Dr. Rodger Dean Duncan is author of the internationally bestselling book CHANGE-friendly LEADERSHIP: How to Transform Good Intentions into Great Performance. The book won the prestigious Eric Hoffer Award for “the advancement of principles and practices that are vital for a thriving society.” Dr. Duncan has served as an officer of two Fortune 500 companies and as a faculty member at three major universities. His consulting clients range from cabinet officers in two White House administrations to senior leaders at companies in multiple industries. In addition to his consulting work, Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor to Fast Company and Forbes.
Dr. Duncan granted this interview while he’s on a year-long sabbatical from his professional work. He and his wife are serving as full-time missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
PMEvolution Book Club: What motivated you to write your book CHANGE-friendly LEADERSHIP?
Rodger Dean Duncan: As our old family obstetrician used to say, for many folks it’s easier to conceive than to deliver. That truism applies not just to making babies. It also applies to dealing with change.
Change is indeed a daunting task. In fact, the score sheet is discouraging: The Association for Corporate Growth reports that only 20% of merger and acquisition deals live up to original expectations. An A. T. Kearney study shows that 90% of business process reengineering initiatives fail to produce breakthrough results. Quality Magazine reports that less than 30% of corporate training is being used on the job a month after delivery. So the world of change is a target rich environment.
For people who’ve learned to deal with change effectively, it can be exciting, exhilarating, energizing, and even rejuvenating.
Change takes us out of our comfort zones. This produces stress. Its often the stress that people resist, not the change itself. Even positive change produces stress. Just ask anyone who’s planned a wedding.
During 40-plus years of working in a wide range of organizations, I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of change management. I’ve also seen the great. My book is about the best practices that produce consistently great results.
Book Club: In your book you talk about how to help people accept change, rather than resist it. If you had to pick the single most powerful tool in the leader’s toolkit for increasing people’s openness to change, what would it be?
Duncan: Listening. Really listening. This requires using your eyes and your heart as well as your ears. Effective leaders listen to learn and understand rather than to rebut and overpower. They exercise influence rather than authority. They’re willing to be influenced rather than assuming that the views of others should always be subservient to theirs.
Change-friendly people tend to be good conversationalists. And the best conversationalists are usually people who ask good questions. They don’t interrogate, they simply ask meaningful questions that other people are willing to answer. People who are really good at engaging the heads, hearts, and hopes of others tend to ask questions that evoke that engagement. As I frequently tell my clients, we are most effective when we talk so other people will listen and when we listen so other people will talk.
Book Club: What’s the least change-friendly thing you see leaders doing?
Duncan: I suppose that would be the opposite of the good listening behavior I described in my response to the previous question. Too many people try to lead by title, by authority, and by power. They try to bring about change by executive fiat, with heavy reliance on high-testosterone sloganeering. None of that works. In fact, those tactics usually do no more than foster cynicism and resistance.
When confronted with change, most people tune in to their favorite internal radio station: WIIFM – What’s In It For Me? That’s not to suggest that most people are selfish. It’s simply a fact that personal context is usually the first filter we use to evaluate our environment. It’s especially true when we’re asked to participate in some sort of change.
Many leaders are so focused on compliance that they forget the importance of commitment. These are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they can and should be mutually reinforcing. For example, you want people to follow safety standards. That’s compliance. But they are more likely to comply when they understand and buy into the reasons for the safety standards. That’s commitment. Commitment is about doing the right thing for the right reasons. Leaders cannot be truly effective unless and until they genuinely listen to and engage the heads, hearts, and hopes of their people.
Duncan: According to the Gallup surveys, only about 30% of U.S. employees are engaged, and that number slips to only 13% of workers worldwide.
In my change-friendly context, I use the concept of engagement to mean the harnessing of people’s energy, ingenuity, and allegiance to their work roles. In my view, a person is “engaged” when he feel positive emotions toward his work, when he regards his work as personally meaningful, when he considers his workload to be manageable, and when he has positive expectations (hope) about the future of his work. In other words, people may be regarded as “engaged” when they have a strong sense of psychological ownership of their work. So the leader’s challenge is to create an environment of mutual trust and loyalty and that underscores the value of each person’s contribution.
Now, to the question of “can we realistically expect everyone tasked with enabling change to be engaged?” It’s fair to say that at any given moment in the typical organization there will be some people who are not fully engaged in terms of the definition I offered earlier. But in some instances that can be acceptable, as long as they do not actively try to subvert the efforts of the people who are engaged.
Managing resistance and lack of engagement is one of the leader’s primary roles. And we should remember this: Change never occurs in a vacuum. Neither does resistance. Both occur in the context of real people struggling with real (or imagined) consequences. A good leader does not punish people for resisting. In fact, a good leader helps create and maintain an environment that allows resistance to be overt – openly expressed and discussed. It’s the covert, underground variety of resistance that is the most dangerous.
Book Club: How did you become involved in this area – what led you to your interest in leading through change?
Duncan: My interest in leadership issues was first sprouted when I was a university undergraduate. That interest blossomed into full-scale passion when I covered business and politics as a young journalist. One of my early editors was Jim Lehrer, now known by most people by his PBS television fame. Jim taught me how to connect the dots between what people aspire to and what they actually accomplish. Later, as a university professor, I worked with a range of change issues – from helping students improve their academic performance to navigating the white water of faculty politics. I worked for cabinet officers in two White House administrations and closely observed what works and what does not work in dealing with change issues. As an officer in two major corporations I had the opportunity to lead a number of big change efforts. Finally, I’ve helped clients in many industries as they’ve worked with a wide range of challenges involving change. My PhD program [Purdue University] focused on organizational behavior. So my academic and professional experiences, combined with my life-long interest and involvement in human relationships, have brought me to where I am today. My interest in leading change came early in my life, and it’s been my major focus for more than 40 years.
Book Club: If you had an hour with a smart young Gen-Yer, about to start his or her first management job, what would you share?
Duncan: I would say, stay alert. Stay focused. Notice the behaviors that foster fear and disrespect and cynicism. Reject them. Then notice the behaviors that build trust and collaboration and respect and mutual purpose. Embrace those behaviors and practice them yourself until they become your automatic, default behaviors.
Early in my career I was on assignment in London and I met a man who worked for Scotland Yard. He was famous for his work with counterfeit currency. In our conversation I said, “To become such an expert you must spend an enormous amount of time studying counterfeits.” And he said, “No. In fact, I seldom look at counterfeits. I focus on the real stuff. I invest my time in examining authentic currency, then when I see a counterfeit I can instantly identify it as a fake.” As a consultant in leadership and change issues, I follow that model. I focus on the “real stuff,” then I can immediately identify inferior practices. That’s the counsel I’d give any smart young person who wants to succeed.
Book Club: What do you hope your legacy is – that is, how do you want to leave the world a better place?
Duncan: Everything I try to do – with my clients, with my friends, with my family, with people in my various communities – is aimed at improving relationships. Even the word “relationships” sounds touchy-feely to some people, but it’s through relationships that we accomplish the most important things in life. We don’t add our greatest value by virtue of our technical skills, although those can be vital. We add our greatest value by virtue of how well we relate to and with other human beings. I want to leave a legacy of helping people with their most important relationships.