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Forbes - John Kotter's Change Leadership

Kotter International
July 9, 2015

McKinsey made an argument for why leadership development programs fail. At Kotter International, we recognize the difficulty in successfully implementing these programs, but we also believe they can be a key component to helping you and your organization thrive in an increasingly complex world. Part 1 of this series highlighted the importance of setting and communicating realistic expectations around leadership development programs. Part 2 of this series explores the critical role of solid, empirical research as the basis for the development of these programs.

Speed and complexity are constantly increasing in today’s world. Organizations can no longer rely solely on the top tier of the hierarchy to navigate this changing environment – they must rely on leaders at all levels. But, in order to do this, they need to broaden their definition of leadership and make an effort to develop more of their leaders, especially at the often over-looked middle level.

And the hard part: they must develop their leaders holistically. Proactive leadership development requires organizations to embrace the 70:20:10 model: 70% dedicated to on-the-job learning, 20% to social learning through coaching or mentoring and 10% to formal skill development programs. However, few organizations execute any of these components well, let alone all three. While there are a number of documented reasons for ineffective deployment of the model, there is one characteristic that all successful leadership development programs share: a strong research foundation underpinning the 70, 20 and 10.

Too often, we see organizations recognize the need to develop leaders throughout the organization, decide on strategic imperatives and HR initiatives to address these needs, and then try to collate research from various thought-leaders to back up their strategies. In these cases, research is often an after-thought for programs developed in-house. On the flip side, many external firms build programs based on a mash-up of findings from multiple thought-leaders. Although well-intentioned, these approaches lead to confusion, lack of engagement, and, many times, an attempt to adhere to competing ideas.

At Kotter International, we argue that sound, empirical research is the necessary foundation for successfully developing leaders. Empirical research is not abstract theory or learning garnered from experiments in a lab. Empirical research is focused on the thoughts and actions of people doing real work in the real world. This is the solid foundation for successful leadership development.


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It allows you to leverage proven success.

Because empirical research is focused on real work in the real world, it provides you with an understanding of how successful (and unsuccessful) organizations have approached leadership development. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. While there is certainly room for innovation in terms of how you can apply this research to leadership development programs within your organization, we absolutely should seek to learn – and benefit – from others.

It provides participants with clarity and confidence.

Having a clear approach to leadership development from the outset provides clarity for those working to implement and those participating in these programs. There is inherently more trust in the process when this approach is founded on empirical research. Clarity is further increased when organizations base their approach to leadership development on a single, coherent model built from this research. Combining models from a variety of thought-leaders leads to confusion, particularly when there are contradictions within these models. Having a clear foundation and clear direction will limit potential frustrations, increasing engagement and the likelihood that participants will continually apply what is learned back on the job.

It equips participants with a shared language.

People within the organization will begin to develop – and use – a shared language when leadership development programs are created using a cohesive approach, based on empirical research. This allows for continued reinforcement of ideas, spanning the classroom (the 10%), relationships with a mentor or coach (the 20%) and on the job (the 70%).

Too often, organizations build the components of the 70:20:10 on different research and models, but the most effective approaches to leadership development intentionally ground all three aspects on the same model. Successful integration of these three aspects occurs when organizations base their approach to leadership development on empirical research, and when this research is threaded throughout on-the-job learning, mentoring and coaching, and formal classroom experiences.

Stay tuned for Part 3 of the series, which will look at the power of fundamentally reshaping the organizational context in which companies implement their leadership development efforts. 

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Kotter International
June 4, 2015

McKinsey recently made a case for why leadership programs often fail. Unfortunately, too many organizations would corroborate this case. Yet legions of leadership development professionals are still grinding out solutions and those very organizations are still spending what amounts to billions on them. Both providers and buyers are locked in a costly cycle of ineffectiveness and dissatisfaction. Of course, the effective and satisfied are out there. There are just too few of them. How do we address this? We need to reframe and revalue – not devalue – leadership development programs in order to tap their intrinsic value.

Many reasons for leadership program failure are widely recognized. Reasons for success, by comparison, are not. Quality of content is seldom a reason for failure or success, so we don’t need a call to action to improve it. (Moreover, well-designed programs based on solid intellectual property are abundant.)

At Kotter International’s Center for Leaders, we believe that what surrounds and binds content requires much more strategic and tactical attention than it typically receives. To begin to reframe how we think about leadership development programs is to start well before any solution is designed or delivered. Critical success factors languish in areas that leadership development professionals tend to bypass because they seem unimportant or abandon them because they are difficult to achieve. First among them is assumption setting.

Too often, leadership development programs start behind the eight ball of poor internal marketing and communications. A study of hundreds of surveys given to leadership development program participants that asks the question “Were you informed of the program’s description and objectives prior to attending” shows that the vast majority responded “No.” The individuals or functions responsible for leadership development routinely neglect to communicate the facts and realities of their offerings – besides content and competencies – that contribute significantly to their value.

We have observed that there are polarized tendencies within functions that provide programs. Some inflate their programs’ effectiveness to offset a prevailing belief that they are ineffective. Others assume a defensive or apologetic posture based in a covert concern that their offerings just might be ineffective. In short, they set the wrong assumptions or don’t set any at all. The result? Participants that expect too much or too little.


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We strongly recommend setting the right – that is, the realistic – expectations based on accurate assumptions. We believe it is essential to:

Be honest about limitations. Clarify what each leadership development solution can and cannot provide a participant, a team, a function. There is a vast difference between what a learner gains from spending two hours listening to a guru and a 2-day business simulation. Between straight knowledge transfer and skill development. Don’t assume your potential participants will readily internalize and accept the limitations. It’s the role of the programs’ stewards to name them.

Kotter International
March 5, 2015

Next year will mark the twentieth anniversary of John Kotter’s guide to change management Leading Change, which introduced his 8-Step Process for Leading Change within an organization. The book was very influential, but since then the pace of change in the business world has sped up greatly. How do those eight steps look today? Kotter updated the process, after extensive research, in his 2014 book Accelerate. The points below illustrate four key revisions he made to his steps for change to make them work in today’s environment.

Leading Change: 8-Step Process (1996)

  • Respond to or affect episodic change in rigid, finite, and sequential (step by step) ways
  • Drive change with a small, powerful core group
  • Function within a traditional hierarchy
  • Focus on doing one new thing very well in a linear fashion over time

Accelerate: 8-Step Process (2014)

  • Run the steps concurrently and continuously
  • Form a large volunteer army from up, down and across the organization to serve as the change engine
  • Function in a network flexibly and agilely outside of, but in conjunction with, a traditional hierarchy
  • Operate as if strategy is a dynamic force by constantly seeking opportunities, identifying initiatives to capitalize on them, and completing them quickly and efficiently




Engaging your volunteer army

What I find particularly compelling is the concept of the volunteer army (the “new” Step 4) because it embodies size, speed, complexity and power in service of change. It is very difficult for an organization to harness these four elements in combination. When it does, large numbers of employees rally under an opportunity, take action and transform their company. For example:

  • In a renowned consumer products company, 2,000 volunteers signed up in six weeks with the purpose of transforming their global supply chain
  • In order to adjust to large shifts in both the competitor landscape and buyers’ buying behaviors, more than 9,000 employees across a national auto re-seller’s 70 locations volunteered to help increase sales
  • When two companies merged to form the largest publishing company in history, their two sales forces, formerly arch competitors, came together in a volunteer army to defeat the enemy of most mergers: failed integration of people and systems
  • A division of a global defense and aerospace giant set out to raise a volunteer army of 350 to seed a growth culture, but the broad appeal of the opportunity attracted 2,300 in only six weeks.


Celebrating the “small” stuff

The generation of short-term wins (Step 6) also remains vital to any large-scale change: wins are the molecules of results. Their influence ranges from cultural to financial. For instance, a broad communication about an achievement is an injection of the positive that activates an optimistic desire in the workforce to do more. Celebrated wins from cost-reduction or revenue-generating efforts openly link specific thinking and behaviors to the bottom and top lines.

What we’ve seen is a doubling down on efforts to define what a win is based on the company’s culture and on their transformation’s objectives. Increased rigor and discipline in collecting, tracking and evaluating wins in significant volume pays off. The prize is any unassailable correlation between a win – or body of like wins – and a business result. The bonus can be bigger than the win itself. Some wins, when detailed and celebrated, can go viral and expand their impact by creating copycats.