Episode 216 – Step Up Step Back with Elsbeth Johnson

Elsbeth Johnson‘In leadership communication, and indeed in the process of writing a business book, the more and better the quality and time spent on the thinking, the less time and the more effective the actual production of the communication or the book.’

Dr Elsbeth Johnson certainly put the time into creating her Step Up, Step Back model – the years of academic research and practical testing in organisations meant that she was able to write the book itself in just a few months. (The book proposal, on the other hand….)

In this conversation we discuss the two phases of leading change, the shift from academic writing to writing that works in the workplace, and the tyranny of the platform and why you don’t necessarily need one (‘other people who were coming out with books… seemed to have about one and a half million followers on Twitter, I’ve got about three’).


LINKS:

System Shift site: https://www.systemshift.com/

Elsbeth on Twitter: https://twitter.com/elsbeth_johnson

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

PI Virtual Writing Retreat wait list: https://alisonjones.lpages.co/virtual-writing-retreat/

PI-Q webinar: Thriving through change with Lucinda Carney: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/pi-q-webinar-thriving-through-change-with-lucinda-carney-tickets-103400228868

See all PI-Q webinars and replay links: https://practicalinspiration.com/pi-q

Alison Jones 

I’m here today with Dr. Elsbeth Johnson, who is a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management and a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics. Prior to joining MIT, she taught at London Business School for five years, having previously worked as an equity analyst and a corporate strategist, and through her consultancy firm System Shift. She works extensively with organizations and their leaders, advising them on strategy, leadership and change. And her new book, which we’ll talk about today is called Step Up, Step Back: How to really deliver strategic change in your organization. Welcome to the show, Elsbeth.

Elsbeth Johnson 

Thanks, Alison. Great to be with you.

Alison Jones 

I’m really pleased to have you here. It’s such a fascinating topic. The topic of change is perennially fascinating to us, isn’t it? Tell us a little bit about what you sum up in that title of Step Up, Step Back because I did like the two-part structure you’ve got going on.

Elsbeth Johnson 

Yes, well as you suggest, Alison, it’s not like this is a greenfield site. There are tons of other books out there about on how to lead strategic change. My approach is a little bit different. We can talk about how and why it’s different. But the the step up step back approach to leading strategic change is it can be summed up in a nutshell in this way: the new approach argues that leaders need to do more than they typically do in the early stages of change. That’s where they need to step up in specific ways. And at specific times, about having laid the foundations by that stepping up work, they can then and indeed, should then step back and do less than they typically do in the later stages of change. Now, again, in specific ways, and at specific times, so that the people whom they’ve charged with delivering the change can get on with it. And so it’s a it’s a specific role of leadership to step up and then step back

Alison Jones 

And it’s sounds quite obvious when you say it like that. But I’m guessing that you’ve seen a lot of people not stepping up when they needed to and then having to intervene like crazy when they should have been getting out of the way.

Elsbeth Johnson 

That’s exactly right. That is in large part one of the major motivations for writing, you know, what the world really needs is a new book on leading strategic change. Actually, I do think the world needs this because, I guess I would say two things Alison, and I would say, first of all, leaders are pretty shortchanged by a lot of the advice that’s already out there, which says that, you know, they should rely on quick wins and building momentum and being charismatic. Now, charisma and momentum are important. Leaders should be doing those things. But but they are by by no means all that leaders should be doing. And this model tells them what they should be doing in those early stages. But I think the other thing, the other population that’s really shortchanged by the existing advice that’s out there, other managers just tasked with delivering it. And essentially, in my world of advising both leaders and working with managers, I see a lot of what I would call lazy leadership. And therefore the requirement for heroic managers. And I’m what I’m trying to do in this new approach is, is tell leaders how they ought to step up and not be lazy in those early stages. So that manager heroism isn’t necessary. Because actually, the real problem with strategic changes is that it’s way harder than it needs to be. And  that takes its toll on leaders on managers and the organizations of whom they are part.

Alison Jones 

But let’s let’s unpack that a bit. Why is change so damn hard?

Elsbeth Johnson 

Well, I would argue that’s because leaders aren’t stepping up in the way they ought to. And let me just be really clear what that requires. It requires two things in the first year of the change. Right at the start of that first year, it requires leaders to be really clear about what they want and what the change ought to deliver. Now that sounds really, really simple. Why wouldn’t you do that. But actually, I know an awful lot of change programs that are kicked off by really well intentioned good leaders, who just don’t provide the level and type of clarity that the organization needs. So by that, what I mean is, they need to be really clear about what the change will deliver. They need to be clear about what those outcomes will be. They need to be clear about the way that people need to behave with each other, with customers, in order to deliver those outcomes. They need to be really clear that this is something that that to which they are personally committed.  They also need to explain the narrative of a change. Now a narrative is a story that connects where we are now with where we’ve been and where we’re going. And so very often the missing link in how leaders explain change is, even if they explain why it’s necessary, why now, they very often don’t explain how it fits with what’s gone before. Very rarely is a change instigated in an organization that hasn’t got anything on. They’ve got existing initiatives and work and strategies. And and so the need for leaders to explain, well, how does this fit with existing strategy? And therefore to enable people to work out what are the existing work they can keep, and continue to work on, and what what can they ditch? Because bandwidth has to be created for this new strategy. And then the final thing that there’s a really kind of critical element of clarity is leaders need to lead to really emphasize that this is this change is going to take fundamental work, it’s going to produce a step change, what we’re talking about here, Alison, is strategic change. Incremental change, I just think ought to be part of people’s ordinary jobs,  but strategic change, change that speaks to changing what the organization will do or how it will do it or the capability and culture with which it will do it, that requires fundamental work, rather than just cosmetic tinkering or other kind of classic, you know, quick wins are very often chosen as part of the early stage of change. So clarity early on, and leaders really do need to step up. That’s, that’s very involved work.  And then the rest of the year, the first year of the change is spent delivering alignment. Now alignment is I think a very overused word, but it’s actually what my informants for this research told me they needed. And there’s four ways of delivering that leaders need to talk about the change what we call alignment by conversations. And that’s not the big set pieces or town halls, although those are important. It’s what leaders are talking about in ordinary everyday encounters, what are they asking about? What are they agitating for? So alignment by conversations.  The next one’s alignment by actions, that doesn’t just mean role modeling it, although, again, that’s important. It also means that leaders have taken deliberate actions to help the change. So that might be anything from changing the org chart, to making time in their own diary to discuss the change of the issues that are arising. Those are things that leaders can do with their own time with they can use their agency to deliver those two, first two sources of alignment. But there’s another two sources that are equally if not more important, and they are, I suppose, more structural. So the first is alignment by resourcing. And that means putting your money where your mouth is, and if you want the change, then how much is it going to cost and have you allocated budget to do that? But it’s not just money, it’s also people. So have you got the right people on the change? And the right people are not just the people who have the technical skills to deliver it, but also the connections, the stars of the organization – that that sends a really important signal that this change is important.  And then the fourth and final way that you align the business around the change you’ve asked for as a leader is by KPIs and metrics. In other words, if you want to know that the change is happening, how will you measure it? And how will you incentivize and reward people for that? There’s a very famous article that was published, gosh, about 40 years ago now called on the folly of hoping for A while paying for B and that is a folly that an awful lot of organizations, particularly when they’re introducing a new strategy, still fall foul of, and so once you’ve got all of that work done in the first year, then you’ve laid the foundations; managers know what they’re doing, the signals are all aligned, and leaders can then step back.

Alison Jones 

Just picking up that point you said way back about clarity and narrative, which I think is fascinating. I guess, okay, feel free to contradict me. But I wonder if a lot of the reason that change initiatives do fail is that actually people aren’t… it’s not that they can’t communicate the narrative, it’s that they actually haven’t got the narrative clear in their own heads. And change becomes kind of an emergent thing, which the leader feels viscerally and tries to do, but actually, they haven’t done that work of telling themselves the story and therefore they can’t communicate it to others. Do you find that?

Elsbeth Johnson 

I absolutely find that, I completely agree with that. So very often, change gets kicked off. A CEO or sometimes someone in the senior leadership team will drop me an email and say, so it seemed to go really well for the first four or five months and now we’re really running out of steam. Can you can you come and maybe give us some help? And typically, when I meet a CEO who’s got that kind of problem, the exam question that they are asking themselves and need my help with, they’re framing it as a communication problem. So they want help with: how can I communicate this more effectively? Should I change the words? And actually, I typically find that the problem is not a communication problem. The problem is a clarity problem. It’s they were never clear enough in the first place about why were they doing this change and why now, what would it produce? And is that a big enough step change in the level of performance for the organization?

Alison Jones 

So it’s almost enough to make you think, isn’t it, that writing at length should be an  essential leadership discipline,

Elsbeth Johnson 

I could not agree more, and that the need for clarity is absolutely essential, and it starts before you’ve spoken it, you need to write it down. before you’ve written anything down. It needs to exist in your head, you need to have thought about it. And so very often the work that I’m actually doing with leaders is thinking work. It’s clarity work, not communications work. And what’s very interesting about that, Alison is I think sometimes they think it’s not really work.

Alison Jones 

Yes, I can absolutely get that. And also, when you’re writing for clarity, you’re not necessarily writing to communicate to other people, which is what we think business writing is that it’s not necessarily…

Elsbeth Johnson 

So for me, it’s very much a three-stage process. It’s have the conversation, with yourself, with a with a clarity coach, as I sometimes think of myself, with someone like me or my team, to be really clear about what what good looks like at the end of this change process. What will this produce? Then you go into a process of thinking about how you will express that. And then you think about well, if that’s what I need to say to people, what’s going to work for this particular audience? Because then you want to tailor it for the particular folks who are in the room listening to you. And although I would always argue that there has to be… the kernel of the message doesn’t get changed. And, you know, you can’t segregate messages with sufficient sophistication to do that. Most organizations can’t do that, particularly in the world of social media. And so the, the overall outcome has to be, the message has to be the same for each group, the way that you the words that you use, the way that you communicate, that will be flex, depending on your audience. So for me, it’s a three-stage process. And actually, what most particularly communications departments and marketing departments are worried about is only that third stage, and then they’re not quite sure why it doesn’t work.

Alison Jones 

And of course, what you’ve described there is is basically, the process of writing a book as well, a business book.

Elsbeth Johnson 

It essentially is, you do have an awful lot of thinking to do. And I would argue that both in leadership communication, and indeed in the process of writing a business book, the more and better the quality and time spent on the thinking, the less time and the more effective, the actual production of the communication or the book is. And that was certainly true for this one.

Alison Jones 

It’s that great phrase about sharpening the axe for the first 50 minutes…

Elsbeth Johnson 

That’s exactly it.

Alison Jones 

And I’m also really interested when I talk to people who straddle that pracademic world, so, you know, you’re obviously an academic, but you’ve also continued to be and you have been very strongly a practitioner. So, did you bring both brains to the process of this book, the the academic and the pragmatist, and how did that work, the interplay between them?

Elsbeth Johnson 

Well, the research that this book is based on actually started out as a purely academic piece of work. And so it’s a very interesting question, also partly because of the sequence of how this research got produced. So it started out in a purely academic domain. It was actually originally my PhD research, which which became a doctorate and then I continued to build on that in an academic world. So in other words, the rigour that is required for doing that research and getting it published is frankly far, far greater than the skill of getting a book deal or publishing a book.

I guess what that meant, though, was that a lot of that thinking had been done. And also I was pretty confident that having had it variously torn apart in research seminars and by peer review, and by, you know, my viva examiners, I was pretty confident that it stood up to the rigour required for that kind of world, and therefore, if I could find a way to write it in a way that was reasonably acceptable and entertaining, and I mean, frankly the jury’s out on that because the books only just out, so I’ll let you and other people have a view on how successfully I did that bit of it. But if I could do that, then I knew that the research was solid.

So then I came to the process of getting a book deal, and I’m writing the book and you’re absolutely right, that that is a different world. So even with the research done, it had to be, I mean, it’s not even just repurposed. It really had to be completely rewritten in order to be digestible as a book. I remember when I first started my academic career and I had, you know, the first year of the PhD proposal: the first year of the Ph. D. process in my university was fully taught – you spent the whole year in lectures. And I remember my methodology lecturers and my PhD supervisor saying to me, you know, you really ought not to write a sentence that doesn’t have at least one academic reference at the end of it. And so to say that that’s not the way you write a business book, let alone one that you’d hope to be reasonably popular, is an understatement. It’s a totally different way of writing.

So what I did to do that was I, well, I think I found the right publishing home for it. But I think that was also partly helped by, I had an excellent agent. And it was really in the process of writing the book that I brought in my practitioner world, my work through System Shift, my work with my clients. And so in the book, there’s lots and lots of science, there’s the organizational science and the empirical research on which the original academic work was based, but then there’s lots of what I’ve called in the book these ‘practice spotlights’ of real-world examples where organizations, very often my clients, so people who I’ve worked with doing this, have put clarity or alignment or the stepping back part of the approach into practice, to let people see what that looks like in practice, rather than simply the science that argues that it’s the right thing to do.

Alison Jones 

Yes, “I have lots of evidence, and I have a beautiful model… but actually, it works. And here’s the evidence.”

Elsbeth Johnson 

Yes, “And here’s what that looks like. And in particular, here’s what real world leaders found difficult about it.” Because I think the risk with writing a book, you know, let’s be honest, you might get feedback, virtually, someone might write you a nice Amazon feedback piece or drop you a line, but actually, unless they’re clients of yours, you very rarely get actual feedback on: “Well, I tried to do that, Elsbeth, and it might have worked, but it was harder than I thought it was going to be.” And so because, you know, I finished the PhD research more than five years ago now. And since then I’ve been working with clients using this ‘step up step back’ approach. And so I’ve got quite a lot of practical examples, as I say, not just of how to do it, but actually what’s difficult about it and where people might struggle and I think that’s helpful advice for people as well.

Alison Jones 

And as you were writing the book, I mean unshackled from the constraints of academic writing, which must have been a deep joy, what did you notice? What did you find it more difficult than you thought? What did you find more enjoyable than you expected?

Elsbeth Johnson 

Actually, nothing was more difficult than I thought it was going to be.

Alison Jones 

That’s a good answer.

Elsbeth Johnson 

Your description of unshackled joy that that brought is absolutely accurate. It was an absolute joy to write – albeit from the basis of a very rigorous piece of you know, academic research, it was just joyful and fast and it really flowed. So I loved the writing. Now then, of course, you give it to somebody else and they edit it. And that’s, of course, a different process and it comes back and actually the editor with whom I worked is a very close friend of mine, who I think is an excellent writer, and also my former editor of HBR, who you know, works for another organization. I found every time I would give it to them, and it would come back covered in red pen. I mean, of course for about four seconds, your heart breaks, because actually what you really want them to say is “Oh my god, this is perfect. Don’t change anything.”

Alison Jones 

“This is the best book I’ve ever read…” No, it never happens.

Elsbeth Johnson 

Of course, that never happens. They never say that. But then you get into the conversation with… and as I say my main editor in particular, a very close friend of mine, is super smart. I think writes brilliantly, and so in the process of getting into that conversation, you can almost see in front of you your book getting better. And sometimes because you, because it is research that you’ve done, you know every single detail of the research, sometimes you just need someone to help you get out of your own way linguistically. Because the way that you’re expressing it isn’t the clearest way to express it. And so having someone sit next to you and go, What are you trying to say in this paragraph? And then you have to say it rather than write it, and again, I think sometimes when you describe things orally rather than in writing, I think that can be helpful.  So I have to say, I love pretty much every part of writing the book. It didn’t take me that long. I wrote it in about five months. And I would just say, though, that, for me a key part of that writing process and why it got done so quickly was that I’d spent quite a lot of time on a book proposal that was pretty detailed. And the publisher, who I went with I had a couple of offers but I chose Bloomsbury, the publisher whom I went with, essentially bought the book that I proposed. And so it really felt like I was just writing the thing I wanted to write.

Alison Jones 

Which is, again, a lovely illustration of how you save the time at the end by putting in the time in the beginning.

Elsbeth Johnson 

That’s exactly it, yes.

Alison Jones 

Now, there’s goingto be I mean, you’ve already alienated at least half the listenership because they’re going, “You found it easy. I already hate you.” But for those that are still listening, what would your best tip be for somebody who’s a little bit behind you in this process?

Elsbeth Johnson 

Well, actually, I mean, I’m very happy to talk about the bit that was not easy. And I look back at it and think that was the most important bit. And that was writing the book proposal. Yes. So I found that actually daunting. And I say that as someone who had acquired a literary agent who I still think was the best. That for me was the best single decision I made throughout this whole process. I, he was, he already was working with a friend of mine. His name is Charles Anderson, and he’s amazing. And, and Charles massively helped me to write the proposal. So he sent me examples of other people’s, prior to that I was utterly daunted. And I was particularly utterly daunted because other people who were coming out with books, and I say this as a first time author, a first time business book author, seemed to have about, you know, one and a half million followers on Twitter, I’ve got about three.

You know, they seemed to have this huge kind of platform – platform is a word that an awful lot of publishers and agents used to say, essentially: how many books are you going to sell? And so I was very daunted by, I mean, I had a client base, and I had an existing business. And I believed in my research, in the model that it had produced. But I was very, very daunted. And so actually, you know what, it took me longer to write the book proposal than it took me to write the book.

Alison Jones 

That’s hilarious. I don’t if you know Elsbeth, I actually run attend a business book proposal challenge.

Elsbeth Johnson 

Oh, my goodness, I could have done with that.

Alison Jones 

A little bit late to tell you that I do realize that. But I just… even if you’re not planning on pitching to a traditional publisher, you still need to do this work. It’s what we were talking about before, it’s the narrative of what you’re planning to do. It’s the structure of it. It’s clarity, you know, all of that the proposal forces you into, which is why it’s such a flippin hard work, and that’s why doing it…  Yes. So the kind of structure and the challenge and lots of people doing it with you is hugely helpful and I don’t know how people do on their own.

Elsbeth Johnson 

It’s so hard.  Well, I mean, to be fair, I don’t think I could say I did it on my own. I was hugely helped by my agent. And I sent it out to be sense tested, or sense checked by a couple of friends who had written a first book in the previous year or two. So I think, again, having friends who are in the same boat is hugely helpful. But yes, I think it probably… Well, I know it took me longer. I mean, I think it took me about eight months to finish the book proposal and that’s partly because I was prevaricating because I was daunted by the, you know, “I don’t feel I’ve got a big platform, who’s going to buy this?” You know, and because those are the questions that a book proposal is supposed to answer for a potential publisher. So, yes, when I got the deal, I mean, I first of all, because the publisher whose offer I accepted very much wanted me to write the book that I’d proposed. I was absolutely ready to go. And I was also psychologically ready to go because I felt like I’ve been I taken so long to get that so yes, writing was the was the relatively easy bit, yes.

Alison Jones 

So put your energy into your proposal. Yes, great tip.

Elsbeth Johnson 

Yes, put it into the research and the proposal and then assuming you get an acceptance for the book you want to write, and you will, you will be ready to go.

Alison Jones 

Yes, absolutely. And I would say these days, frankly, you don’t even need that. You know, there are there are more options than there ever have been. But certainly, yes. If you want to wow a publisher then a good proposal is definitely the way to do it.

Elsbeth Johnson 

Yes, exactly. Yes.

Alison Jones 

And I always ask guests as well, Elsbeth, to recommend a business book for people. So clearly, Step Up, Step Back has gone on everybody’s list immediately. Which other book which you recommend that people listening should read, which has had a real impact on you.

Elsbeth Johnson 

So one that’s had an impact on me, and one that I recommend very often to clients is a book called Humble Inquiry by Ed Schein. Ed has taught at MIT for about 40 years and is actually renowned as an expert on organizational culture. But this book came out a couple of years ago now. And it builds on this idea of the other people, like Susan Cain and David Rock have written about, of quiet leadership, of leaders asking questions rather than vomiting their own expertise into the room and depressing and demotivating people but also designing out, you know, not helping people develop and shine in their own right. And so I would recommend Humble Inquiry, it’s a really short book as well. So you could probably, I’m actually a really slow reader, so I probably couldn’t read it an afternoon, but most people could read it in a day. And I think the link with Step Up Step Back is just again, exactly that, which is if leaders can lead by asking questions, and by giving people context rather than content then they are stepping up and they are setting other people as well as their organization up to succeed. And I really believe that, I’m a passionate advocate for leaders being enablers rather than doers.

Alison Jones 

That’s an absolutely brilliant recommendation. I love that. But it’s a very profound book, it’s a it’s a real mind shift, isn’t it, from what we think of as leadership, and if more leaders read it, the world would be a much better place.

Elsbeth Johnson 

Honestly. I totally agree. And to your point, Alison, it really challenges our our definition of leadership and what the work of leadership is. And again, that’s something I write a lot about in Step Up, Step Back.

Alison Jones 

Yes, brilliant. Thank you so much Elsbeth. Now if people want to find out more about you, where should they go?

Elsbeth Johnson 

So the best place is on my company website, which is www.systemshift.com. That gives people a sense of what my business does. And also, it gives them a way to contact me if they think that they have something that I can help with or they would like me to speak.

Alison Jones 

Brilliant, thank you so much. It’s been really… I could honestly talk to you all day, but I’m going have to end it. Thank you so much for your time today.

Elsbeth Johnson 

You’re so welcome.

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