Sure, you need change at the top. You wish to see that the top leadership takes things seriously and that they are on the path of change. It may be that they themselves have declared these intentions, conscious of the importance of their role modelling. If it goes that way, bingo! But sometimes it doesn’t.
There is a spectrum of leadership-at-the-top behaviours. On one end: total support, clear leadership and a pristine role model with high awareness of the importance of their behaviours. At the other end of the spectrum: total blockage, lack of support and unhelpful behaviours that jeopardize change efforts made in many other parts of the organisation. Success at that end of the spectrum happens despite leadership, not because of it. And there are, of course, situations in between!
Conventional wisdom says that there is a good correlation between top leadership and changes, but reality tells us that it is not often the case. Good, significant transformations take place with middle of the road leadership teams, and, vice versa, declared excellent and high performance leadership teams may work very well between them but have not managed to ‘touch’ the other 14975 people.
‘Change at the top’ is obviously desirable, but when we support transformations, powered by Viral Change™, we do not wait until this is happening. The power of the distributed leadership (mainly across the Champions network) often leads to advances on the ground not mirrored at the top. Of course, this may be a problem. We are used to our Viral Change Champions telling us about these ‘disconnects’ and their worries about taking risks with no consequent support. Our general advice is usually one of ‘suspend judgement’. Unless there is notorious toxicity in the system (leadership does NOT want the changes, no matter how much of a distributed leadership is pushing for them), many so-so leadership teams – which were supposed to lead but didn’t jump on the wagon at the last meeting – will see tipping points and changes occurring when they open the windows. And …then they will suddenly become fully supportive and they may even try to take credit for it
In the absence of a full top leadership team alignment and full steam of a top team behind Viral Change™ , I need a pocket of benign dictatorship somewhere at the top that ‘lets me start’. I shoot for ‘let us start’ hundred times above waiting for an entire top leadership epiphany. I love ‘let’s start’. I don’t love ‘ we need to get everybody on board’. No revolution/social movement/ large scale mobilization (notice I am defining ‘corporate culture’) has ever started after everybody was on board.
Sorry to disappoint the proponents of Top Leadership Absolute Role Modeling. Most people don’t arrive at the car park every morning to check how the top leaders have change behaviours or not. What changes them, and others, is what they see, hear, feel, smell and copy from other immediate peers in the corridors, cafeterias and (ok, outside) toilets. This is where stuff happens. We are Homo Imitans. Traditional change management thinks we are Homo Sapiens. That is why sometimes we are where we are: waiting for everybody to be on board, aligned, convinced and leading. Wow! What was the last time when…?