Leaders stop being leaders:  When leaders appear disengaged from the process, they stop leading and start looking like they're just victims of change.  That's when employees start feeling like the change has been 'imposed' on the leaders - and start seeing their former leaders as fellow 'victims' of change.  It's hard for anyone to lead much of anything when everyone's feeling sorry for them because they're a victim.
  2. Change resistance becomes more entrenched:  It goes something like this:  "If the president, who we've always liked, isn't engaged with this merger and seems to have been unwillingly stuck with it, then it must be bad.  So we're just going to keep doing business as usual, and let those new corporate overlords put that in their pipes and smoke it!"  This isn't good for anyone:  It makes the existing employees of the 'swallowed' company look petty and unproductive; it makes the work environment for everyone toxic; and ultimately it costs a whole lot of money, either in lost productivity or in massive turnover.

What's the solution?  More attention paid to the importance of transitional leadership during a merger or acquisition.  Letting the leaders of the acquired organization disengage or take on a victimized attitude is short-sighted - and costs money in terms of productivity, increased turnover, and a longer ROI horizon.  Leveraging those leaders to help facilitate change during the M&A process means the new, merged/acquired organization can start delivering efficiencies more quickly.

 

 

Published in News

Scarcely a day goes by that I don't read another article or blog about why a change management initiative has been a desperate failure, or went off the rails, or got hijacked and never lived up to its potential.  That's fine, as far as it goes - it's good to understand why things go wrong - but I've been involved with all kinds of highly successful change management initiatives and I'm here to tell you that, despite what you may read, failure is not inevitable.

change management success

In fact, I think it might be more helpful to ask ourselves why change efforts succeed:  What factors are required for change initiatives to achieve the results they set out to achieve?

In my 20+ yeas of change management experience, I've learned that the answers to "Why does change succeed?" are the following:

1.  Provide clear reasons for change

There's nothing more guaranteed to get employees to dig their heels in that to announce wholesale changes without explanation, reason or context. People don't like to be 'bossed' around or treated like children.  So take the time to explain why the change is taking place:  Maybe it's for competitive advantage, maybe it's because the marketplace has changed, maybe it's because the shareholders are getting restive.  As long as the reasons are rational and make basic sense, communicating them will make the change process go much more smoothly.

2.  Strive for engagement

Successful change doesn't happen when a small team of senior leaders drags the rest of the organization kicking and screaming into the new world.  Successful change requires everyone in the organization to be engaged in the process and the results.  By providing clear reasons for the change, you've already taken the first step to engaging your workforce; ensuring that they continue to be engaged throughout the process will turn your group into a team which is striving for the same goal.

3.  Make change make sense

Moving your head office 50 miles from one city to another take advantage of improved transportation, raw materials and tax breaks may make perfect sense in the boardroom when the decision is made.  But it won't make sense to the 2500 workers who are about to be displaced unless you can explain to them what this change will mean for the organization.  Does it mean you'll stand a better chance of surviving a difficult economic climate in the next few years? Does it mean you'll be able to reduce the prices for your product and therefore grow the company, with increased opportunity for everyone?  If you don't take the time to explain, all you'll end up with is a resentful workforce.

4.  Communicate!  

Ever notice how sports coaches are always talking to their players?  They talk to them before the game, during the game, after the game - they're constantly communicating instructions, feedback, motivation and strategy.  The same principle is true for change initiatives:  Change will be more successful when communication is continual and consistent.

5.  Stay positive

A few weeks ago, we talked about how a positive culture means a positive bottom line.  A positive environment - leaders who are enthusiastic about change, cultivating an attitude of resiliency and adaptability when it comes to change - will go a long way to ensuring that the team can stay focused on the change and not get sidetracked by resistance or delays to address trumped-up obstacles.

It's just possible that by focusing on the ways in which change succeeds - and spending a little less time on why it fails - the prospect of change may not seem quite so daunting.

 

 

Published in News
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Beth Banks Cohn, PhD, founder and president of ADRA Change Architects, is dedicated to helping you and your organization reach your full business potential…
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