Leadership Series: John Kotter

by Jean Tower


John Kotter says that organizations have to transform themselves in order to survive. Organizations need to learn and grow in order to keep pace with the changing culture, economics, and global competition. He asserts that effective leadership is necessary to accomplish this and he articulates the following eight key steps that leaders must go through in the change process.

o n e
Leaders must establish a sense of urgency about the problem.
The leadership of the organization must create a sufficient sense of urgency around correcting the problem and interest people in the resolution.

t w o
Leaders must create a guiding coalition.
Kotter asserts that the leader must create a powerful guiding coalition, because one person alone cannot carry the vision for the entire organization. “Building such a team is always an essential part of the early stages of any effort to restructure, reengineer, or retool a set of strategies.”

t h r e e
Leaders must develop a vision and strategy.
There must be a clear vision for the organization and a strategy in place for reaching goals. When this is absent, employees may feel free to set their own direction. An effective vision should establish compelling reasons why the goals should be set and pursued.

f o u r
Leaders must communicate the change vision.
The vision and goals of the organization should get communicated to everyone in the organization, in both word and deeds, very often. “Clear, simple, memorable, often repeated, consistent communication from multiple sources, modeled by executive behavior, helps enormously.”

f i v e
Leaders must empower employees for broad-based action.
The organization must empower employees to act in the best interest of the organization. Employees must have sufficient autonomy to carry out their job. The leaders of the organization should remove obstacles so that employees can implement the vision.

s i x
Leadership team must generate short-term wins.
Kotter asserts that short-term “wins” are key to keeping motivation and morale high. Major change takes time and most people need to see convincing evidence, early in the process, that they are on the right track. Setting short-term achievable goals and then achieving them helps sustain interest and credibility.

s e v e n
Leaders must consolidate gains and produce more change.
Leadership teams have to recognize and celebrate the gains, while helping to keep people looking ahead to the long-term goal. Resistance is always waiting to reassert itself and complacency can return if people feel that the small wins are enough.

e i g h t
Leaders must anchor the new approaches in the culture.
It is easy to fall back on old ways of doing things, so Kotter says that the eighth component of successful organizational leadership is to make the changes really become embedded in the culture – they must become “how we do things around here.” Kotter says that this requires a lot of communication.

Kotter emphasizes that the guiding coalition must be comprised of powerful representatives of the major stakeholders so that they have credibility on all fronts.

Guiding Coalitions: I find in strategic planning efforts that key players from central office leadership must be active participants or there is a danger that many of the group’s recommendations will fall on deaf ears. Excluding teacher leaders might result in faculty mistrusting the findings of the group as being “top-down” and irrelevant to them.

John Kotter explains that people need “sufficient chance to think, feel, argue, and reflect” in order to air and deal with anxieties and conflicts. I agree – there is no substitute for putting in the face time with all stakeholders. People need to think things through and talk them out. Sometimes I refer to periods of thinking and mulling over as “ripening” – some ideas and projects need to sit on the shelf and ripen for a while.

In one of Kotter’s recurring themes throughout his change book, he explains that management tends to undercommunicate. He asserts that the message must be repeated often and by multiple sources. From my experience, this is very true.

He says that the message should be simple, that it should be repeated often in multiple forums, and that leaders should act in ways that are consistent with the vision and strategy. I try to heed this advice by including it as a strategy for solving problems. When every member of a guiding coalition becomes a spokesperson for a change effort they work with you to refer to the vision and strategy at every meeting and public forum. This helps to raise consciousness about the problem, helps to garner support, and keeps the message on the table. In my experience, quite often, even when there is a commitment to a project or idea, the focus tends to dissipate as people deal with their daily work load and ever-present responsibilities and job-tasks. Repeating the message of the change effort is a good way to bring people back to the importance of solving the problem.

Kotter says that short-term goals are necessary to demonstrate that the strategies are working and that the organization is one the right track. They help to build momentum toward the ultimate vision. Short-term goals, then, to be effective, have to be clearly defined, achievable, measurable, and clearly related to the change effort.

He often refers to the importance of the integrity of leaders and to the necessity of matching work to deed. That is, he says, that actions must be consistent with the vision that is promoted by the leaders of an organization.

Kotter says that organizations have to transform themselves in order to survive. Organizations need to learn and grow in order to keep pace with the changing culture, economics, and global competition. When he describes organizations in this book, his focus is on leadership, so it is an alternative leadership frame, perhaps.

About John Kotter:
This information is an excerpt from his web site, http://www.kotterinternational.com/AboutUs/Bios/JohnKotter.aspx

John P. Kotter is internationally known and widely regarded as the foremost speaker on the topics of Leadership and Change. His is the premier voice on how the best organizations actually achieve successful transformations.

Kotter has authored 17 books, twelve of them bestsellers. His works have been printed in over 120 languages and total sales exceed two million copies. His latest book, A Sense of Urgency, focuses on what a true sense of urgency in an organization really is, why it is becoming an important asset and how it can be created and sustained. Just released in September of 2008, Urgency reached #7 on the New York Times bestseller list in early October.

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