When Old School Still Works

Change happens fast and is accelerating at a pace of an out-of-control carnival ride. Managing it often feels like being catapulted into space on a rocket without knowing if you have a way to get back to Earth.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had to go deep into my bookshelf to pull some old school wisdom in working with clients. Just like the great classics my mom and my literature teachers always endorsed, I have a few “go to” business books.

Most recently, I pulled Leading Change by John Kotter. Just recently celebrating its 25 year anniversary, it was the book that we used early in my manufacturing consulting days to help company leaders navigate the change process. While the stories and case studies are based mainly on Fortune 1000 companies (no one was studying startups and small companies in those days), it amazes me how much the tenets of Kotter’s book still applies and is useful to any business owner leading a company.

In Leading Change and then in Accelerate, Kotter refines and lays out his Eight-Stage process. It is:

  1. Create a Sense of Urgency
  2. Build a Guiding Coalition
  3. Form a Strategic Vision
  4. Communicate the Vision and Enlist the Team
  5. Enable Action by Removing Barriers for the Team
  6. Generate Short-Term Wins
  7. Sustain the Gains and Acceleration
  8. Institute/Anchor the Change

For most of my Founder/CEO clients, the first three or four stages are not difficult and in fact, are invigorating. However, when it comes to stages Five through Eight, their enthusiasm starts to wane. 


Because stages One through Three require vision, strategy, and urgency – all embedded in an entrepreneurial leader’s DNA. Stages Five through Eight are the required tools of a skilled COO or Operations Leader and many of my clients do not have that person on their team. Forced into that role by default, leading the change for the long haul can become challenging for an entrepreneurial leader.

You may have noticed that I have left out Stage Four. Stage Four is where the two leadership functions are intertwined and handed off. It is also where both leadership types can fail. Kotter says that leaders can under-communicate their vision (and I would endorse all messaging) by a factor of 10. In today’s world of electronic communication overload, it is more difficult than ever to maintain consistent and effective communication to our teams. We THINK we’ve done it – but it’s either commingled with other messaging or inconsistent at best.

As I once explained to a CEO, “When they start teasing and making a little fun or can anticipate what you are going to say as you remind them, only then do you know you’ve communicated your vision enough.”

The sense of urgency over the past few years has been overwhelming for many business owners and their teams. If you are finding you and your company a little stuck, you may find Kotter’s model helpful in creating momentum to move your team forward.

Have a great week!

P.S. If you are finding you and your company a little stuck, we should talk! You can sign up for a free call HERE.