The Management interview John Kotter – Has plans to change himself and the world

Are you, as they say, more interested in practical application than theory?
Yes. I couldn’t care less about knowledge for its own sake. I was never into simply passing on information. I have always wanted to help people do things differently and get better results. That’s the name of the game. Some of my academic colleagues are brilliant people, but their analytically based and carefully researched truths don’t have great deal of impact on the world. I don’t find that satisfying. I want to influence the actions of other people.

You advocate the importance of mobilising, inspiring vision. Is that possible in an economic downturn?
It isn’t easy, but it is both possible and necessary. The key is to go beyond the downsizing cliches – talking only of lean and nice. And, carefree statements like “I see smaller firm in the future” are not vision that allows people to see light at the end of the tunnel, that mobilises people, or that makes them endure sacrifices.

So, what should companies say and do?
Be creative, be genuine, and most of all, know why you’re doing what you’re doing. Communicate that and the organisation will be stronger. Anything short of this will breed the cynicism that results when we see inconsistencies between what people say and what they do, between talk and practice.
Effectively communicating the change vision is critical to success. This should seem obvious, yet for some reason, executives tend to stop communicating during change, when in actuality they should be communicating more than ever.
Effective change communication is both verbal and nonverbal. It includes simplicity, communicating via different types of forums and over various channels, leading by example – which is very important – and two-way communication. Change is stressful for everyone. This is the worst possible time for executives to close themselves off from contact with employees. And this is particularly important if short-term sacrifices are necessary, including firing people.
What I have discovered over the past few years is the power of stories. I use stories constantly. Much of what I do in front of audiences is storytelling. More and more my writing has storytelling. Never under-estimate the power of good story. In human history stories – rather than diagrams with arrows and so on – are one of the ways by which knowledge has been passed down. Our nervous system and brains must be wired to grasp and act on stories. I am now trying to better understand how narratives work, not to write novel but to communicate an idea and to get better results. Great stories are timeless. We know that – think of fables and fairy tales. They are getting at something basic about human beings on planet earth.

What are your criteria for good story?
There are three. First, there has to be an important message in the story which people can act on and if they do so they will get better result. Second, it has to be concerned with leading others or leading yourself. That’s where I have focused my work. Third, we must be able to present material in grabbing way that sucks you in because it is so compelling and engaging.

Can single person ignite true change?
The desire for change may start with one person – the Lee Iacocca, Sam Walton, or Lou Gerstner. But it doesn’t end there. Nobody can provoke great changes alone. There are people that think it is possible, but it is not true. Successful change requires the efforts of critical mass of key individuals – group of two to 50 people, depending on the size of the corporation we are considering – in order to move the organisation in significantly different directions. If the minimum of critical mass is not reached in the first stages, nothing really important will happen.

Failing to establish sense of urgency is key mistake made by change leaders. In Leading Change you discussed seven additional steps in successful change efforts.
That’s right. Beyond establishing sense of urgency, organisations need to create powerful, guiding coalition; develop vision and strategy; communicate the change vision; empower broad-based action; celebrate short-term wins; continuously reinvigorate the initiative with new projects and participants; and anchor the change in the corporate culture.
The guiding coalition needs to have four characteristics. First, it must have position power. The group must consist of combination of individuals who, if left out of the process, are in positions to block progress. Second, expertise. The group needs variety of skills, perspectives, experiences, and so forth relative to the project. Third, credibility. When the group announces initiatives will its members have reputations that ensure the ideas are taken seriously? And fourth, leadership. The group must comprise proven leaders. And remember, in all of this the guiding coalition should not be composed exclusively of managers. Leadership is found throughout the organisation, and it’s leadership you want – not management.

Who should be avoided when building this team?
Individuals with large egos – and those I call “snakes”. The bigger the ego, the less space there is for anyone else to think and work. And snakes are individuals who destroy trust. They spread rumours, talk about other group members behind their backs, nod yes in meetings but condemn project ideas as unworkable or shortsighted when talking with colleagues. Trust is critical in successful change efforts, and these two sorts of individuals put trust in jeopardy.

What will you do now you have left Harvard Business School?
Retiring from Harvard opens up time for all the projects I want to do over the next 30 years. My challenge is to grow out of the milieu I have been in. Harvard is an elite, bricks and mortar institution. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it is not aligned with what I am trying to do now. I attempted to stretch the possibilities little bit when I was at Harvard, with much support from my dean and colleagues, but there are powerful forces around academia which keep it the way it is.
So, mine is story of transition with what probably sounds like an outrageous goal. In 30 years’ time I would like to have helped at least 200 million people better lead others and their own lives. That’s minimum number.

How will you achieve this?
By using bigger leverage mechanisms. Technology will be able to reach billions of people. That’s guaranteed. The big question is not the technology but the content. How can you use this mechanism to help people lead others and lead their own lives better?
I am, for example, involved in all sorts of video projects. This is the cornerstone of my future work. I am trying to produce videos which are informative, captivating and useful. Right now the work is partly for my own education. It’s great fun because the production is new for me. For example, one of the videos I am creating is about retirement, something most people do very poorly.

Can you elaborate on that?
Most people don’t lead their lives. They let others or anger lead them. They negotiate or cope with life. At best they manage their affairs well.
People who actually lead their lives can receive levels of satisfaction, productivity, and meaning that are far above the norm.

Has the standard of leadership improved?
There are more people in business organisations providing useful leadership than when I started my career. We’ve learned something. But during this period, because of the speed of change, the amount of leadership needed has grown dramatically. So we still have gap between what is required and what is supplied. The good news is that we’re improving, but we need much more.

Are you optimistic about this?
I figured out long time ago that people who are successful in making difference in the world, especially in providing leadership, tend to nurture optimism within themselves and try to detoxify cynicism and pessimism. That’s one of the reasons they are effe

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