Managing change continues to be at the top of the corporate leadership agenda, but with middle managers growing increasingly change-weary, organizations are meeting increased resistance along the way.
A study of some 900 executives by workplace consultants BlessingWhite found that leading teams through organizational change is viewed as extremely or very challenging by nearly half of those surveyed.
Managing change is often seen as a core leadership development issue, said BlessingWhite CEO Christopher Rice.
"Nevertheless, the study suggests the usual approaches to leadership development aren't delivering solutions. The latest data call to mind how worrisome change is for many management teams. If anything, it's gotten tougher with more middle managers saying they're change weary."
The study, which quizzed 898 executives who manage technical professionals at more than 30 organizations across four continents, also found that organizations are meeting increased resistance to change, especially at middle-management level.
"The Board may pivot at any moment, and so can an agile CEO," said Rice. "But getting the next echelon to move proves to be a lot harder. There's always a call for resilience and flexibility, but not enough guidance how to go about it." While every major company pursues leadership development today, explained Rice, goals and methods vary widely.
"Frequently leadership programs are little more than speaker preparation for spin control. What companies end up with is a kind of 'leadership development lite.'" Instead, Rice advises, organizations must focus on substance and content. "That's what is truly important. After all, the critical part is getting the top management team to have a clear fix on the strategic direction, and how that translates for different parts of the organization.
"The strategy has to be communicated so people understand what they need to do, and care enough to do so even if it disrupts their routine," he insisted. The implication of this, Rice added is that it may be pointless to address leadership as a purely training or development issue.
"Doing so tends to put the task in the wrong hands. In our experience, the best executives are students of their own leadership. They're already on their journey, and where consultants may contribute is helping to mobilize the other essential players in the organizational shift."
Senior executives get to where they are based on what is called "competence," said Rice.
"We mean business aptitude, a strong focus and clarity about what they want to achieve, and a strong point of view. Indeed, in our experience most leaders score high on competence, which is their admission ticket to the senior suite.
But change management is an issue that requires much more than even this. "But our research on high-performing leaders also indicates that most leaders score lower on 'connection skills' - effectiveness in providing meaning, not just information, and in demonstrating empathy and building trust," he said.