He is describing an organization that is alert and aware; an organization that sees challenges and opportunities; an organization that acts on these in an intentional way, with purpose. What manager would not want their firm described in these terms?
So, how does a manager of a feed and grain firm start down this path? Kotter says winning hearts and minds, as opposed to winning just minds, is key. The idea here is simple: It is pretty easy to get someone intellectually convinced we have an issue or a challenge that needs to be addressed. But intellectual commitment is not likely to bring the kind of commitment it takes to drive action and performance. Only by connecting with people’s minds and their hearts/emotions can we truly drive a sense of urgency into an organization.
Let’s go back to the case story to illustrate. Let’s say our manager is not as asleep as he evidently was. Two years ago, he gets a sense of some of the things that are happening. He has an intern collect some data on customers lost and gained, and maybe even does a little analysis as to why. The manager calls a meeting and shares the data in a well developed presentation that points out the risks to the company. Everyone nods in agreement and says we need to take action. The next day is another busy one in the firm, and while some of the employees at the meeting have a few follow-up things to do, they all are pretty busy. Sound familiar?
Consider a different path of action. Same scenario, but instead of just delivering a presentation, the manager at Eastern brings in three customers for a panel discussion with his employees. The first customer is a new one from the competitor who is failing. He talks candidly about how he likes the stability of Eastern, but still believes service could improve. A second customer indicates that Eastern is very convenient because of all the construction, but that he isn’t sure he will stay with Eastern once the construction is finished. The last customer describes his longer term plans to bring even more grain drying and handling capacity on line at his farm. The employees at the meeting ask question after question, but the reality is obvious: Eastern has a serious issue that deserves time and energy to address.
The message was the same in both cases, but Kotter believes that managers who know how to strike an emotional chord, who know how to build commitment of both the mind and the heart, are the ones who can instill a sense of positive urgency. The data alone did not get the job done. It took the reality of customers talking candidly about their businesses to open the eyes of the employees at Eastern.
What specific actions can you take to help create and sustain that sense of urgency in your firm? Kotter lays out four tactics for making this happen:
- Bring the outside in: Continually expose the organization to what is going on around it. The customer panel in our Eastern story is a great example. Have outside speakers in meetings. Listen carefully to employees who work with customers every day. One way to avoid complacency is to help your firm be continually reminded, in a way that connects, of the fact that the market is changing, creating new opportunities and challenges every single day.
- Behave with urgency each day: As a leader, model the behavior you expect. Here, Kotter is not talking about high-strung leadership, he is talking about a leader who is focused on the important and delegates the unimportant things to other employees. He’s describing a leader who starts and ends every meeting on time, always has an agenda, and never leaves a meeting without clarity around next steps. He is talking about a leader who is passionate about serving customers, running a great firm, and taking advantage of opportunity — and never misses an opportunity to communicate these points to their team. He is talking about a person who is involved in the organization in a way that allows as many as possible to see how their leader approaches the world.
- Find opportunity in crisis: We hear a lot about this lately — “never waste a good crisis” has become almost cliché. A crisis can be a trigger to wake up an organization and help get it refocused on external realities. Kotter makes some good points here: First, don’t assume a crisis will automatically shake up a complacent organization. You need to make sure people understand the crisis (bring the outside in) and you need to be a model of response. The key here is engaging people in solving the problem in some focused way. You don’t want an organization that is flailing and panicked in response to the crisis; you want all that energy put to work with focus.