10 Principles for Leading Through Change: A Navy SEAL's Approach
It wasn't long after I left the SEAL Teams, attended graduate school, and started my first company that I realized change is a consistent reality in today's more volatile and disruptive business landscape. It affects all businesses. All industries. Now more than ever before.
When I reflect on my many mistakes as an entrepreneur and business leader, I find solace in leaning into the core principles that forge SEAL culture:
We are not perfect but we are lifelong learners. We crave peer-to-peer feedback.
We are forced to move at the speed these wars require yet must remain vigilant in being guided by the very values we fight to uphold.
And one of the fundamental foundations of our fight club's culture is adaptability.
We embrace the rigors of change and use it to our advantage. Our post-9/11 reality demands it. Our nation expects us to be physically harder and mentally tougher than our enemies. That is our burden of command and what drives our every deed.
Resilience is the bedrock of our success both on and off the battlefield.
From my combat experiences in the SEAL Teams to navigating the murky waters of organizational change in my own companies,
I have developed 10 fail-safe principles for leading through change. In fact, today marks the official launch of my new book, TakingPoint: A Navy SEAL's 10 Fail-Safe Principles for Leading Through Change.
These principles can help any organization more successfully lead lasting change. They aren't overly complicated but, in my experience, require focus, discipline, and accountability. All must be aligned behind a shared vision and concise mission narrative.
Principles 1-3: Building a Change Culture
1. Culture: The Chief Enabler of Change
There is a common thread among the tenets most of today's great business leaders that culture beats strategy all day long. People always ask me what I would have done differently as a young entrepreneur, and the list is long. Four areas I initially got wrong when it comes to culture were (1) clearly defining the desired culture, (2) managing that culture, (3) aligning culture with strategy, and (4) leaning on cultural strengths during times of change.
Companies that prioritize culture -- especially when leading change - typically outperform their competitors in areas such as consistent growth, improved speed and efficiency, employee engagement and retention, customer satisfaction, and profitability.
2. Trust: Fueling the Change Engine
In a study by Human Capital Institute, employees who were surveyed from a wide cross-section of high-performance companies (consistent growth, etc.) believe their leaders, managers, and peers to be highly trustworthy.
Organizations that don't manage and measure trust and its economic impact on the company typically suffer from high turnover and low morale.
Organizational change can be intensely personal, and therefore trust must be a core foundation of the culture.
In SEAL training, we learned early on about the importance of team trust. Its how we build winning teams greater than the sum of their parts. We don't always get along, but we willingly run to the sound of gunfire -- together -- keeping the safety of those to our left and right in mind.
3. Accountability: Ownership at All Levels
The concept of total team accountability as part of the culture is a core tenant of SEAL training and life in the Teams.
From week one, you are taught to hold yourself and your classmates to the highest standard. Peer reviews play a pivotal role in a student's success. And we carry that concept over into the Teams as part of our peer-to-peer learning culture. Failure to execute is not an option.
Principles 4-6: Preparing for the Change Battle
4. Mindset: Belief in the Mission
Leaders on both literal and figurative battlefields must always believe deeply in the missions they undertake. Only then can that belief permeate the entire team and fuel engagement and participation in the battle.
In my experience, during any type of organizational change effort, leaders must first ensure they embody the appropriate mindset for not just leading in their organization's current reality but more so for also leading it into its new reality. To fulfill the transformation vision. To achieve any lofty goal, you usually have behaviors and activities you must stop, start, and continue to get you there. Mindset transition is critical.
5. Preparation: Gathering Intelligence and Planning the Mission
Any SEAL mission starts first with intelligence gathering from internal and external sources. Without key data and insights, it's nearly impossible to plan not just for the mission but also seemingly endless contingencies. And that mission planning process includes everyone.
When organizations and their leaders and managers invite (and expect) the participation of as many people as possible in the transformation planning process, they accomplish two things. First, they are able to gathering critical "ground intel" from frontline troops who often get trapped in vertical or horizontal silos. Second, they are gaining buy-in, because everyone has a voice in what the plan looks like -- then all can celebrate the wins together as well as navigate the obstacles.
6. Transmission: Communicating the Vision
One area in which business leaders often fall short (I know because I have made this mistake) is in communicating a powerful vision for the organization -- especially when fulfilling that vision requires major changes. Leaders often undercommunicate the vision. Sometimes we communicate a misaligned vision, which is often even worse. It must be aligned and have an early-often-always approach through both formal and information channels.
Change communication must have an aligned narrative, be authentic and consistent, and delivered through multiple mechanisms.
Storytelling plays a big role here, because it helps the team start to envision what winning will look like -- emotionally connecting them to the mission.
Principles 7-10: Winning the Change Fight
7. Inclusion: The Power of Participation and Engagement
According to global Gallop research from last year, only 15 percent of the workforce can be defined as engaged -- meaning people who are emotionally connected to their work and understand how their behaviors and activities align with shared purpose and mission success.
I always joke that the SEAL Teams have 100 percent employee engagement.
All are connected to the mission of purging the world of evil and defending this great nation!
With 67 percent of the workforce defined as disengaged, there is both a problem and an opportunity:
An opportunity for culture management and employee engagement to become (or remain) a top managerial priority.
But ultimately engagement is a personal choice that requires discipline and sometimes managing up the chain of command.
8. Fatigue: Managing Fear and Staying Energized
Let's face it. Organizational change can suck. In the SEAL Teams, we would say you simply have to embrace the suck. We leaned into the misery and pushed our comfort zones on a daily basis. Fear and what I refer to in the book as "change battle fatigue" can stall any change effort. But there are some tools to mitigate that fear and keep the team fired up.
First, maintain a powerful and aligned vision for a brighter future. Something the team can be excited about.
Second, be sure to include the majority (if not all) of the team at all levels in the planning process -- grooming that buy-in.
Third, identify and celebrate quick wins -- it's imperative for showing visible progress and keeping the team energized.
Fourth, the storytelling process must last beginning to end so everyone can continue to connect with the vision -- even when things get tough.
9. Discipline: Focus and Follow-through
Competing priorities will plague any change effort. Change usually takes longer and has more significant hard and soft costs than you plan for. That longer journey allows you to start questioning progress and considering other opportunities, even if they are totally misaligned with what you are trying to accomplish.
Fulfilling a change vision, like SEAL training or combat, requires discipline and follow-through. If data dictates course correction, so be it. But knee-jerk reactions and the chasing of shiny objects usually translate to mission failure.
10. Resilience: The Path to Lasting Change
Resilient teams are made up of resilient people.
Resilient organizations think a little bit of paranoia is a good thing. They are constantly looking to the horizon for threats and opportunities.
They learn fast and bounce back from adversity stronger than before.
Change is inevitable. Rather than just reactively deal with the changes our organizations face today, we must prepare for the change battle we will face tomorrow.
So go forth onto your battlefield and take the fight to the enemy. Through focus, discipline, trust, and accountability, you will win this change fight and many more to come.