At the end of the 2012 football season Wolverhampton Wanderers were, to no-one’s surprise, relegated from the English Premiership. The Chairman of Wolves – the seriously astute businessman Steve Morgan – responded with a complete change of direction. Out went the hard-work-and-get-stuck-in style of Mick McCarthy and his successor Terry Connor: in came the studious, methodical, possession-based continental style of the Norwegian Stale Solbakken.
It was a sea-change for Wolves. The way forward for the foreseeable future. A pattern of play that would not only see them promoted, but comfortably and securely established back in the Premiership.
Six months and four days after taking over as manager – with his side 18th in the Championship and knocked out of the FA Cup by non-league Luton – Solbakken was sacked. In came Donny Rovers manager Dean Saunders, espousing plenty-of-hard-work-and-get-stuck-in. Back to square one, as the very first football commentators used to say. Solbakken’s revolution had been just a little too revolutionary for the players, who’d simply chosen to ignore it.
What has this cautionary tale got to do with your business? Plenty.
As we’ve discussed any number of times the world is changing, and at an ever increasing rate. All of us are – at one point or another – going to have to change the way we go about things and we’re going to have to take our employees with us. That may well promote a little dissension in the ranks: not many people actively welcome change. But can you implement change quickly in a business? Is it simply a matter of out with the old and in with the new and let’s do it as fast as we can? Or is it more complicated than that?
Over the last twenty years, I’ve been involved in ‘implementing change’ in several large organisations. And there was one factor that was common to all of them. It was always difficult – and at times it was a lot more than difficult. But with all of us facing the prospect of change, here are four steps that worked for me, and that have worked for other leaders that I’ve spoken to:
1. Communicate your vision clearly. “We’re going to change ’cos we’ve got to” isn’t good enough. Make sure everyone understands why change is needed – and what the eventual benefits will be. And don’t pretend there aren’t going to be problems along the way: people are not fools.
2. Start with some relatively easy (and quick) wins. What you’re trying to do is build momentum. You want people to start saying, “OK, that’s different, and it’s better. Maybe we are moving in the right direction…”
3. Linked with that are the people I used to call ‘disciples.’ You need to find people who believe in what you’re trying to do, who’ll spread the message for you and who’ll be advocates for the change you want to introduce. And it won’t always be the people you expect…
4. Finally, you need to strap yourself in. You need to be prepared for the long haul, and for the ride to get a little bumpy at times. But communicate clearly, take small steps and find the right people to work with and you’ll give yourself the best possible chance of success.
Looked at from that viewpoint, walking into a dressing room and saying, “Right, lads, you don’t know me but I know best and everything changes from now on” was precisely the wrong way to go about changing a culture. Unfortunately there are business leaders up and down the country making exactly that mistake.
The good news is that you won’t be one of them. As and when you need to make changes – and you will, don’t worry – you’ll find a wealth of experience around the TAB boardroom table. Several of your colleagues will have been there already – and will be only too happy to pass on their advice.