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Forbes - John Kotter's Change Leadership

Kotter International
November 13, 2014

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”


Nelson Mandela’s words illustrate the profound impact of education on leadership. Not just the kind we get in school as kids or the on-the-job experiences we cobble together to learn life’s lessons, but the formal, focused, facilitated exchange and challenge of ideas and experiences with colleagues.


This type of education encourages what I call a Phoropter Effect: the ability to change the lenses we use to see everything around us. When we see the same things around us differently, we can act differently. When we act differently, we create different outcomes than we would have before. There are a few terms that describe these different outcomes:  Innovation. Evolution. Progress. Leadership.


It’s also the type of education we use in our work with global companies to help them see the world around them – and their current actions – differently. This allows them to measure the likely outcomes of their actions against the metrics of their intentions. If they recognize their current course of action will get them what they want, they have new confidence to move faster and more decisively. If they realize their current course of action will only have limited success, we create a forum for them to try new techniques and determine different actions that will help them achieve their desired goals more quickly and effectively. The conversations are structured, focused, deliberate and applicable.

This is the power of education: the ability for participants – whether individuals or groups – to take new information, new tools and techniques and immediately convert their learning into actions. Education leads to application, creating new behavior in the student and those they influence. It also turns into leadership, a major force behind change that has a direct impact on overall outcomes.


When people jump straight into action without education, we find a deficit can occur. While expectations increase, there is no new lens, no new information, no grappling with new insights, no practicing with new techniques, no applying new tools. Instead, the gap between new expectations and the capabilities to achieve them grows wider. This expanded gap leads to an ever-accelerating spiral of more frustration, more pressure, more stress and worse results.

My colleague, Gregg LeStage, asked in his recent blog whether leadership can be taught. The clear answer is “yes.” Yet the methods, techniques, times and venues for that learning are more varied than ever. More and more, people and organizations are relying on one-on-one coaching and in-the-moment teaching, offering the advantage of immediacy but lacking scalability, consistency and safety that comes with formal education. That’s why in some corporate settings, “learning opportunity” is the new vernacular for “huge mistake.”

Education is neither the “end all” nor the “be all” for creating leaders. It is, however, a critical part of the puzzle. A puzzle which, more and more, students must create the final picture and assemble the individual pieces on their own. Organizations and leaders want to create the opportunities for all the major forms of learning leadership: one-on-one coaching, on-the-job experiences and more formal education. Those who do accelerate their managers’ and future leaders’ efforts in creating that final picture of leadership – and reap the return of their leaders managing sooner and better –versus those who simply do not. That return on investment goes beyond individual or team development; it shows up directly on the top line and the bottom line.

Are you creating the opportunities for your people to learn and apply new leadership capabilities? Do your people have all the pieces they need to assemble their picture of leadership success?  Do they have the tools and talents you need to help you in assembling yours?



Kotter International
November 3, 2014

This is an old question, even a hackneyed one. Many might say that research and experience over the past decade or two demonstrate that leadership is far better learned than taught. On-the-job – and its first cousins action, experiential, and community learning – are held in the highest regard. The 70:20:10 model has long been this concept’s best known exponent. (We believe in it at Kotter International.) The “70″ refers to learning within the workflow; the “20″ refers to social learning (coaching, mentoring); the “10″ to formal skill development programs.

Deemed the most impactful, workflow learning is rewarded the greatest proportion. But the very fluidity of the 21st-century workday – with all of its sudden dams and deltas – makes intentional, mindful learning within it difficult for most organizations to channel. And then there’s the stiffer challenge of embedding this learning mode in how a company operates on a daily basis.

Because effective coaching relies so heavily on an individual’s particular skills and mindset and is typically delivered one-on-one, it is resistant to scale. An organization’s coaching is only as good as each individual that practices it.

It is only in recent years when I have been heavily involved with companies that have made bold, lasting commitments to the 70 and 20 that I truly understand the plight and importance of developing leaders in the classroom.

 Charles Jennings)

But before examining the 10, I suggest that we set the blog title question in 2014 conditions. Change has become the universal business context, the sea in which we all swim or sink. So, learning how to lead change is an obligatory, indispensable skill. And because the hallmarks of change are pervasiveness and speed, the skill is now required at all levels of an organization. All hands on deck.

Still holding off on the 10, what is the real question behind the blog title? To me, it is: What motivates people to change? As Professor John Kotter has so often written, the most effective leaders know how and when to appeal to peoples’ heads and hearts: it’s all about balance. This is never so important as when change is the order of the day or year – or era.

Adherents to the 70 know that an individual’s desire to lead change manifests itself best when he or she is doing real work in real time – often with others – on initiatives connected to the organization’s mission, values and strategy. The business reason for the change (i.e., the appeal to the head) provides the direction, but the hearts provide the motivation. The 20 also uses this fuel: the most successful coaches rely on their ability to make and keep a personal connection to an individual’s or team’s emotions and beliefs.

We can understand why workflow learning supported by coaching gets the lion’s share of the 70:20:10. This, however, is where the case for the 10 comes in. The face-to-face classroom setting is structured to engage the head by providing (literally) set and bounded space and time for intellectual focus, discussion, debate and reflection. I’m using “classroom” as a broad term to capture the concept of bounded time and space. By design and regardless of physical location, instructors teach participants and participants teach each other.

(Here is a sidebar, but a pertinent one. I, like many, believe that the 1990’s promise to deliver virtual learning as the disrupter and savior of workplace education wasn’t kept. While unique and irreplaceable in its ability to prepare individuals for an in-person learning experience and to reinforce what they learned afterwards, it cannot substitute for face-to-face interactions.)

Kotter International
October 27, 2014

While TV viewers turn the channel to the World Series and Sunday Night Football, companies seeking large-scale transformation could learn something by taking a look back at the outstanding success of the World Cup 2014 champions, the German Football Association.

As highlighted by Gavin Newsham in his article “How Germany Reinvented Football,” the team achieved a laundry list of outcomes that organizations in transformation would love to see:

  • Accessibility to customers with the lowest ticket prices of any of Europe’s major leagues
  • Strong stakeholder support with the highest average attendance in the league
  • Financial stability and great results with reported record profits in 2013
  • Development and investment of an internal talent pipeline with youth academies providing an internal talent pipeline and reducing reliance on scarce (and more expensive) imported talent
  • Market leadership as winners of the FIFA Football World Cup in 2014. Enough said.

Most companies we work with are about to start, or are in the middle of undertaking, a large-scale transformation with ramifications and implications across their global operations, business units and employees. And unequivocally they all want to get the same results that the German Bundesliga have achieved and be THE player in their chosen industry.

The key to all of this is in the “50% + 1″ rule

Taking guidance from the principles of large-scale transformation, the German Football Association in 2001 introduced the “50% + 1″ rule – which essentially means that all of the football teams in Germany have the same majority owner – their supporters and their fans – who collectively own 50 per cent of the shares plus one.

What the rule means, in practice, is that the supporters own the team and – while they don’t have to agree with every decision that management makes – they support the organization’s decisions and management. They don’t have to endure a foreign owner who cares more about her or his ego than the team. Supporter/owners want to show up to back their team – rain, snow or ice. They want to win. They believe they can win.

It’s not just football. Organizations can do this too.
But instead, here’s the process we all-too-often see:

  1. A management team calls in some smart people (internal and/or external) to develop a business strategy/plan (more on that here) to deal with a business challenge.
  2. The team works, gathers data, and builds a strategy/plan to address the issue.
  3. The team presents it to management/leadership/the board and then “roll it out” to everyone – sometimes with emails, perhaps a few ‘engaging’ videos and possibly also with some “fresh modern” posters.
  4. Then a team gets to work making changes and the project-plan-execution, gantt chart, PMO, budget-sucking, time-consuming morass of a transformation is birthed. (“Are we excited people?”)
  5. And ultimately change isn’t done on time, the results don’t show and after some period of time (6-12-18 months) the strategy/plan is rejigged, a new theme emerges and a new team is pulled into place. Some people might even have been fired or “reassigned.” Start step 1 again.

Instead of this, how about building a “50% + 1″ approach to your business transformation? Start not with the details of the minutiae and the changes, but by getting employees to the point where they want to support whatever is needed to make it work, where they want to win, where they believe that they can win. With all due respect, and apologies, to the PowerPoint-donning “strategy roll-out” experts in the world, we don’t need a deck (I doubt the Bundesliga built their massive fan support with PowerPoints). The urgency and excitement needed to transform is built by authentically talking about the vision of the future – one where you can own the market, and where your people believe it is possible to win.

Building urgency around this vision for change is the differentiator between success and abject failure. Unless you solve the challenge and reach all of your objectives, you have failed. The research of Dr. John Kotter, the world’s foremost authority on leadership and change, highlights that urgency is the first key step to achieving any major transformation.

So what’s the bottom line?
You can operate like everyone else, or you can operate like the World Champions. Take the time, and make sure that you can create massive buy-in and support from the majority of your organization before you start your big hairy transformation (or even your smaller change), and then get cracking, confident in the knowledge that you have the support of more than half of your company behind you.

It’s a lot easier to lead change when the majority of your company understands why you want/need to change, and when they want to support you, than it is when you’re whipping out your fancy PowerPoint (that no one really cares about anyway) and trying to cajole people into thinking you have something smart to say.

Oh, and skip the fancy colorful posters too – they don’t lead change either.