For the past few days I have been working on redecorating our living room, stairway, hallway, and entry areas. Everything is getting redone—ceiling, lighting, walls, interior doors, and woodwork. The carpet stays because that is outside our budget for now.
I have little experience with these things so I greatly admire the professionals and artisans who do this for a living. Their skills are truly impressive to me! As I work through this process, the amount of preparation work I’ve had to do has been incredible.
For example, the walls needed a great amount of work due to years of neglect and the abuse of little kids running through the house. (The kids aren’t little anymore!) I am also replacing all of the 70s-era dark-brown woodwork. Removing that has revealed a few more wall problems to work on. As a result, my skills with applying and sanding drywall mud are improving! After that comes the painting process, which requires taping and edging before I ever get to rolling. I’ll also be installing white-painted trim throughout. That requires a fair amount of measuring, cutting, painting, and nailing. In addition to all of that activity is endless laying of drop cloth, climbing ladders, cleaning up inevitable messes, cleaning tools, and trying to keep the house livable at the same time!
Fast forward a few weeks to when this is all done. (I’m working partial days and weekends on this — this takes a while, especially since I’m an amateur.) Imagine the neighbor or relative who walks in to see the newly re-finished space. In all likelihood, what they will say is “You painted — I like those colors!” and maybe, “I like the white woodwork.” They will not say “What wonderful drywall repair!” or “Those doors are perfectly shimmed!” or “You put those nails in the woodwork just right!” No, their focus is on what they can see, not the preparation that made the results possible.
However, what they see (fresh color on walls, new woodwork, new doors, etc.) would not be possible without all the behind-the-scenes preparation. Putting a fresh coat of paint over wall dings does not get rid of the problem! The most important part of a quality redecorating project is quality preparation.
Leadership is also more about preparation than it is about the finished work. Let me say that again — how a leader prepares himself, others, and the organization for change is far more important than what gets done (or fails to get done). I have identified four areas of preparation work for leaders. Quality work in these areas helps ensure quality outcomes for any change effort.
- Diagnosing the situation: Perhaps the most important area of preparation, diagnosing the situation requires the ability to ask insightful questions, interpret information, and detect truth. An improper diagnosis will almost always lead to faulty work in other areas of preparation and thus poor results.
- Developing support for change: It is vital that leaders enlist others in the change initiative. There must be broad and deep support for any significant project. The first two of John Kotter’s eight-step model for change1 addresses this: Establishing a sense of urgency, and Forming a powerful guiding coalition.
- Defining the vision: Many say that the core role and responsibility of leadership is vision. Vision is clearly a step of preparation for the organization. Without vision, no one, including the leader, knows why to move forward or in what direction to go!
- Determining the resources available: An often overlooked step in preparation, leaders need to take time to determine what physical, people, and intellectual resources are available. A simple point illustrates this need. Whatever situation your organization is in today is a result of the use and misuse of these resources. Leaders must take a fresh inventory to identify resource opportunities and gaps for the new vision.
Whatever you are working on, whether it be a small or large change project, take a moment to assess your preparation work in the four areas above. Another activity you might do is a post-mortem on a past project. How was your preparation on that? Assess your preparation by looking at the results. Be sure to get independent input to confirm your assessment.
In the end, leaders must be comfortable hearing, “What beautiful colors!” and not worry about getting kudos for their prep work on the drywall.
1Kotter has two excellent books that present this model: Kotter, John P. Leading Change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1996 and Kotter, John P., and Dan S. Cohen. The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of how People Change their Organizations. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press, 2002.