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Forbes - John Kotter's Change Leadership

Kotter International
December 22, 2014

“H” is a magic letter. Yes, three is a magic number. Today, we are all about the “H,” no numbers. Sound familiar?

My younger daughter is at the age where weekly spelling lists and quizzes are part of her routine, with 20 words every week. She gets them on Monday, she learns them during the week and she rocks her quiz on Friday. As English is a complex language, with rules and sounds mish-mashed from everywhere around the world, some words and sounds are harder for her to learn to spell than others. So, we go with pneumatic devices and tricks to help make sense of it all: “Together” is spelled “to” “get” “her.” We sing the spelling of some multisyllabic words. Whatever it takes.

A recent quiz had two words that were especially tricky for my daughter: “neighbor” and “through.” She was looking for ways to remember how to spell the multiple sounds in consonant combinations involving the letter “H.”  That’s when it hit us: “H” really is a magic letter.

So, here are the leadership  lessons from the magical power of the letter “H.”


The Power to Transform “H” has the ability to transform other consonants into a whole new sound:  S…Sh (show).  T…Th (thought).  C…Ch (change).  P…Ph (phenomenal).  G…Gh (Ghostbusters!). It is the combination of the two that make the third a reality.

In many of our client sessions, one of the first questions we ask clients is to think about the leader who had the most positive influence in their lives, and what things he or she did to achieve that impact. The answers are remarkably consistent across cultures, ages, types of organizations, socio-economic levels and languages:

  • “He changed the way I looked at my situation.”
  • “She helped me to create a new, better outcome than I could have on my own.”
  • “She had confidence in me to do something new and different when I didn’t have that confidence in myself.”
  • “He let me try, fail, learn and grow, and he was always right there next to me for support, — especially when things didn’t go as I planned.”

The most influential leaders help others transform into leaders in their own rights. They don’t inflict their strengths and weaknesses; rather they take what the student gives them and add to it, still letting the student take the lead. Then the leader helps them to create something neither of them could have accomplished alone. Similarly, “C” and “H” make great pure cane sugar from Hawaii, but only together can they make change.


The Power to Diminish “H” also has the power to diminish otherwise strong consonants. Let’s take another look at “through” and “neighbor.” The “H” is actually working against the “G” to the point where the “G” is almost irrelevant. It’s just a heavier “H.”  If you’ve read this far, I don’t need to explain how supervisors, managers and executive “H’s” can have this effect on the “G’s” who work under them.

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.)