Discussion with Janet Andrews and Karen Freeman
Facilitated by Joiwind Ronen, August 12, 2021
[Narrator] A mosaic of pictures representing a variety of people of different races, age, and gender appear on the screen with new portraits being added to the group. A title box appears over this image.
Top 5 Superpowers Every Change Leader Needs. Superpower #4: Sustain Momentum. Discussion with Janet Andrews and Karen Freeman.
[Joiwind Ronen] Hello everybody! My name is Joiwind Ronen. I’m a partner here at the Wheelhouse Group and I am the leader of our Stories of Change initiative. This program provides opportunities to build community and resources to help leaders get better at change. Each month we are counting down a “Change Superpower” and this month we’re focused on how the best leaders sustain momentum.
We know that change leaders don’t just make a big change at one moment in time, but most change happens slowly – over a period of months even years – and in phases. And in the course of a change effort many things shift, including changes in leadership. These shifts, which are often beyond our control, can cause us to lose momentum. Keeping momentum can be really tricky, and my guests today have some tips to make it easier for leaders at all levels.
Today, I’m joined by two executives who are experts in sustaining momentum. First, let me introduce Janet Andrews. Janet has over 20 years of experience as a management and technology consulting executive and a leadership coach. She helps leaders, teams and organizations break through conflict and increase collaboration. She helps them become more aware of how organizational dynamics, system processes and work styles create roadblocks. Today, she coaches over 20 government leaders, including at the General Services Administration. Earlier in Janet’s career she was a consultant at American Management Systems and at SRA Touchstone – where we first got connected. Welcome Janet! It’s so nice to see you.
Janet let’s talk about why momentum is so hard. What have you seen as an executive coach that makes building and sustaining momentum hard?
[Janet Andrews] Thanks, Joiwind, I appreciate being part of this conversation because building… so building momentum – so let’s start there. Building momentum with change is hard because it really requires this groundswell of support. To do this, not only do you have to establish a compelling vision for change, but you also have to gain alignment from others that the change is important to them. And I think we can really get excited in our own vision of change and when we do that, we tend to underestimate that between awareness and true adoption. There is – you know – there are so many mental and emotional shifts that we as people really need to process in order to really start to evolve towards what that organizational shift is actually going to be. And when you’re leading a large change, you aren’t just trying to align one individual, you’re trying to engage an entire system of people to move with you.
And if that isn’t hard enough, you know, large organizations who are doing change initiatives that can take months or years to fully implement – it’s kind of like an endurance event. And we’re not talking a one-day marathon, we’re kind of talking an iron man, right? There are so many phases to it that even, you know, when you feel like you’re picking up momentum, there is going to be something that’s going to knock you off a bit. You know, that could be (as you mentioned) a new leader who might be coming in to question, you know, ‘oh well what was the purpose of the change initiative that you just started?’ It could be a budget cut. It could be a sudden shift in in sentiment. And so sustaining momentum on a large organizational or programmatic change really takes huge reserves of resilience, patience, and this unique combination of both adaptability and consistency.
And I think it’s important to think about change as a long game. It’s an evolution, not a one-time event. And so, if you’re doing a technology program managing change, I mean, that change doesn’t stop with the first rollout. It doesn’t even stop with the last rollout. And if you’re reorganizing a company, it doesn’t stop when the names on the org chart are officially moved into your HR system. Those are important milestones to celebrate, but those are just the tips of the waves of change. And, you know, and then I think that it’s that view on the long term – and sticking with it – that makes sustaining momentum really challenging.
[Joiwind Ronen] Thanks, Janet. I love that concept of it not just being a marathon, it’s actually an Iron Man.
So, before we ask you a few more questions, I want to get Karen in on this conversation. Let me introduce Karen Freeman. After 38 years of service, Karen retired from the Senior Executive Service of the federal government and now she’s an executive advisor to several companies that provide services to the federal sector. Prior to retirement she served as the deputy CIO for operations at the Internal Revenue Service where she ensured that the nation’s tax infrastructure was in place for the processing of over 200 million tax returns annually.
Karen, so you were at the IRS for many years. What were the types of situations where you saw leaders and teams struggle with momentum? Curious your perspective.
[Karen Freeman] Building on what Janet has said, you know, it is a long game – and if you’re in the federal government there are several things that can interrupt the game. When I was there, I worked under 10 different commissioners for the IRS. I was in the IT organization – I think we had six CIOs in seven years, so that’s a lot of change.
Other things that happen in the federal government is you’re not in control of your own budget, right. The budget has to be passed by Congress. Sometimes it’s passed timely, sometimes it’s not timely. Sometimes it is the amount that you’ve requested for all the work that you’ve been given, sometimes it’s not. These things can slow down your momentum. Also, Congress creates legislation that impacts federal agencies, and so then priorities shift depending on what’s in the legislation and what you have to do, and, you know, what the leadership decides is going to be the priorities based on that [legislation].
And then you also just have the day-to-day mission that always has to get done no matter what – regardless of the change in leadership, regardless of the budget, regardless of new legislation. So, all of those things have to be handled by the leadership team to make sure that the team continues to make progress.
[Joiwind Ronen] Thanks, Karen. You touched on a lot of the complexities of working in government and one of those is that there can be so much transition. I’m curious Janet, you’ve supported many of your coaching clients as they transition and navigate careers around government and step into new roles. You’ve also worked with CEOs in the private sector. I’m curious – when people are at that very high level the pressure to hit the ground running and to deliver can be fierce. What can you share about some of the common success themes that you’ve seen that might help some of the people listening to this webinar understand?
[Janet Andrews] So you know, obviously, it certainly helps to have a certain level of conviction around your change agenda – or what I like to call your ‘north star.’ And I often think about it in terms of Simon Sinek’s mantra about starting to think about that in terms of messaging – start with your ‘why’, right? Because I think that there is this aspect of we may understand where our change agenda is coming from, but it’s really important to make sure that the people around us really understand that as well.
And because oftentimes we understand what our change agenda is, it is honestly so hard to resist this temptation to just start planning and executing that vision. Whether it’s from external pressure or your own excitement. And there is this aspect of when new leaders come into an organization and try to implement changes before they have really demonstrated that they know and appreciate the organization, it feels like brute force and it creates resentment.
And so the leaders who are the most successful are the ones who cultivate adoption by engaging and leveraging the right resources around them. It takes discipline to do this. To not succumb to seemingly intuitive moves and doing it too fast. And so, you really have to be able to balance action with learning.
And I don’t know, Joiwind, if you remember at Touchstone we used to say “go slow to go fast.” And there is this aspect of taking enough time to really understand who you need to focus on first, in order to have some quick wins. And how quickly you, as the leader, learn and demonstrate your knowledge and appreciation for the organization – you know, its talent, its customers, its other stakeholders, its processes. That’s what you need to move on fast, first, so that you can take those lessons and start to incorporate that in how you want to roll out any change – whether it’s programmatic or organizational. Use those to meter your pace, your next steps, so that you can build momentum. And then you do it over and over again in a sustained and metered way.
[Joiwind Ronen] Thanks Janet, those are some really helpful tips if you’re a new leader coming into an organization.
And I’m curious, Karen, about the flip side of that because you’ve been on the other side of that change – having so much change, kind of up above. What’s the first thing that you do when you have a new leader come in and how do you really ready yourself for the change?
[Karen Freeman] Well one thing I want to say, commenting on Janet’s comments, that we also have a saying “if you want to go fast – go alone, but if you want to go far – go together.” And so, I think when you have a new leader come in it’s incumbent upon the present leaders and the teams to understand the mindset of that new leader and why that new leader was chosen.
So, it could be for many reasons that they brought the leader in – it could be to shake things up and change things. And, I agree with Janet, that even if that is the reason, they still need to understand their organization before they bulldoze through the organization with their changes. It could be because they’re an expert in a specific business acumen that the agency needs or they’re expert in gaining efficiencies of productivity. But I think it’s important for the team to understand why this leader was chosen, what their skill set is, what their mindset is and understand that everybody is still trying to carry out the mission of the agency.
But the new leader may have a different vision for success than the previous leader and we need to understand that. I think it’s also important that you as a leader understand your role in this new vision or this new approach to carrying out the mission, as well as being able to communicate that repeatedly to your team. Because I think everybody, if they understand the ‘why’ things are changing, can get on board for the most part.
And so, I think those are the most important things when the new leader comes in – to show your value there and to understand what they’re trying to do and why they’re taking the approach that they’re taking.
[Joiwind Ronen] Karen, can you talk a little bit more about the team aspect of that? I love the notion of really bringing your team along and working together, but sometimes there are these strategic pauses or changes in budget. How do you really keep them motivated when you have a new leader up above and maybe external forces that are involved? A lot of these people have been working in government a long time and you want to keep them motivated, excited, and productive. What are what are some of your tips and tricks?
[Karen Freeman] Well one, you have to understand that the new leader needs information and the team is the greatest resource for that information. I mean, the team knows better what’s going on in the agency and on the ground than any of the leaders at the top, frankly, who are focused on strategy and the broad mission.
So, you can engage your team by having them develop the strategy along with you to bring to your new leader. So, what can we renegotiate in terms of pauses or stopping? What’s most important about this project? As Janet had said earlier, these things take time – so it’s not just the first release, it’s many releases. What’s the most important thing that we need to deliver? Maybe we can pare it down. How does this project fit in with the vision of the new leader and the strategies that they have? Can it be adjusted to, you know, fit into whatever niche they are establishing?
And so, it’s really engaging the team to let them know that their work is still important. That they’re still important. That we still have the same mission and that we need to be prepared for the next change. When the budget increases and now suddenly they want your project back on schedule, or when a new leader comes in and says ‘hey, that thing you were doing a couple years ago that was put on pause? We really need to start that back up.’ So, I think your team needs to really understand the peaks and valleys of government work in terms of these transitions and be prepared to continually step up.
[Joiwind Ronen] Thanks, Karen. I’m curious in that whole back and forth – and as things grow and expand, and then they might change administration to administration – sometimes we see people being outright resistant and even disgruntled. How do you, in in those really challenging kind of outlier situations, how do you bring people along?
[Karen Freeman] Well, I think first you have to understand that people take a lot of pride in their work, and they get really attached to their work; and in some cases, you can’t always bring them along. You have to create strategies around them or offer them other opportunities where their energies could possibly be used. But, if they are open to getting on board, it’s usually a matter of communication, or something they’re not understanding in terms of their role, or why we’re taking this new approach, and what they could do to be a part of it. How they can support the rest of the team if they would make slight changes or give a different representation of the problem or program. And so, I think it’s through conversation and making sure that they are engaged that way. And then recognizing that if someone is really not willing to go along with the new agenda, that maybe there’s something else that they should be doing.
[Joiwind Ronen] Thanks, Karen. Janet, I want to switch it back over to you. You often talk about the importance of engaging trusted advisors. And I’m wondering, if a leader is new to a role at a very senior level, how do they begin to assemble that group and how does that help with maintaining momentum?
I think you’re a mute Janet.
[Janet Andrews] Thank you. So, there’s a saying that Lee Iacocca famously said, which is this aspect of “business is… nothing more than a bunch of relationships.” And it sounds flippant, but there’s wisdom in that. Because I think when you come into an organization – whether you were brought in or even if you were brought in to enact change – I think it’s important to come in with a beginner’s mindset. A learner’s mindset. And at Wheelhouse, we talk a lot about the value of managing stakeholders. And your team is a stakeholder. And, as Karen said, your team is also your greatest source of information.
And so, when you’re thinking about building your team of trusted advisors, you need to consider what type of relationship do you want to have with them. And are you willing to extend trust? And are you willing to have conversations with your senior leaders, peers, other leaders around you about the real impact of change and where maybe you disagree and where it’s going to be hard? And if you’re coming in as a senior leader, it is really incumbent upon you to create an environment of psychological safety. Which is not about making things feel comfortable for everyone, but it’s about making clear that trust is being built on being able to have a solid discourse around disagreements, around risks, what makes things hard.
And so, what you really need to do is you need to learn about your team around you, right. Understand the role that they are going to play in terms of your team of trusted advisors. Because you need a variety of skills around you in order to make change work. It’s relational skills, execution skills, strategy skills, influence skills. You need people to support you, and also to be devil’s advocate. So, they can help you be more strategic about how you’re going to roll out change. And so, if you don’t take time to invest to know them and if you don’t trust your leaders, they’re not going to trust you back. They’re not going to be informing you about the landmines you might hit or the fatigue in the organization that is going to slow things down. But if you do [trust] and you listen to the information that they’re trying to share with you, there is this aspect of they’re going to be able to help you shift course appropriately. But you have to extend that trust first.
And, if I may, I’d love just to share a story of two leaders that I worked with several years ago. One was a leader – a founder and CEO of this fast growth tech company. He had lost to two key staff and his product and delivery quality started to suffer. And when he brought me in, he really wanted to focus on implementing new control processes, right? To fix quality. And because he was really concerned about that the time that he was spending with his team was distracting him from other activities. And, unfortunately, I wasn’t really able to sway him that he needed to focus on his people over process. And within his organization no one else could sway him either. And it was really interesting, because over the course of the duration that I worked with him, I came to learn he trusted no one. He trusted no one to develop these processes by himself. And so, what ended up happening is he had very little support within the organization around these changes. The turnover continued and what’s now happened is the company still exists, but their ability to scale has been diminished.
Now during that same period, I was working with another leader who had just taken over half of a global sales organization for a fairly large company. And when he brought me in, our work together was really focused on establishing clarity around his vision and how he wanted to connect with his new organization. And so, he took a few months to really figure out, you know, how did he want to build relationships, understand how things operated, share his vision, before he implemented a massive reorg. And that aspect of him taking the time to build the trusted advisors around him, meant that he could implement the reorg fast with pretty – well go slow to go fast, right – minimal drama. And the key staff that he really wanted to retain, stayed and helped to advocate. So, there was this really nice layering effect of support that he had built prior to actually executing the reorg. And since then he’s actually now been promoted to head up the entire global sales org. So just, kind of, two contrasting stories, if that’s helpful.
[Joiwind Ronen] Thanks, Janet. That is really helpful. I mean, stories always bring home the points, right? And, you know, I’m curious – so both those stories were kind about external forces or bringing in trusted advisors. I’m curious, on the flip side, about leaders and kind of their own personal momentum. And sometimes, I know at places in my career, you know, you lose momentum and gain momentum more on a personal level or even like a self-motivation level. So, how do you help leaders who might not have hit their stride? Or might be struggling themselves, but know they need to inspire others to lead and that they need to do it right away? What advice would you give in that situation?
[Janet Andrews] So, there is this aspect of remembering – inspiration doesn’t come from being a Pollyanna cheerleader, or even a great orator. There’s this inspiration in being able to talk into what you’re feeling and being able to leverage that. Brené Brown calls it “rumbling with vulnerability.” And if you can tap into your own fears and feelings, it is actually pretty powerful. Because it helps you understand, perhaps, what is some of the resistance behind that. If you can dive into that, because it’s actually some of the same feelings and fears that the people that you’re leading have too, and you can use that to inspire. And it doesn’t mean that’s necessarily this bares all “oh I’m not motivated to do it – don’t shoot the messenger, we just have to do it.” But it’s rather this aspect of “yeah, we’re going through this change, it’s going to be hard, I’m processing it too, and let’s really talk about how we’re going to support each other through this change because you know x outcome is really what we’re trying to be able to achieve.” And so, it might not feel like you’re hitting your stride because you don’t feel all rah-rah about it, but it’s really about being able to tap into that empathy and connect. You know, I think it’s as Karen was saying earlier, being able to connect with the with your team at all layers and levels in an organization.
[Joiwind Ronen] Thanks, Janet. Karen, I’m curious, still on this topic about inspiring others or finding your own inspiration, especially after having spent over three decades in the federal government – how did you stay inspired and inspire others? And if there are any examples you recall, it would be great to hear if there’s some tips that you have for others out there struggling with the same thing.
[Karen Freeman] Sure. Well I’ll talk about two things because I’ll [also] talk about being inspired to be one of the trusted leaders when you have a new high level leader come in. And, to me, there are three things that are important: it’s credibility, reliability, and integrity. And seeking that out in yourself to deliver to the new leader, to me, is inspiring. I mean, this person who’s coming in needs a trusted advisor – your credibility is very important, and they need to know that they can go to you and you’re going to give them the straight scoop, and that they can rely on you for good information, and you won’t sugarcoat things unnecessarily. So, your integrity is there, and I think that’s really important to keep people inspired to let them know that they are free to pursue those three aspects of their leadership.
In terms of losing momentum myself, I do recall time I had just moved from a very complex role with lots of people and it was strenuous, you know. It was 12-hour days. And I moved into a role that I thought was a lot less strenuous, frankly. I would look at my watch at four o’clock and say ‘okay, I’m all done.’ And it was very hard for me to feel inspired in this role.
But then I did start thinking about sports, I love sports. And I feel like anybody can engage and enjoy sports if they understand the rules, if they know the roles of the players, and they know the skill set that really is required to succeed. And I started looking at my job that way. I certainly knew the rules. And I thought I knew the roles – but how deep was I going with that? On my own role, with the role of the team members? How deep was I going to see what the true role was, and did I have an appreciation for the skill set required for success and what they were delivering?
I used that to try to inspire myself and to engage more with the people – so now I had to find the answers to these questions. And it’s not just about, you know, what they’re doing – a specific program or our project – but it’s about them as employees. Like, what drives them, what’s their role, what do they want for their career, how do they like to communicate, and what gives them motivation? Which is certainly not the same for everyone. And so, I think, I use those types of things to help me get more inspired myself, and to inspire the team, and to appreciate the new role that I was in. And to appreciate that – wow, I was getting a little bit of a break from those grueling 12-hour days. I had to recharge my own batteries so that I could be ready for the next role which went into operations – which was definitely a 24×7 deal. So, anyway, that’s how I chose to inspire myself and the team.
[Joiwind Ronen] Thanks, Karen. I really like that mantra of credibility, reliability, and integrity. I think those are really some words to live by. We are going to go ahead and wrap up with a final question here. I’m curious if you were to tell our leaders listening what is one new thing they could go out tomorrow and try and do differently, or something they could take away, what would you recommend they try? Janet let’s start with you.
[Janet Andrews] So, I would definitely say it’s never too late to take stock of how well you’ve engaged the people affected by change. And I think that there are two things about that. One is it’s never too late to surround yourself with a well-rounded team of people who can really support you throughout the entire life cycle of change. I think that there are these – Karen mentioned roles, right – when you’re in an organization and it’s trying to lead some type of change initiative, you’re going to need different roles around you to really support you. As Karen mentioned, change isn’t something you do alone. You need people who understand the organization, the change dynamics. You need advocates. You need advisors who are going to, as Karen so eloquently alluded to, tell you the truth in a pretty unvarnished way. And so, I would have leaders just take a moment to really think about ‘well, who have I (or who have we, if you already have a small group of trusted advisors) not reached out to lately that we really need to engage? To both support our team, but also that are being affected by this change that we might need to further engage. So that would be my one piece of final advice.
[Joiwind Ronen] Thanks, Janet. And what about you, Karen? What do you want to leave our listeners with?
[Karen Freeman] So, I would say that for a new leader coming in they need to understand that change or transformation is a two-way street. If they think that they’re going to come into an organization, especially in the federal government, and create change and not be changed themselves – they have a rude awakening coming to them. So, I would say that recognizing that, they need to get out and engage with the people at all levels of the organization. So that the organization understands what they’re bringing and why they’re changing, but they [leaders] also understand what it takes to change and what the impact is of the change that they’re requesting for the employees. Everyone that comes into the IRS as a leader, eventually they say “they never knew” something… they never knew that it would be this hard, or take this long, or it would have this kind of impact. Because it is a two-way street and they’ve changed their mind about being a leader in government once they try it for themselves.
[Joiwind Ronen] Thanks, Karen. Change definitely is a two-way street. I haven’t heard it described that way before, but it is a very compelling, very compelling piece of advice.
So, thank you both for sharing, Janet and Karen. I appreciate you lending me your brain, your time, your perspective. It was a really great discussion. I encourage everybody to come to our website, which is wheelhousegroup.com/stories of change, where you can read articles written by Janet and Karen, and you can access other great tips and free resources that we have available. Each month we are unveiling a new superpower. This is month two – around sustaining momentum. But we will be unveiling other superpowers each month and we look forward to seeing you there.
Have a great day! Thanks, everybody, for joining us.