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Burning the Boats on Change Efforts

Posted by admin on August 31, 2015

One of the more legendary stories of military daring was Hernan Cortez (or Corteś, if you prefer) ordering his men to burn their boats when they landed on the Yucatan Peninsula in 1519.  The intent was clear: We either conquer or die.  There is no retreat, no surrender.  We will not turn back.

We think about this when we consider the willingness of leaders to embrace the change efforts they want their plants to implement.  In our case this is usually implementing a problem-solving program on a plant-wide basis. Taking the Cortez analogy a little further, leaders fall into four camps:

Stay on the boat – These leaders are so uncommitted to the change effort that they are not willing to put their names and support behind the program.   They charge their lieutenants with making sure the program achieves the desired results and then blame them (or worse) when it fails.  The rank and file can smell these leaders a mile away and just hold their noses until the odor passes.  Ironically, if by some miracle the programs succeed, these leaders will swoop in an take full credit.

Make landfall but stay near the boat – These leaders show a little more support for the program but are ready to cut and run if it doesn’t show quick results.  They’re not willing to invest their political capital in the program and, while there is a better chance of success than with the “stay on the boat” gang, it is not likely.  Sometimes a rising star underling takes the reins and makes it happen.  This is how future leaders are born.

Lead the party but have the boats ready to go – These leaders are willing to lead the party into the woods and blaze the trail.  But they diminish the strength of the troops by leaving some behind to guard and prepare the boats.  They invest their own standing and prestige to push the program and make sure it is a success.  But they also have a Plan B if some new boss doesn’t like it or if the corporate compass shifts in a different direction.

Burn the boats – These are the true Cortez leaders.  They show commitment, lead the charge and engage in the battle.  Often they have experienced the power of the program they are implementing when they were younger and they want their full team to have that advantage.  Sometimes the situation is dire in the plant and the alternatives are change and improve or face closure.  We have helped some of our clients in these cases where a new plant manager was appointed to shape up a plant or it would be closed.  But more often, it is inspirational leaders who want their teams to succeed, and they push and pull them along.  They show commitment by actually using the process and skills they are trying to implement.  Workers throughout the plant see this and say, “Gee, he really believes in this stuff.  Maybe it isn’t a waste of time.”

We don’t know about you, but we sure like working with and for the “burn the boats” folks than the leaders in the other camps.  They have a passion for what they doing and are inspirational.  Their people will walk on hot coals and charge the ramparts for them.  

We guess the question is:  What leadership category do you want to be in when it comes to implementing change?