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Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter On The Leadership Needed To Implement Change

John Kotter on the Walker Webcast

If there is one word that companies in every industry have had to grapple with this year, it is “change.” From closing down temporarily due to statewide lockdowns to sending employees to work from home for an unknown period of time, businesses have been forced to make major adjustments this year that disrupted their operations. 

Some companies implemented these changes more successfully than others, and John Kotter knows why. 

Kotter is the Konosuke Matsushita professor of leadership, emeritus at the Harvard Business School and a co-founder of Kotter International, a leadership organization that helps Global 5000 company leaders develop the skills required to lead change in a business environment. Kotter is known for being an expert on the topics of leadership and change and has written several books and articles on the subjects, including The Heart of Change, Leading Change and, most recently, Change

He has said that companies often fail to implement change due to a lack of communication, urgency and heart. Kotter was the guest on this week’s Walker Webcast, during which he spoke to Walker & Dunlop CEO Willy Walker about why companies fail to implement change successfully and how leaders can do better. 

It’s All About Urgency — But The Right Kind

Kotter has said that the first step to implementing change within an organization is for leaders to create a sense of urgency, but it needs to be driven by the right motivators. He said that too often, urgency within a company is being driven by anxiety, angst and pressure when it needs to be driven by opportunity, passion and excitement. 

“It's a sense of urgency that makes us want to get up every day and do something to push along that agenda,” Kotter said. “It's not something that's driven by anxiety and guilt and anger and all the rather noxious emotions that are being fueled by all sorts of social forces.” 

Walker & Dunlop CEO Willy Walker on the Walker Webcast

Communication Is Key 

Kotter has said that companies are undercommunicating by a factor of 10 when it comes to talking about change. He told Walker that leaders can start small by telling their goals to a small group of people, but then those goals need to be communicated to larger and larger groups within an organization so they can get excited about the new strategic direction the company is taking and their role in making it happen. Once that happens, employees will start working those goals into their daily routines. 

Walker told Kotter about a recent acquisition Walker & Dunlop had completed and how, before the deal was finalized, leaders had to keep the details relatively quiet. At the same time, there was a desire to manage the message of what they were going to put out there about the deal and not bring too many people in.

Kotter, however, said he is a firm believer that in these cases, companies need to go broad and create a social movement. It isn't enough to just have a few people in management carefully doling out information; companies need more and more people talking about and getting excited about upcoming changes on a regular basis, particularly when it comes to mergers and acquisitions. 

“If you mobilize employees, you can create, in a sense, a social movement to create a great, new enterprise from these two units,” Kotter said.

Survive vs. Thrive

Kotter said that there is an enormously powerful system inside people that has one job: to help them survive and deal with threats. He said that this system was built out of a world so different than the one humans live in today — a much slower, more certain world — and that the hectic, uncertain world people live in today sends that system into overdrive. 

The good news, he said, is that there is another system inside people that causes them to seek out opportunities in order to thrive, a system that sends out positive energy compared to the spiked energy sent out by the survival system. This thrive system is fueled by people taking action to work toward opportunities and goals, and more business leaders need to take that into account, Kotter said. 

“If I had a magic wand, I would clink every CEO in the world and ask them to look at their organization objectives and see how many people are in an overheated state of survive and how many people are really in a state of thrive that's needed to make their organizations prosper,” Kotter said. “A lot of people wouldn't like what they would find with that, but at least that would get them started on the journey to correct it and to build something that is much better and greater.”

Interested in viewing more Walker Webcasts? Visit the archive here

This article was produced in collaboration between Walker & Dunlop and Studio B. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

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