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Three change leadership lessons from Mad Men

Despite the fact that it ended over a year ago, Mad Men is still one of my favourite TV shows– not just for the entertainment factor, but for the timeless leadership lessons it shared, including those around change management.

For those who don’t know, Mad Men is a period drama about the advertising workforce on Madison Avenue, New York in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The show depicts its characters going through a great deal of change in their personal and professional lives, and how they learn to manage it. I’d like to share the inspirational quotes and lessons I drew from Mad Men and now apply in my own change management practice. 

Let’s start with change leadership lesson number one:

Let’s also say that change is neither good or bad. It simply is. It can be greeted with terror or joy — a tantrum that says 'I want it the way it was,' or a dance that says 'Look, something new.' (Season 3, Episode 2)

I am sure there are several Mad Men fans (and change management professionals) out there who resonated with the quote above.

Don Draper, the main character in the show, says this during an episode where all of the characters are trying to cope with the fact that everything is changing, both in the world and in their personal lives (in this case, Penn Station is being torn down to make way for Madison Square Garden in New York City).

Don is trying to say that we should embrace change, but also recognizes that one way to demonstrate agility and adapt better to change is to admit that, well, it simply is.

In today’s business world, change is the only constant. Some organizations are handling it better than others, and others are still figuring out how to get in front of it. It’s imperative for change leaders to build organizational resiliency and readiness when it comes to change, by viewing change as an opportunity (and not just a single, discrete event that’s managed) to achieve sustainable success.

This takes me to my next leadership lesson from Mad Men.

“If you do not like what’s being said, then change the conversation.” (Season 3, Episode 2)

For me, this spoke to the internalization and commitment phase of change, and how the best change leaders appeal to the intrinsic motivators of each key stakeholder group impacted by change to help them internalize and commit to it.

A strategy I like to use is to analyze the perceived benefits (and losses) for each stakeholder group and use this to develop key messaging for the group. Sensing a fear of loss of control amongst stakeholders? Tell stakeholders what still remains in their control and the benefits of having more time to focus on more strategic or value-add opportunities. 

This also meant for me that change leaders need to be nimble enough to quickly adapt their engagement strategies based on stakeholder feedback as a continuous process. Capitalize on those "water cooler conversations” and dispel rumours to change the conversation around the business outcomes you’re trying to realize. 

The last change leadership lesson from Mad Men is around support systems:

"I know you’re all feeling the darkness here today. But there’s no reason to give in. No matter what you’ve heard, this process will not take years. In my heart, I know we cannot be defeated, because there is an answer that will open the door." (Season 6, Episode 8)

Don Draper’s demonstrating admirable change leadership in this episode by opening communication lines and motivating his team to keep going.

The lesson for me here was change leaders should recognize that change is not a linear process, and people need to feel supported in order to keep up the enthusiasm and optimism for success. 

One-on-one meetings between staff and leaders–like in this episode between Don and his creative team–are hugely motivational, especially when compared to large-scale communication events, such as employee town halls.

In fact, several studies suggest that non-financial motivators such as recognition from immediate managers, leadership attention (for example, one-on-one conversations), and a chance to lead projects or workgroups are far more effective motivators than financial incentives, such as cash bonuses, increased base pay, and stock or stock options.

In short, when people feel that their companies value them, take their well-being seriously, and strive to create opportunities for career growth, they’re more engaged, productive and effective.

Setting Don Draper’s personal flaws aside (he’s a fictional TV character after all), I think there are some valuable change leadership lessons to be learned from the show, Mad Men. As a change leader, if you can view change as an opportunity to evolve, revise your change strategy based on feedback and support your people through the change process, you’ll always come out on top and stay relevant in a modern world.

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