Mastering the Challenges of Leading Change by H. James Dallas


In Mastering the Challenges of Leading Change Inspire the People and Succeed Where Others Fail James Dallas takes us through a series of steps to successfully manage change within an organization. I will begin by saying I am completely biased in favor of Mr. Dallas. I had the pleasure and honor of working with him at Medtronic. I recognize some of the stories and the people he highlights in the book. I can say that he is every bit as authentic in person as he is in this book. I can also say that he practices what he preaches. Everything he lays out in the book flows from his deep well of wisdom and experience.

This book is an informative guide on how to lead through change in such a way that inspires people and brings about the desired results. James neatly organizes the book into four parts – priorities, politics, people and perseverance. Within each part he unpacks the specific challenges and provides a set of recommendations across three chapters. He starts where most things begin, at the beginning. Once you know what the project is you need to set priorities, create a team and decide where to start. From there you have to deal with the ever pervasive politics. The irony about politics is almost no one likes them but yet they exists and everyone has to participate. Not to worry, James walks us through how to be a communicator, create messages that resonate and how to overcome resistance. Next is dealing with the most important resource of any company, the people. He provides clear methods for assessing project progress, aligning group dynamics and how to build trust. Lastly, and probably most important, is about perseverance. Here he provides a pathway to deal with crisis, leverage change, and how leaders can be effective talent developers and sponsors.

What Worked For Me

I am all about story telling and James does a phenomenal job of relating his points in quick stories.  I wasn’t in the IT organization, but I was in the Corporate group when Mr. Dallas began his tenure. I had the opportunity to work directly with him on our strategic planning process. It’s a grueling process made less arduous through his humor, candor and story telling. Many books I have read are good at prescribing what a leader should do but don’t always bring forward their experience to illuminate the advice. The stories throughout the book pull you into his world and his mind. Not only are they poignant they make the impossible seem possible and based on common sense.

Failure. James doesn’t simply toot his own horn in what a magnificent leader he is. He talks about where and why he failed, but more importantly what he did to overcome it. Everyone has missteps but we have to learn from them or otherwise be doomed to repeat them. Additionally, he doesn’t hold others’ failures against them. He is active in helping people take the learning and move beyond. In one story he shared, he challenged other leaders to do the same when an individual’s perceived failure from five years ago was brought up in a meeting.

Homework and tweetable moments can be found at the end of every chapter. Rather than sum up the chapter and move on to the next, he summarizes the chapter in tweets. I didn’t check to see if each point was 140 characters, but these are seriously tweetable quotes. Additionally, he challenges us to think about our own projects and answer several questions. If our answers aren’t where they should be we have homework to do to bring everyone back to center.

Let me say it again, I know he practices what he preaches. I also know his process for approaching change leadership gets results. The steps he lays out are simple to understand and are achievable. Anyone at any level of the organization can implement these steps.  You will not walk away from this book thinking that he was able to implement his process because he was a chief officer. These are practical steps built on years of wisdom and experience. Frankly, these are the unspoken rules of corporate america that no one shares or teaches in school. Much of the advice in the book mirrors what he imparted to me in our one-on-one discussions.

Lastly, as a University of Michigan Stephan M. Ross School of Business alum I must praise his shout of one of our pinnacle leadership gurus Noel Tichy. In the epilogue he credits attending a program based on Tichy’s Leadership Engine with seeing how his work has a greater purpose beyond providing for his family. That’s where he learned what every Ross MBA learns early on, everyone has a teachable point of view, TPOV. Though the book was first published in 1997, the essential messages for creating leaders at every level remains the same. Though he put it in the epilogue, James carried the concept of TPOV forward in his everyday work. I didn’t know this about him until I read the book, but now it seems completely obvious that he is a subscriber to TPOV. After my house was extensively damaged in a flood rendering me somewhat homeless James told me to consider the fact that this experience was preparing me in case something similar happens to someone on a team I’m leading one day.

What Didn’t Work For Me

Frankly, it was hard to find anything about this book that didn’t work for me. One area that I would have loved to see him expand on is in the final chapter where he is speaking to organizational leaders in sponsoring and developing talent. This subject can be an entire book on its own. This is probably the one place where he could have expanded on how people who are not leaders in the organization can set themselves up to be sponsored. When I had sponsorship I sort of tripped into it and didn’t know that’s what is was until someone explained it to me. I was blessed and gained sponsorship in spite of myself. Typically sponsors choose you, it’s not really you going up to someone and asking them to sponsor you. I once had a sponsor who was chasing me through the halls, literally, to help me. He put his hands on my shoulders, looked me square in the eyes, and literally had to tell me he was sponsoring me and trying to help move my career forward. I immediately sought out coaching from mentors on what that meant and how does one act. While James takes the time to explain his rationale and process for sponsorship, I would love to have as much clarity from him on how a “sponsee” should behave.

One other aspect I would like to have seen James expand on is normalizing corporate america, otherwise known as diversity. I’m starting to say normalize instead of diversity, I got that from Shonda Rhimes book Year of Yes. This is a leadership book for everyone and I completely understand that Mr. Dallas speaks to the broad leadership experience. He does touch on the importance of making sure teams have people that represent different experiences, points of view, backgrounds, etc. I think what would have solidified that point for me is if he would have more directly challenged leaders to look at who they’re sponsoring and for those leaders to challenge other leaders.

Lastly, I’m a visual person. I would have loved a graphic representation of this process. Something I can print out and keep at my desk for quick reference when I get stuck or need reminding.

Notable Quotes

This book is full of notable quotes, including the chapter summaries in tweet style. Here are a few of my favorite:

“Sucking up never works with anyone who’s worth sucking up to, so don’t bother. Trust is built through action and commitment.”

When sarcastically asked by a colleague what he does at Medtronic his response was “I’m like that little plastic thing that holds a six-pack together…people don’t think it’s worth much until they try to carry six cans without it”.

“As for sponsors, I again depart form the conventional wisdom, which tells you to actively court these relationships. My experience has been that the most influential sponsors don’t want or need to be courted. They are looking for quality people to groom for leadership. They choose you. The way to attract them is by showing leadership wherever you are in your career.”

“As the leader, you don’t get to be the hero. Your job is to make heroes out of others not by ‘giving’ them credit, but by giving them enough responsibility so that when things go right, they actually deserve that credit.”

“Speak truth to power”.

The Verdict

I give this book four stars. Keep in mind that I rarely given anything a full rating. As leadership books go this is as close to perfection as I have come. I didn’t give it the full five stars simply because of my positive bias towards Mr. Dallas. Difficult as it is, I’m remaining objective. H. James Dallas is a phenomenal once-in-a-lifetime leader. I have been blessed to have worked with multiple great leaders at Medtronic, including Bill Hawkins who wrote the book’s foreword. If I’m allowed to keep my bias, this book gets all five stars.

You can learn more about James Dallas by visiting James Dallas & Associates, listening to his radio show, follow him on Twitter @hjamesdallas and like him on Facebook. Hear from James Dallas himself below.

Nile Harris
Nile Harris, the Chief Chick, is a word weaver and dream believer with 20 years of experience in healthcare, finance, and education. This aspiring motivational speaker, TED presenter and LinkedIn Influencer is committed to valuing people, driving healthcare access and innovation, and weaving words that move people to action. Her views are her own.
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Genre: Business, Non-Fiction
Subjects: Business, Change Management, Leadership, Non-fiction

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