Jayashantha Jayawardhana explains why persuasion is a weapon for transformation

When you drop words like ‘radical change,’ ‘restructuring’ and ‘turnaround,’ most people suddenly become apprehensive and stick to their guns.

They seek to defend the status quo at any cost. They become nervous because they foresee what will ensue: new and tougher rules, cost cutting, layoffs, resignations of some members of the senior management team, asset stripping, outright sale and even bankruptcy.

People have countless reasons to resist change and defend the status quo even though they’re aware of the shortcomings. So as a leader, you must accept that by definition, a turnaround is always a difficult proposition. If you get it wrong, you could possibly end up with no business to lead. Not that I’m an incurable pessimist but I always cover the downside first in any job that I undertake.

So now that we’ve explored the dark side, let’s find out how you can make a compelling case for radical change, rally the troops and usher in the desired changes.

According to David A. Garvin and Michael A. Roberto, two prominent business scholars from Harvard University who authored the 2005 February HBR article ‘Change through Persuasion,’ persuasion is the most powerful weapon in your turnaround arsenal. They delineate four major steps in a successful turnaround plan as follows.

SET THE STAGE Without a convincing argument for transformation, it’ll be practically impossible for you to sell your big idea to the board and your people. First, you must be able to convince the board about the critical need for radical change and the currency of your turnaround plan, and secure their support instead of going on your own.

Then craft an equally compelling message in understandable language without surfeiting it with fancy boardroom jargon. Make sure you understand this is a serious job and not an ego trip.

When Paul Levy was brought on board to turn around the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), a teaching hospital of the renowned Harvard Medical School, it was haemorrhaging some US$ 50 million a year. Levy immediately convinced the board and employees that failing to stop the losses would see the hospital being sold to a for-profit institution – and consequently, losing its elite status as a Harvard teaching hospital.

He delivered the stark facts without exaggerating or understating them, and called for an ‘all hands on deck’ approach. He had a warts-and-all report compiled by Hunters Group, an objective third party, on the status of the hospital and its recommendations for turnaround posted on the hospital’s intranet for everyone to read. Once people were convinced that he was genuinely committed to the cause and wasn’t angling for any personal gains, Levy was able to enlist their support for the next phase of his turnaround plan.

FRAME THE PLAN For your ambitious turnaround plan to bear fruit, people need to interpret your ideas correctly. Remember that human attention is becoming the rarest commodity these days with so many businesses vying for it.

If people read a wrong meaning into your plan, you won’t be able to secure their cooperation in a meaningful way. Articulate your plan through an email, a companywide presentation, a video or any channel you deem effective, and set the context and perspective clearly while delineating the potential consequences in realistic terms.

MANAGE THE MOOD There’s no such thing as a ‘happy turnaround’ – it’s always a painful and disruptive affair. In particular, with stricter rules being introduced and enforced, some austerity measures implemented and serious layoffs on the horizon, people naturally feel depressed during the process.

So you must be able to strike the right notes of optimism and realism while keeping them focussed on the implementation of your turnaround plan. Extol their positives and share progress updates with them on a regular basis. This will provide an incentive to keep them going.

PREVENT SLIPPAGE Evoking the desired behaviour is not too difficult but what’s nearly impossible for most leaders is to maintain it over the long haul. That is because once the heat is off, most people naturally slide back into their dysfunctional routines. As a leader, you might have experienced this time and again.

So how do you intend to prevent it? You must support and encourage them to practise the desired behaviour continually, and criticise and/or appropriately punish disruptive or divisive behaviour whenever and wherever you see it.

Paul Levy successfully turned around the failing BIDMC with this fourfold plan. You too can emulate his success if you tailor it to fit your context. Even if you’re not anticipating a turnaround as such, you will find some leadership practices to adopt from the valuable lessons that HBR and Levy have provided.