Change isn't the downfall, it's an opportunity for leadership

Coaches and composers advise us to do something that scares us everyday.

Coaches and composers advise us to do something that scares us everyday. For some, that is going to work - especially CEOs. Research from outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas found that in 2006, roughly 40% of CEOs who left their jobs lasted an average of 1.8 years. This is important, because the fortunes of top communicators are often tied to that of the CEO.

The natural response to this kind of news is, "uh-oh." It should be, "OK." Change is a constant. It's why we, as communicators, have jobs. Changing perceptions, behaviors, and minds is our business. Taking a leadership stance while doing so is our opportunity.

To know what to do right in times of change, it helps to understand what usually goes wrong. A collection of articles in the February 2008 Harvard Business Review provides compelling insight. In The Existential Necessity of Midlife Change, the authors rail against the "myth of magical transformation." This is the expectation that change can happen swiftly, and that the result can be vastly different from current ability. Humans just aren't built that way. Brains work through neurons that connect through numerous pathways. "Changing basic patterns of thought, feeling, and action requires that billions of new connections be formed," the authors note. It's physiologically impossible to change rapidly and drastically.

This revelation can lead to a "duh" moment, or seem like a high-brow statement of the obvious. But how often do society, Wall Street, Boards of Directors, and even loved ones expect immediate, successful change?

In The Experience Trap, the authors prove that as projects get more complicated, managers stop learning from their experience. Why? First - the more complex the issue, the greater the time lag between seeing cause and effect. Second - initial estimates often turn out to be wrong. Third - people tend to stick to initial goals, even when the unexpected shows up along the way. Successful leaders take action knowing these limits and build plans around them.

There are many ways to stay engaged and also employed during periods of change. One strategy is to duck. Another is to go with the flow, but there are four better outlooks: 1. Don't let fear create inertia; 2. There's opportunity in ambiguity - feel free to define the problem and the solution; 3. Change spelled backwards is egnahc. That's not a word today, but think of the possibilities for tomorrow; 4. Leadership typically rises from the muck.

Scientists often point to Blaberidae as one of the world's oldest, most successful species when it comes to navigating change. We know them as cockroaches. Cockroaches get stepped on, live in harsh conditions, they sometimes crawl, sometimes fly. In any case, though, they are everywhere and they thrive. Lobsters have even been called, "cockroaches of the sea." People don't always like cockroaches, but they earn respect and have a long-lasting place in the world. Like cockroaches after the apocalypse, top communicators will survive.

Lisa Davis is VP of corporate communications at AstraZeneca. Each month, she looks at a different aspect of counseling senior management from an in-house viewpoint. If you have any comments or suggestions, e-mail her at lisa.davis@prweek.com.

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