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Forbes - John Kotter's Change Leadership

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.

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.