On Leadership: Navigating culture change

Navigating Culture Transitions (A conversation with Peter McHugh)

A few years back I had the pleasure of talking with Pete McHugh (Senior leader of Stairway Church, Melbourne – who was a great mentor to us while based in Cambodia) about the ins and outs of navigating significant culture transitions in a large organisation. In this case, Pete was reflecting on his ongoing work in leading the church congregation (approx. 1200 members) through a period of significant culture change. When we discussed this, it was around 2010 timeframe, though Peter had started the journey about 3-4 years earlier. This journey is still ongoing as I understand it – which certainly speaks of the long-term nature of organisational culture change (in this case, within a church organisation context). I thought I would share some of the key discussion points and thoughts raised by Pete during our conversations – as no doubt they will resonate and I am quite sure that it will help other leaders who may be facing significant culture change within their own organisation (whether a not-for-profit, business or even a Church!):

  • A leader needs to get clarity on what do we want to reach for and where are we now on the journey (Pete’s book titled Above The Line stemmed from this thinking)
  • We need to ask the questions: What do I want? What is the Spirit saying? And, how do I join myself to that?
  • A leader must consider both Functional and Relational aspects of the change process, and also of the balance of control during change. Asking: What is the hallmark of how we relate to one another? Can prove helpful in this stage.
  • In reviewing where are we at now – we should consider: What do I need to change to shift from whatever is the current reality [From] to embrace the end goal / destination [To]. In the case of Stairway Church, it was about shifting from living by principles to being presence-oriented; and from Achievement orientation to Affection orientation.
  • In working through the transitions of From – To, we need to keep in mind what is currently and how we will move towards the new. In particular, how to work with the present reality (ie. what needs to be adjusted or repaired) and in moving towards the new what could be increased rather than thrown away.
  • In essence, the change process is about De-Constructing and Re-Constructing. What mindsets, philosophical ideas and expectations need to be de-constructed. And, what mindsets, philosophical ideas and expectations need to be re-constructed.
  • In this process, there will always be elements of both loss and gain. A leader needs to be aware of this and how their people will handle the process of loss. It does get messy! Trust issues arise. Difficult and honest conversations are required regularly.
  • Some advice in this process includes:
    • Take the posture of lower-still /humility is the key for leaders during this time
    • Paint a picture of the biblically based reasons for change. Describe how both functional and relational things can limit us in achieving the biblical framework we seek to establish as the new.
    • Rather than seeking to win the argument or need to be right all the time – seek first to understand one another and don’t take things personally.
    • Self-awareness and personal responsibility are key attributes to lean into, use appropriate language such as: we are all in a process of change. Transitions are difficult – we need to be real about it.
    • Define the process together – collectively, with others we can find: What are our options; What is God is saying to us at this time?; What do we value? What is our DNA? What has God called us to be?.
    • The process is enduring when we facilitate conversations, where we pursue life lived together and find things out together.
  • In the process of defining – Where are we at now? It is necessary to ask the right kinds of questions: What is important to us? What do you think of where we are at now?
  • It can also be helpful to do some conversational analysis – from both external voices and those within the organisation (people both inside and external to the church were asked: What do you think about..?)
  • Leaders need a degree of security to confront the realisation of where we are at now and to do the reality check. Keep in mind the quote: The mindset that created the problem is not the same mindset required to change it.
  • How to approach leaders who may have insecurity issues / feel beyond their comfort zones? We need to open up conversations that seek to defuse the tensions, conflict and pressure points internally with the leader. A helpful question for any leader is: Who are you under pressure? (& under financial pressure?); and What do you reach for when under pressure? (ie. Do you feel you need to reach for control / power?). Conversations can open up the deeper issues underlying feelings of insecurity or of being out of the comfort zone.
  • Some advice regarding progressing change /moving forward with transitions:
    • Always earth any change effort in people’s experiences
    • The security thing is critical to the success of the transition process – so consider how people will experience a sense of security / safety throughout the change process
    • Look at specific behaviour adaptations / modifications that will need to transition for change to be successful
    • Always frame the transition of what is now / present and what we are moving towards in the new [from – to]
    • Allow people time to move into the new behaviours (remember the Innovation-Adoption Curve)
    • Consider using common language and common definitions, but always keep in mind the medium is the message
    • Use personal stories of transformation to encourage and inspire each individual to continue on their journey of change.
    • Self-disclosure is key for all leaders – lead people through connecting them to your own journey of discovery and transition.

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