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Maxwell Executive Leadership Podcast #42: Not So Secret Agents of Change

June 20, 2019
Maxwell Executive Leadership Podcast #42: Not So Secret Agents of Change

As a leader, it’s easy to get caught in the trap of thinking only in terms of the status quo, especially when times are good. Instead, it’s important for leaders to embrace constant change. In Episode #42 of our Executive Leadership Podcast, we explore how leaders can become agents of change for both themselves and for their organizations.

To learn more about becoming a change agent, consider bringing a 5 Levels of Leadership Workshop to your organization this year.

Listen to all podcasts in this series and subscribe to new episodes on iTunes– or Google Play.

Read the transcript below:

Welcome to the John Maxwell Executive Leadership Podcast, where our goal is to help you increase your reputation as a leader, increase your ability to influence others, and increase your ability to fully engage your team to deliver remarkable results. Hi, I’m Perry Holley, a John Maxwell facilitator and coach. And I’m Chris Goede, Vice President of The John Maxwell Company. Welcome and thank you for joining. Today’s topic is titled Not So Secret Agents of Change. I guess the subtitle would be Leaders Are Change Agents. All right, so this tongue twister here, give me a little bit of insight. Where did this come from?

I have just been noticing more and more in a lot of the coaching business that we do that I keep hearing people say, they just want to slow down, can’t we just rest? We got here, things are good. I talk about being a change agent and it’s one of the things John teaches, and it’s what Level 3 is about. If you want to build positive momentum in your business, then you need to be a change agent, or you could sit back and keep things the way they are. And basically, people were asking me, isn’t status quo, where we are, enough? And I just had heard John say, you said status quo is Latin for the mess we’re in. thought, yeah, if you think about it that way. So even though it’s a good mass, right, that people are feeling times are good, they’re going well, whether it feels like a mess or not, it’s going to be over time. If you’re not moving forward toward a better vision of where you are now just from.

The Level 3 leader, if they want to build positive momentum toward the results that they are seeking, they have to act as a change agent. Otherwise they’re going to be pulled into focusing on the current reality and that will completely kill any momentum that the organization or the team may have. You know, change starts with doubt about the status quo. And so, if we go back to your comment about what John says, it’s Latin for the mess we are in, you as a leader need to continually doubt where you’re at. You know that the change starts with that. And I think as a leader, we also must come to realization, and we know this, but when things are good, we tend to become complacent about it. But all growth curves hit a plateau at some point in time. And as a leader, we better make sure that we’re thinking about change before we get to that plateau in that old S curve from business school, otherwise you’re going to see your competitors just go right on by you. And so we need to be thinking about that from a Level 3 standpoint.

I think I’ve said it here before and I know I’ve tweeted it. If there’s no need for change, then there is no need for you as a leader. If things are status quo, we’ve arrived, and we can just keep going without you. No need to pay the big bucks. It’s especially now that I’m noticing this, when times are good that leaders sometimes can get caught into this trap of “the status quo is okay for now”. I came up with three questions that I tend to answer on these coaching calls and asking about being a change agent when times are good. I’m going to bounce them off you and see what you think.

Question 1 was why change and, especially when times are good, why would I need to change? What I think about instantly is the world of technology. Think about how often changes happen in technology, right? We all get a new iPhone and before you know it, maybe 12 months, 18 months, maybe less than that, all of sudden they have a new iPhone. And if you think about the things that we used to do, I think back to when I was a teenager, right? And our phones in our house had the old rotary dial. You pull a number and then it comes all the way back. The millennials that are listening, they have no idea what it is. A matter of fact, they don’t even know how to use the phone as a tool to talk to people, right?

I mean, I come in the house, I’m looking at my daughter and my son like, wait a minute, you know that you could talk into that thing and somebody else would respond? And I immediately think about the fact that we thought technology was good with the iPhone five and now I don’t even know where we’re at, iPhone 10? And so you think about now the way that we have more efficient ways of doing business and staying in touch and maybe too much being connected. So the first thing I think about is no matter how good we think things are there’s always ways to improve what is currently going on to some degree. And so technology is the first thing I think about. The other thing I think about is the example that people use oftentimes about, you know, the difference between the degree of Fahrenheit of freezing is 32 and boiling is 212– that’s a 180-degree difference.

We’re not saying that all change needs to be a 180-degrees to get from freezing to boiling, but there is also a one degree change between 211 degrees and 212 that changes drastically what happens to that water. And whether it’s going from an iPhone 5 to an iPhone 6 or whether it’s going from to 211 to 212 degrees there, they always have, we always have to be thinking about the fact that there’s ways to improve what we’re doing. I heard this years ago, but I kind of had the question myself: Tiger Woods, top of his game, just destroying everybody. Then, when he’d come off the course, he would go to the range and hit hundreds of balls and some reporter asked, why do you do that? You’re at the top of your game. You’re beating everyone. And he said, because there’s a 16-year-old out there that’s practicing day and night, that’s coming for me. And I thought, wow. I mean he had to be a change agent constantly, even at the top of his game, to keep it going. And I thought, that’s really the model that I’m looking for. And he was right about that, by the way, he showed them who’s still boss in previous Masters, which is another lesson.

Question 2 that I get asked is, if you want to really be a change agent, especially when times are good, what should I be changing? What is there to change it if things are going well? Change by definition requires creating some type of new system, a new process, new outcome. And I think that when you think about sustainability, it’s really all about change. And so, when you begin looking at this, even when the times are good as you’re talking about what there is to change, there are so many different things that are involved in what you do on a daily basis. And I’m even thinking about my current role for John and Mark and our organization, there’s process improvement. How are we currently getting work done? How do we even improve on the basics? What does it look like in our daily routine? How do I become more efficient and effective at what we do for us? How do I add more value to people? That’s our kind of our mission is we want to add value to leaders. And so add value to organizations. And so what are we currently doing that we can even add more value than, than what we’re currently doing for our partners and our clients?

And so when you think about that, there are so many different things. The way I add value to you today should not be the same way that I add value to you in six months. And we say a lot that people will join your team, your organization for one reason, but they’re not going to stay with you for that same reason. And that is true. Then what are you doing to continually change why they’re staying on your team? Right. Well, thinking about Vince Lombardi, when he had won the championships, there was a famous story about the first line every year at training camp with these now trophy winning champions.  “Gentleman, this is a football,” he said and it’s really about getting brilliant on the basics. And I talked to a lot of our coaches about, how are your teams with blocking and tackling, what do they even know?

What is blocking and tackling in your department? What does that mean? How do they look on the fundamentals? And can you get better at doing those? Cause you know what, they’re skipping a lot of those fundamentals because times are good. And I’m just fast forwarding. This is where we can work on those basics. Number 3 is the question I’d love to get your feedback on. I know why to change, I know what to change, but how do I get buy in from the team to embrace change? Because the first thing everybody does when you say we’re getting ready to change something, they ask themselves this question: how does that affect me? They kind of internalize all of that. And so I think the biggest thing that we have to understand around success of change and what that looks like is we have to continually communicate our vision for the change so that the team understands why all things are going well right now.

Why are you going to go ahead and change from 211 degrees to 212 degrees and what does that look like and how’s that going to affect them? Some of the action items that come in out of this, and I wrote down here was make sure you create a vision to direct the change effort. Whatever it is, they know you’re changing, the team’s going to feel it, your partners are going to feel it. And so make sure you create a vision, why you want to direct the change effort, and then communicate that using every possible method that you have inside your organization. So whether it’s voice texts or whether it’s email chains or whether it’s visuals, whatever it is, try to try to communicate that vision. And I think no matter how small the change is, you need to begin speaking that language.

You need to begin to communicate. Now the pitfalls of those two things I just want to mention is that you make sure when you do present this vision that it’s not overly complicated. Use the K-I-S-S method. Let’s make sure that it’s very practical and that it’s not complicated. And then kind of counter to what I was just saying about communicating. Just don’t under-communicate, don’t take for granted that they understand the new direction, the new changes, the New Vision. Make sure that you communicated enough. Well, I’ll tell you one thing I had done in the past when I was a second line or third line leader, I had leaders under me that had teams under them. And I just ask for each team leader to hold them accountable for having an answer to the question, what’s the number 1 problem you need to solve in your department to either increase revenue, decrease costs, or increase efficiencies?

I just kind of trying to make it simple, increase revenue, decrease costs, increase efficiency, which is what we’re all looking at that. And I said, so what would you need to do to get a positive pull in one of those three areas. And I was surprised when I first did this. None of them could actually come up with that idea. Then I kind of prodded and they gave some ideas and they started coming up with, yeah, I could solve one thing, it would be this. And I said, well then, the solution to that problem is that when you’re a change agent, that’s where you don’t need to be a secret agent. That’s where you will find the growth.

If you can’t describe the problem, there is no chance that you’re working on the right thing. And you need to make sure that you keep it as simple as possible. I think about two things in this area. One of the things we do in our weekly team meetings is we have different buckets that we cover consistently each week. And they are somewhat in alignment with the three things you just mentioned that every business leader is probably focusing on. At the end we talk about it and we allow some time for some innovative thought and conversation around solving this, which is we’ll go around the room and everybody on the team, no matter what your role is, we’re talking about what is the biggest barrier that’s keeping you from doing your job?

What’s the rock that’s in the way? How do we get to a rock removal place and what does that look like? And we get the team talking about that. And the second thing was the conversation we were just having around one of our clients that you’re working with and coaching and there’s a certain department that’s not performing well. And if everybody’s not on the same page, you’re probably the change that needs to be made. Everybody is thinking that it’s a completely different change and where you may need to bring the team together. Talk just quickly about that example and how you were almost able to unify the change movement that team needs to be able to produce at a higher level.

I’ll tell you this, the one thing I noticed in coaching that kind of work was, why are they not being a change agent? Why are they not leading change in their departments? And another was, they’re so consumed with today that they really haven’t considered what tomorrow looks like. And the business is good. They’re going all out, they are heads down and they sometimes miss the obvious problem. And then finally, to your point, is that they don’t really have a clear understanding of the problem. And if you don’t have a clear understanding or even agreement, as a senior leader, I want to know, are we solving the right problem? What I find is, if you don’t, you’re majoring on minor things. The examples you’ve mentioned there, once we got on the same page about the problem, lightbulb start coming on, people saying, oh yeah, I can do that, I can help with that. And it doesn’t sound so intimidating. That’s what’s going to set you up for future growth and success. And I think the other story behind that is that there are individuals on your team that think change needs to happen as one thing. While it may be that might be down the road a little bit further and they didn’t see what somebody else saw and said, oh yeah, we need to attack that change first. We need to be thinking about what that looks like and then solve the other piece. And you get everybody on the same page. You were able to take the team through group coaching, call and back them away and say, hey, let’s talk about this and let’s work on the business, and let’s have some conversations, out of that came one of the most successful, VP said to you, one of the most successful times his team has ever had together.

I just think that’s a great example, to make sure that we were moving them in the same direction. As we wrap up, let me just summarize a couple of takeaways for me today and maybe encourage our listeners to do a couple of things. The first thing I thought about here that I wrote down, for me as much it is for each of our listeners, is that we have to continually change internally in order to change externally. And so, if we’re not challenging ourselves to personal growth and to leadership growth and changing internally and what we’re doing, we’ll never be able to influence external. All growth hits a plateau. Let’s make sure as leaders that we’re thinking about that before it happens.

Make sure we have that curiosity. Make sure we’re asking questions. I’m going to close with this. You’ve heard me say this before, we’ve talked about it. It’s been several podcasts. A simple kind of change management model is you start with the end in mind and what is it that we want to change. And then if you develop a common language around that and you speak that, you’ll cast that vision, you’re communicating, your team will begin to believe it and then you’ll see their behaviors change and so it’s the common language. Beliefs and behaviors will drive ultimate change inside your team, your organization, whatever it might be. I appreciate your point about personal change as well. One of my biggest fears as a leader is that, and what drives me for my personal growth is, if I don’t pour into me, then I can’t pour into them and I definitely can’t, don’t know where to take the team if I’m not investing in me and building that vision for the team.

If I never back off on growing me, that’s the only thing that’s going to grow the business. Some great input, Chris, thanks. Just as a reminder, if you’d like to learn more about the 5 Levels of Leadership or perhaps bring a 5 Levels Workshop to your organization, please go to You can leave a comment for us there. You’re also welcome to leave a question about leadership that you’d like answered. We’d love to hear from you. Thank you again for joining us at the John Maxwell Executive Leadership Podcast.

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