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Through the Storm Leadership Series: Part 1: Leading Through Organizational Change

The Buffalo, or the American Bison for those keeping score, is an amazing creature. Here in Colorado, I see them often. I’m always taken aback by their astonishing beauty, fantastic history, and, if I’m being totally honest, their raw power. They are amazingly majestic and resilient creatures with a knack for survival. The American Bison is a herd animal which means it spends its life in a family like unit, raising young, mating, and protecting the rest of the herd from the harsh threats of the wild. The plains where buffalo roam (stop singing, lol) are treacherous places with little tree cover. Storms can kill a heard of livestock in a few hours if they can’t find shelter, so that's what most herd animals do - find shelter... But not the Buffalo.

But the buffalo is different. The buffalo, instead of running for cover, will head directly into the storm and push through it. I don’t know if somewhere in the buffalo cerebral cortex is an instinct for survival that tells them that if they go through the storm, they will eventually come out on the other side, but nevertheless, this is what they do. Yes, some of them struggle, but what heading into the storm does is shortens the lifespan of the storm itself, thus shortening the time the buffalo spend in the storm. As I have been unpacking the "Through the Storm" concept, I've learned a ton from the buffalo about leading teams through different leadership storms. This series is meant to address some of these storms and give us some tools to help guide us through them, not around them. The first storm we will cover is the storm of organizational change.

Every organization, if it's thriving and growing, will go through organizational change. It's simply a part of business. As business requirements change so must the organization. As leaders, we have to adapt to this change quickly and ensure that we are addressing the needs and concerns of those who work for us and with us. But how do we take all of these concerns and fears and still move forward through the storm? There are dozens of theories and change management models that help guide us through change, so let's focus on 1 - Lewin's model for change.

Kurt Lewin was a German American psychologist, known as one of the modern pioneers of social, organizational, and applied psychology in the United States. During his professional career Lewin applied himself to three general topics: applied research, action research, and group communication. Lewin knew a thing or two about how to lead through change.

His model has only three parts to it. 1) Unfreeze 2) Change 3) Re-freeze. Simple, right? Not really... Let's unpack these a bit.

Step 1: Unfreeze - When organizational change is necessary, it's usually met with immediate hesitation. Those effected by the change need to understand why the change is necessary, what the change will be, and how they will be impacted by the change. Enter FEAR! As a leader, it's your job to get the answers to their questions and help them move toward some sort of comfortability with the unknown. You, as a leader, don't have to have all of the answers right now. You, as a leader, do have to make sure that your people feel seen, heard, and valued, and that you are continuously building a culture of trust and transparency to the extent you are able. You have to break the organizational change ice off of your team and get them moving forward by making sure they clearly understand what is changing, how it will impact them, and what the outcome of the change will be. Once they thaw out, they can start moving toward actual change.

Step 2: Change - Time to get to work. Your team knows their "Why" and are ready to execute. They are now a strong herd of buffalo, standing up, and ready to head into the storm. One of the most important tools in your leadership toolbox at this stage in the game is communication. You have to be able to communicate tasks, changes, expectations, and timelines effectively. Set up deadlines and create micro-goals that your team can achieve to keep them motivated and on track. Questions that you should be asking your team in this phase are, "Do you have everything you need to do your job well?", and "How can I support you in getting to the next goal?". Your team needs to be a well fed, hydrated, thick skinned, motivated, herd of American Bison, and you are taking the lead, moving them from landmark to landmark toward the clear pastures just beyond the storms edge! Communicate, build trust, empower, and equip! Soon enough, you will find yourself on the other side of this thing, ready to rest and learn from what you just went through.

Step 3: Re-freeze - After all of the work you and your team just put in, it's now time to relax and recover, right? Not just yet. This final phase of the change process is the most important. This is where you create a new normal based on the organizational change you just went through. Your organization changed for a reason. There was something that needed fixing. You and your team have to solidify the new practices you've put in place to succeed in this brand-new organization. It's time to collect feedback from your people, other leaders, and the executives on what systems and processes will remain and which ones will stay in the storm. You need to identify those who excelled through the storm and recognize them for their work and create training programs for your team in order to really drive these new processes home. You have made it through the storm. Now it's time to prepare for the next one. Make sure your herd is stronger than they were before and that they are ready to thrive in their new environment.

As you complete all of these steps, create feedback loops that will give you the data you need to improve. Just like the buffalo, you have to have thick skin in order to survive. Your herd, or your team, is your biggest asset as your organizations or teams change and it can be extremely difficult and confusing at times. Lead your people well, make sure they have what they need, and make sure you don't leave them in the snow.

Leadership storms will come in many different forms. As leaders, it's about charging toward them WITH our herd intact, prepared, and motivated. None of us are able to go through these storms alone, so let's make sure that our herds are strong and ready for each and every storm that will inevitably come our way.

Stay tuned for more leadership lessons from the buffalo and let's move through these storms together!


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