Three Simple Rules for Leading Constructive Change

Concept of leadership.

The best definition I’ve ever heard of effective leadership goes something like this:

A good leader doesn’t make people do what he (or she) wants; a good leader makes others want what the leader wants.

In other words, leadership is about engaging people’s hearts even more than their minds. If your staff shares your vision of what’s possible, understands why what’s possible is desirable, and shares your desire to make that vision come alive, they’ll do what they need to do to make it happen. Show them the future, share your passion about the journey, and get out of their way (but stay close by in case they need coaching or advice).

That all sounds good. But in my experience that’s only the beginning.

Leading meetings that matter means being first among equals, not being a dictator or a policeman. The challenge facing any leader is how to create that strong desire in your staff for the same kinds of outcomes that you want.

I rely on a three-step process for leading organizational change that may help you overcome that challenge. It’s relatively simple, but it includes several important rules for thinking through the journey that you want to take:

  • Dream about your Destination
  • Design with Data
  • Discover by Doing

Here, briefly, is what each of these three rules means.

Rule #1: Dream Your Destination

Stephen Covey advised us to “Start with the end in mind.” But I don’t think that is enough. Yes, it makes all kinds of sense to be clear about where you are trying to go, or what kind of organizational culture you want to create. For me, that way of thinking about your task is necessary but not sufficient; it feels too analytic, emotionless, and left-brained.

That’s why I start with Dreaming. A dream, in contrast to a plan, suggests a vision that is ambitious, inspirational, and even audacious.

When Steve Jobs first launched Apple Computer out of a garage in Palo Alto, he was already talking about changing the world. He wasn’t satisfied with building a functional personal computer. From the very beginning he wanted to create technology that was “cool.”

Remember that when Jobs first introduced the iPod he didn’t get on stage and talk about the hard drive’s megabit capacity. No, his first statement was that he had “a thousand songs in my pocket.”

That’s a dream – every bit as audacious in its own way as Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Like King, Jobs touched people’s emotions; in his case it was their desire to have something new, powerful, and “cool.” That day, he made his audience – and consumers worldwide – want what he wanted: a pocketful of pleasure.

To summarize, “Dream Your Destination” calls for an explicit vision accompanied by strong, ambitious desire. Be clear about the destination, but focus on its emotional appeal.

Principle Two: Design with Data

Now, as you actually begin the journey to that destination you are dreaming about (meetings that are both functional and fun), it’s time to be realistic, and to base that journey on an accurate understanding of where you are and what the pathway to the future will be like.

As my good friend and former colleague Bruce Rogow is fond of saying, “If you want to fly to Los Angeles it makes a great deal of difference whether you are starting in New York City or Honolulu.”

To apply that rule more specifically, gather some facts and opinions about how productive, or non-productive, your meetings are now. Ask basic questions like these:

  • Are the meetings well-attended? Do invitees frequently offer excuses for missing regular meetings? What are the reasons they don’t participate?
  • How do participants feel about the meetings? Do they find them worthwhile, or a waste of time?
  • Do your meetings start and end on time? Or do you have to wait for participants to show up?
  • Do participants understand each meeting’s purpose and objectives? Are those objectives met when the meetings conclude?
  • Do participants have a clear and common understanding of what decisions were reached during the meeting (if reaching decisions was a goal)? Does everyone know who is responsible for implementing those decisions?
  • Are the meetings characterized by free-wheeling, open conversations, or do you have difficulty getting anyone to talk? Do a small number of people dominate the conversation?
  • How serious are these issues? Do you need a complete overhaul of your meeting practices, or will a few minor tweaks produce the improvement you are seeking?

It’s hard for people to get excited about a vague future. So when you talk about your vision, be specific. Describe it in terms of your desire for meetings that everyone enjoys, for conversations that are engaging, enlightening, and fun. Ask your staff what kind of meetings they would enjoy, and add their ideas to your leadership vocabulary. Paint pictures of a future that your staff can see themselves experiencing.

Principle Three: Discover by Doing

This is another way of saying that we learn through experience. As I mentioned in Chapter Two, I didn’t invent this principle but I do believe in it:

It’s easier to act your way into a new kind of thinking than it is to think your way into a new kind of acting.

The best way to build a conversational culture is to lead as if you already have one.

In The Fifth Age of Work, Andrew Jones emphasizes the importance of innovation and creativity in today’s economy, highlighting in particular the role that co-working facilities have played in putting free-lancers, entrepreneurs, telecommuters and other “free agents” side by side in shared workplaces. Jones, like me, sees the collision of ideas that results from co-working as central to what he calls a “culture of experimentation.”New Mindset New Results

I’m calling for that kind of mindset – discovering by doing – as the most effective way to lead change. If you want to create a conversational culture, don’t just talk about it, or rely on making a compelling business case: do it, whether it works right away or not.

That’s what I mean by a culture of experimentation. Not everything you try is going to work at first, but if you are convinced that collaborative conversations are important, then start leading meetings that are based on these three rules and the principles I describe throughout my new book, Making Meetings Matter. It may take some time – and it might take longer than you want it to – but if you begin acting like a conversational leader, you will soon find yourself living in a conversational culture.

Note: This post is excerpted from my forthcoming book, Making Meetings Matter: How Smart Leaders Orchestrate Powerful Conversations in the Digital Age. Follow that link to visit the book’s website, where you can sign up for advance notes about the book, download other excerpts, connect with other readers, and contribute to my ongoing research about what makes for a good conversation.

Contact me today for a free 30-minute strategic conversation about how you can make all your meetings and corporate conversations both productive and popular. Please download this brief overview of my new service offering for making meetings matter to explore what’s possible.