What is “sustainability” and how does one go about creating it, regardless of the nature of the organizational change? While researching numerous “sustainability” descriptors, one definition in particular rose to the top:
Sustainability is the ability to continue a defined behavior indefinitely. (www.thwink.org)
While the definition may be crisp and concise, the act of creating organizational sustainability is, no doubt, complicated. Given that the “sustainability” topic has many tentacles, the best place to start is at the fundamental level. To create organizational sustainability, at a bare minimum, the following six key ingredients are requisite:
- Leadership credibility
- A clear and compelling Vision of what “could be”
- An easy-to-understand Success Definition, e.g., “sustainable success will look like the following…”
- A sound Execution Strategy, e.g., “this is how we will achieve sustainability at a high level…”
- A sweeping Inclusion Strategy, e.g., “this is how each and every leader, manager, team lead and employee will become actively involved in the organization’s evolution…”
- A thoughtfully constructed Actionable Plan, e.g., “this is what we’re going to do tactically, when we’re going to do it plus the expected outcomes…”
Let’s first dissect #1 ̶ leadership credibility. The reality is that leaders who are equipped at tackling ingredients two through six, but who lack credibility, will quickly find themselves in the position of no one buying what they’re selling. “Lacking credibility” typically results in employees superficially “going through the motions”, which is actually the antithesis of sustainability. What does “lacking credibility” look like to the staff? While each employee may define credibility somewhat differently, generally speaking, a leader’s credibility is at risk if the staff characterize the leader as:
- Not being trustworthy.
- Talking a good game, but not keeping their commitments.
- Not understanding the subject matter to the degree necessary even though the leader is well versed in the buzz words.
- Chasing the “bright shiny penny” ̶ one day the leader’s vision is X, the next day the leader’s vision is Y.
- Initially undertaking organizational change with high energy and fanfare, but as soon as several bumps in the road are encountered (which is normal), the leader quickly succumbs to self-doubt, makes excuses, gives up or loses interest entirely verses quickly mitigates the barriers and perseveres with intention.
- Appearing to be “in it” for their own personal gain verses positioning their organizations and employees for long lasting success.
- Having created organizations that are so reliant on the leader’s personality and style, that if the leader departs, it is widely believed that organizational change progress will come to a screeching halt and newly formed norms will quickly disintegrate.
This is not to say that a leader who lacks credibility is a bad person. It does mean that the leader must first shore-up his or her shortcomings, thereby increasing the leader’s “believability factor”, if the leader expects others to genuinely commit to, adopt and advance sustainable change.
Conversely, and expanding upon the above #2 – #6 key ingredients, the most credible of leaders can’t infuse sustainable change if the leader does not possess the:
- Imagination and courage required to look well beyond the immediate horizon (Vision).
- Ability to articulate, in concrete terms, exactly what the end state will look like (Success Definition).
- High-level planning and communication skills necessary to not only paint a compelling picture of the future, but to do so using an effective connect-the-dots socialization method whereby the leader helps each employee understand: 1) the “why” and “how” details behind vision attainment; plus 2) how each employee will “plug into” the organizational change journey and end state (Execution Strategy).
- Right (aka highly performing) extended leadership team who possess the passion, energy, capabilities, bandwidth and skills to co-champion plus co-instill the desired changes across the organization (Inclusion Strategy). This element is vital and, unfortunately, is oftentimes either overlooked or under-estimated.
- Competency, drive and stick-to-it-ness to both create and successfully execute a well devised plan which includes introducing, deploying and perpetuating new ways of conducting business (aka new ways of behaving) (Actionable Plan).
While pursuing sustainable change is by no means easy in that it requires critical thinking, advanced leadership capabilities plus hard work, the organizational payoff can be huge. In some cases the payoff can even translate into an organization’s competitive advantage. For those leaders who intentionally and prudently prepare in advance for the work that lies ahead, sustainability is readily attainable. For those leaders, however, who approach organization change with a “we’ll just wing it” mentality, sustainability will continue to be ever-elusive.