Real Change Leaders, by Jon Katzenbach and the RCL team

Picked this up while browsing through the management section of the local library. It’s the result of a team at McKinsey researching (to quote the book jacket) “why some companies were able to change and grow to higher performance levels while most others got bogged down. Their extensive research led to a surprising conclusion: the make-or-break factor is not top management but a new breed in the middle: Real Change Leaders.” The book details what they consider to be an RCL, different strategies for achieving meaningful change, and how one can improve one’s own status as an RCL.

I think the main thing I got out of this book was that people can make a difference despite not necessarily having a position in the org chart of power and responsibility. A lot of the examples they gave included middle managers reaching across divisions and responsibilities to bring people together to make things happen. Of course, in a lot of these cases, people were rewarded for taking those chances rather than punished. So it requires developing the good will of the people at the top as well.

One of the other qualities that they emphasized is illustrated by the following quote describing “the best RCLs, who leverage the leadership potential of their people – and thus obtain far greater amounts of personal initiative and innovation, as well as productivity.” (p. 291) This ties into thoughts I had as far back as 1994 on how to build teams successfully in business. A true leader figures out how to get everybody thinking and participating on their own – you get more out of everybody that way. It requires shepherding to keep everybody on the right track (this book dedicates a chapter to the importance of a “working vision” to keep people aligned), but the more involvement, the better.

All in all, a decent read. Kind of business-y, lots of hand-waving and case studies of questionable relevance, but that’s pretty standard. I liked the overall philosophy guiding the book, though, and that counts for a lot.

Several quotes that I found interesting:

  • “In major change situations, it is all too easy to become overwhelmed by what many change veterans refer to as “the activity trap” in which people pursue dozens of activities that don’t produce results. Worse yet, there is no time to discover why there are no results so the activities proliferate. The change game is often characterized by top management’s setting some high-level aspiration that triggers an explosion of activities. While these activities sound good because lots of people are involved they are seldom focused on the key drivers of performance, and this snares the organization into an activity trap.” p. 46
  • “RCLs realize their real source of productivity improvement is in the motivation and initiative of their people.” p. 58
  • One of their interviewed RCLs on the importance of stretch targets: “I prefer that we miss high-stretch goals now and then rather than discourage the stretch by punishing all shortfalls.” p. 58
  • Another interviewee on the importance of working visions: “The value of vision is making sure you don’t get embroiled in activity for activity’s sake. I got more mileage out of my time and more quality work out of the teams when we were clear on the vision of each initiative. We could answer the simple question, ‘What are we trying to do here?'” p. 67

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