Creating Sustainable Change Through Leadership

Tom Moriarty

Creating Sustainable Change Through Leadership

Years ago, when I was eight or nine, we neighborhood kids would go to a camping area in Massachusetts. It was far enough away from our neighborhood that it was a treat and an adventure we looked forward to.

At the campground was a large pond. Every time we went, our group of boys, four of us ranging in age from seven to ten, would contemplate swimming across it. To a kid, it seemed like a major challenge. Had our parents heard us talking about making the journey, they would likely not have approved. Fortunately, in those days, helicopter parents hadn’t been invented.

Why did we want to swim across? It was a challenge. We wanted to show we had the strength and courage to do it.

Each of us was a skilled swimmer; we had made long swims parallel to the shoreline before, so we believed we could make it across the middle. We knew there were risks, but we found ways to reduce them. During the first several attempts, we had someone on an inner tube making the journey alongside the swimmer.

Each time we attempted and completed the swim, there was a major sense of accomplishment. As we each made the trip several times, and as we grew older, the challenge wasn’t as immense. The trek across the pond got to be routine.

Leadership’s Role in Sustainable Change

Why am I writing about this childhood experience? Because it relates to the topic of sustainable change. Every change presents a challenge. To some, it may seem insurmountable; those people tend to resist trying. To others, the enticement of a significant accomplishment is too great not to try.

Sustainable Change

"A way to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
Source: Datamyte

It’s a leader’s job to:

  • Evaluate the risks.
  • Determine if the capability to change exists.
  • Anticipate potential problems.
  • Put practices into place that produce the highest odds of success.

In a workplace environment, leaders who are contemplating a change need to know what the benefits are. They should ask themselves:

  • If we go after this change, what will be the added value?
  • Does this change move the needle on Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE)?
  • Will we have a safer workplace?
  • Can the change improve our use of resources?
  • What is our purpose for attempting to create change?

After judging the journey as being worthwhile, leaders need to assess the risks. Are there major risks that can cause harm to employees, customers, or the environment? Small changes have lower risks than big changes. Do you need to swing for the fences, or can you break the change into logical pieces that are less risky? If there’s a risk of drowning, maybe have an inner tube nearby.

Leaders must determine if the capability exists to accomplish the change. They need to understand if they:

  • Have the appropriate resources.
  • Have the number of knowledgeable and skilled people necessary to define the change.
  • Can allocate enough time for trainingand implementation.
  • Have access to funding for outside help, if needed.

Leaders must also understand that failure is a possibility, and they must contemplate:

  • What will happen if they invest time and money into the change and it fails.
  • What are the ways they can fail.
  • How likely these failures are.
  • What effects failure will have on them, their team, and others.

Any large change deserves serious contemplation. Never decide to swim across the pond without considering what can go wrong. The consequences can be profound.

What can we do to keep identified failures from happening?

  • Have a plan for dealing with early signs of failure.
  • Be attentive so you can see problems developing.
  • Be assertive and quick to act when a problem appears.
  • Empower others to be vigilant for the signs of failure.

Determining if the change has benefits, evaluating the risks, determining their capabilities, developing plans, and putting those plans into action are what leaders do. Unfortunately, most organizations have gaps in leadership. It’s why many initiatives either fail outright or fail to realize the anticipated benefits.  

How Leaders Sponsor and Sustain Change

Organizations are comprised of individual leaders and the people they lead. Organizations should focus on two major areas of leadership: accountability and leadership capability.


Accountability is about having a crystal-clear understanding of who is responsible for each activity, and it cascades throughout the organization from the top down. While the top person is ultimately accountable, one person can’t be everywhere doing everything. So, the top person delegates some of their accountability to their direct reports, and so on.

At each level of the organization, there is a senior person and a junior person(s). Junior persons are direct reports, and the senior person is responsible for providing them with guidance and the appropriate assets.

Guidance includes information about policies, plans, processes, procedures, and measures. Assets are what is required to carry out the guidance, such as training, tools, and equipment. The direct reports are accountable for carrying out the guidance with the provided assets and for notifying their senior person when issues arise.

Accountability problems are commonly caused by a lack of explicit, up-to-date guidance that states what each person’s accountabilities are. This problem leads to ambiguities, gaps, and overlaps. These are the main culprits that cause conflict and silos in organizations.

Organizational Silos

Teams of people who are isolated from other parts of the business due to a minimized flow of information. This can lead to decreased team interaction, duplicative work, and resistance to change.
Source: Asana

Accountability problems lead to an inability to identify prospective changes, determine if a change has value, evaluate risks, develop capability, and devise plans. 

Leadership Capability

Leadership capability is how a leader executes their accountabilities. It’s not enough just for junior people to know what they’re accountable for; they must also be able to carry out those duties.

In the change and sustainment arena, a lack of leadership capabilities means plans won’t be executed well because the leaders will fail to be consistent, attentive, respectful, motivating, and assertive enough to support and sustain the change.  

While it’s common to believe that leadership training seminars and workshops are enough to ensure leadership success, this approach has two major flaws:

  1. Leadership training often doesn’t cover everything a leader must know to be successful. Most leadership training only provides insight into specific skills such as communication, time management, giving and receiving feedback, and conflict resolution, but this is only about 20% of what is needed to be successful. They must also learn about:
    • Personal desire to be a leader.
    • Leadership roles.
    • Leadership attributes.
    • Types and uses of power.
    • How to influence others.
    • How to set goals.
  2. One training event isn’t adequate for developing the right leadership habits. Less than 20% of what someone learns in training sessions will be retained. People need to be consistently encouraged, reminded, and directed to use what they learned. To achieve this, leadership training must be standardized, then repeated every two to three years

In the 1990s, before “management reengineering” and the removal of organizational levels, greater importance was placed on mentoring and developing leaders. Now, only a lucky few receive quality formal leadership training and mentoring before becoming leaders. In fact, less than 50% of today’s industry managers and supervisors receive leadership training more frequently than once every three years.

Developing Accountability and Leadership Capability

The ideal organization should have accountable, capable leaders at every level. To achieve this, each team member that identifies a valuable change should be encouraged to assess the benefits, identify risks, assess their company’s change capability, put a plan in place, and then execute and sustain that change.

Senior leadership should put systems in place to develop accountability and leadership capabilities. When they really understand senior and junior leader accountabilities, it becomes very easy to identify where there are gaps in accountability.

From here, they can ensure that all team members with an interest in attaining a leadership position get the full spectrum of leadership development before they are put into a leadership position. To solidify the knowledge from training courses and continue developing their skill sets, current leaders should also receive recurring leadership training at least once every two to three years.

Leaders lower in the organization should also be encouraged to hone their accountability and leadership capabilities in day-to-day interactions and change initiation practices. As they move up in the organization, the significance of the changes they work on will naturally increase.

To learn more about accountability and leadership capabilities, read “The Productive Leadership System: Maximizing Organizational Reliability” by Tom Moriarty, available for purchase at the Noria Bookstore. 

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