Much of what I know about leading change I learned in Detroit as a community organizer. My education required walking one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, past abandoned houses along filthy streets that were empty as soon as darkness fell. It was a place where police patrols were rarely seen.
It seemed a daunting challenge. Where does one begin? Fortunately, on the first day of my training as a community organizer, I learned the most important lesson of all, preached by the union leader Cesar Chavez, "First you talk to one person, then you talk to another person, then you talk to another person..."
That’s how I began. Each day I would drive around the neighborhood looking for people with whom to talk. I would pick a street and then pick a house on that street and then knock on the door. All too often, people wouldn’t talk to me. Some wouldn’t even open the door! But some folks did take the time to talk. I would listen and learn what questions people were asking. I asked those questions when I met other people in the neighborhood.
One day, I ended up on Genoa Street where I met a young woman named Delores. She wanted to change the neighborhood. And it turned out she had a friend, Ruth, a few doors down, who felt the same way.
That’s how the community building process began. In a few weeks, we had the initial meeting of the neighborhood group; we began to take action. We got the city to send a crew out to clean the streets and unclog the sewer drains. Then we got the police to send a representative to speak with us about increasing the number of patrols in the neighborhood. And so it went. Each small victory gave the people in the neighborhood something to talk about. We were making change one conversation at a time.
A number of years later, at a business conference, I heard Robert Rodin, author of Free, Perfect and Now, describe how he led his company, Marshall Industries, through a process of radical transformation:
“Marshall’s transformation was launched by questions without conclusions, through an ongoing dialogue that put our management system on trial…[this] let me discover who shared my frustration and could be taught my sense of urgency; and helped me identify potential allies and build a broad platform of support…By teaching people to ask the same questions that I was asking myself, we would learn how to find the answers and discover the basis for our organizational redesign…it was a year well spent.”
Aha! He was doing what I had been taught to do as a community organizer: Lead change one conversation at a time. That seems to be a fundamental truth. No matter what type of organization, what industry, or the nature of the change process, it always starts with people having a conversation.