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Several of you have rung me to discuss the Business Development Unit, and in particular to challenge the need for a top quality, and therefore expensive, Director of the unit. The points made were good and so today I want to interrupt my originally planned programme to spend some time considering the realities of managing change in an organisation.

First of all it is exceptionally hard to make life changes, whether this is for yourselves or for your business. It is particularly difficult to do so “on your own” or as I will suggest without introducing a bespoke outside agent. More than 70% of coronary bypass patients revert to their unhealthy habits within two years of their operation (John Hopkins University School of Medicine), 66% of dieters gain back any weight lost within a year (US Dept of Health). Those few that maintain their new habits are almost always supported by outside agents.

The hierarchies within organisations, and the life time experiences of most successful leaders derive from years of doing things their way. We talk about “the way we do things here”. And for the most part we say that with pride and that is a good thing. We are hard wired not to change quickly otherwise life would be chaotic.

So how do you effect change? In particular how do you bring about successful change when much of it not only involves stressful self challenge (precisely why did you lose the last bid?) but also months of steady but highly insightful steps using skills that may be foreign to some/most of your teams?

In reality the only thing that convinces the brain that it is right to change is to see a new habit happening, happening big and happening well.

Creating a unit to meet the business development challenge, recruiting a top quality leader, and including the new arrival in the leadership team shows you mean it, shows everyone that something really is happening and happening big. It does much more than that of course. It introduces the skills needed and it focuses them so that nothing can stand in the way of the subsequent implementation taking place. You start to create a momentum that gathers a pace and an identity of its own. Before long you have changed your habits.

I know that in a recession you want to cut costs, but this is one time when you invest to win through.

But what if you cannot meet the cost, some of you asked? Well there are many ways to skin a cat. Here are some of the thoughts we discussed:

Recruiting strongly to staff the BDU signals you mean to make changes happen.

  • Hire a recently retired senior business man or woman. There are many available with a life time of experience, looking for part or semi full time work, looking to make a difference, to do work that is interesting and stimulating and not needing top dollar levels of pay. For a smaller practice the role may well not be a full time one, and for all it may even be a best option to test the role out before looking to a full time hire. A recently retired former MD may also bring useful local networks.
  • Use a talented young associate with the on call help of a coach or consultant. This appears a second best option because so much of the BDU impact takes place at meetings, face to face with your lead partners, and in giving instant coaching help as and when it is needed. But I have found it can work well, can give the unit a flying start. Most quality coaches are professionals at building relationships quickly, most are rapid studies and most, after an initial period and once they know their client, can be immensely helpful from the side lines, over the phone, and therefore at less cost for a long time thereafter.

  • Apportion the roles out amongst the existing partners/directors. I am most sceptical of this alternative. Having engineered so many change programmes in companies, I see only obstacles to this. The senior staff are hard pressed already, they lack the skills, they fear probing themselves and their own clients, there may well be internal hierarchical/relationship issues, they are less likely to spot new unexpected and unwanted trends – the list of entirely reasonable sheet anchors to change is a long one. But I have also seen it work, where the team has a quality coach, is strongly led, and is committed.

Achieving real change requires real commitment – don’t stint in marketing your firm?

Whatever route you decide to take here are 6 further thoughts about introducing change:

  1. Clarify and quantify the need. It is essential, a priority and must be seen to be such.
  2. Explain the apportioned roles in detail.
  3. Introduce regular feedback and monitoring.
  4. Abolish any blame culture. This is not about punishment for failure; it is about feedback and learning.
  5. Have skilled advice on call.
  6. Be open with each other and have fun!