Starts at the Top
Every article and book on the topic of change management tells you that it is imperative that the change must be totally embraced by top management. It is not necessary that the CEO is the brain child behind the change initiative. He or she needs to be intelligent enough to accept and understand the need for it. Or at least the change management agent needs to convince them that they are. The bottom line is that the organization’s management team has to be 100 percent behind the initiative. That means they must communicate that fact to every person in the organization that the change is necessary, urgent and has all of the resources needed to accomplish it. The management team includes the top manager (i.e., CEO, president, boss), the first tier managers (e.g., COO, CIO, CFO, division heads) and any governing body (e.g., board of directors, family).
Most business leaders today would agree on two things: (1) organizational change is constant, and (2) leading change is one of the most difficult burdens of a leader’s command. In last week’s article I focused on the seven mindsets necessary for successful leadership development. In this article, I want to take it a step further and look at the role leadership development should play in organizational change.
This topic arose quickly during a major transformation a company I previously owned was undergoing. We had been doubling in size (revenue and headcount) each year since our inception but began to suffer from the inevitable growing pains all organizations face. We were outgrowing legacy systems and processes, needed a culture upgrade, new talent acquisition strategies, new divisions, new software programs and a new approach to sales and marketing. The list goes on.
And while we knew that research points to the fact that the majority of major organizational change efforts fall short of meeting their intended objectives, we remained vigilant. But some of the major hurdles most companies face during transformations include resources being stretched thin, competing priorities, new systems to learn, fear, fatigue and managers facing issues they’ve never dealt with.
So when I proposed that we pile on leadership development programs and emotional intelligence training to better equip ourselves to successfully lead through change the eyes really started rolling!
“Do you really think that is a priority right now?” one senior executive asked.
“Budget’s are super tight right now with the increase in headcount and investment in the new software program – not to mention the training everyone needs for these new systems,” a board member exclaimed.
“In my opinion we can’t afford not to invest in these programs. If we don’t improve our ability to lead in dynamic situations, we will fail,” I said.
As a former Navy SEAL, I knew that without sound leadership at all levels during chaotic times, the mission goes south. Fast. So I pushed back to support my case by reminding everyone of several key leadership challenges that could force us to become a sad statistic of failed organizational change:
Leadership alignment (or misalignment) on exactly how to execute our change mission
Clearly articulating the changes needed across the organization
Emotionally connecting the team to our renewed mission narrative
Underdeveloped middle managers (and some senior leaders!)
Managing fear, fatigue and conflict as unforeseen issues arise
Leading teams through various specific changes related to the larger transition
Maintaining trust and accountability
Handling all aspects related to maintaining (or improving) culture during the transformation
My point was that this was the best possible time to invest in leadership development programs starting with custom 360-degree feedback and overall sentiment analysis. By using that data we could create actionable programs designed to meet specific needs. As accountable leaders we were going to have to mature and evolve in order to handle the unique obstacles that come with leading organizational change. Eventually, everyone got on board. And not only did the feedback and programs improve our leaders across the organization, it built trust with the entire company. Why? Because everyone knew we were truly investing in our ability to lead them. And therefore, in a way, we were investing in each of them too.
For any organization facing change (which is all of us), I recommend the following approach when considering leadership development programs:
Think outside the box and make the experience both highly valuable and fun
Ensure that the participants have enough bandwidth to be fully engaged and take advantage of the opportunity
Make sure that those participating have the seven mindsets necessary for successful leadership development
When appropriate and applicable, articulate to the participants the potential incentives for improving as a leader such as more responsibility, upward mobility or increased compensation
Ensure that the content and curriculum of the program have practical on-the-job applications (i.e. if the company is experiencing widespread change, make sure change leadership is part of the program!)
Be transparent with the entire organization (not just participants) about WHY the investment is being made and what the positive outcomes are to be expected
Begin with data collection and analysis with custom 360-degree surveys (or something similar), leadership assessments and even organization-level assessments – use that data to design programs that not only address specific challenges (at the team and individual level) but also fit the timing of the changes the company is facing TODAY.
Leading organizational change always starts with a bit of mindset transformation because we usually have to pull time, budget and resources from one important area to invest in another. Leading change is hard. You can’t afford not to invest in leadership improvement.
Doing so dramatically improves the chances of transformation success!
The Role of Leadership in Change Management (AlignOrgSolutions)
Leaders aren’t immune to the pressure of people’s expectations. After all, employees look to their leaders for a lot—clarity, connection, and accountability—particularly in the midst of change.
A September 2013 Forbes article revealed some surprising insights about change management and leadership. For example, although 55% of leaders felt the changes met initial goals, change management initiatives over the long term were successful only 25% of the time. More than 87% of leaders said they trained their managers to oversee the process of change management, but the changes, once implemented, didn’t last. In fact, training was effective among just 22% of those surveyed. A third of those understood the reasons for organizational change, but that important message never fully trickled down to middle managers or front line supervisors.
So what does this tell us about the role of leadership in change management?
Having and practicing a change management mentality are two different things. Lots of leaders want change, but only a select few actually help make it happen.
Adopting the Change Management Mentality
The reasons for not adopting the right mindset vary, and most are understandable. Some leaders allocate time and resources from the perspective of revenue—versus change initiatives. Others have difficulty gaining support in a consensus-driven culture. A few might even be unwilling to share their “intellectual capital” (the resources that contribute to the enterprise’s value and ability to compete) for the good of the change initiative. Some might even want to avoid the career risk a failure might incur.
Many leaders learn through trial and error how to lead effectively during change. Unfortunately, their learning curve can be at the expense of the organization.
AlignOrg Solutions worked with a sales executive who had already made several significant changes within his organization prior to engaging us. He reached out for help because he was having difficulty getting his sales team to adopt the changes he’d implemented and couldn’t understand why this was.
As we diagnosed and learned about the situation, it was clear that what he thought he was doing effectively and what was being received by his team members were two different things. Moreover, he had failed to clarify how the changes would reshape their roles, how they’d be equipped to fulfill those new roles, and how they’d be held accountable. As a result, people questioned the change—and ultimately his leadership.
The above scenario underscores the importance of adopting a change management mentality and the necessary skills to communicate and execute it properly. Those that fail to do so will have a difficult time enacting profound and lasting change.
Manage the Change or It Will Manage You
Anytime leaders fall short on fulfilling expectations, their teams become disillusioned, confused and unmotivated. The business suffers. Leaders must manage the change or it will manage them. When leaders fulfill the change management role, changes are made efficiently and sustainably, and the expectations of their staff, partners, stakeholders and clients are met.
AlignOrg Solutions has developed specific strategies to help leaders step into the change management role. To highlight a few of the principles that leaders should embrace when leading through change, consider the following:
Clarify the vision and communicate it effectively. The role of leadership in change management requires that you help people buy into your vision for the organization. This type of communication needs to occur consistently, no matter if it’s the mundane, day-to-day issues or more serious change programs. Your message needs to be clear and consistent. Leverage your audience’s preferred communication methods to ensure receptiveness. That means making the most of social media. According to a November 2015 Harvard Business Review article, we spend an average of 3 hours each day on various social media platforms, with over 50% of employers using such platforms for internal communications. The same article noted that just 17% of employees rated their leader highly when it came to recent change-related communications.
Stay connected with your employees. Without this awareness, you’ll have a difficult time explaining your vision and enlisting support. Your employees look to you to be direct and transparent. They also want you to be approachable. The Harvard Business Review piece cited another study in which nearly three-quarters of employees said their CEO’s preferred social media platform allowed them to communicate more directly with the CEO. Similar numbers of CEOs believed such interactions helped them get a quick idea of what employees were thinking/feeling, which is important when aligning your change management initiatives with the capabilities of your people.
Be accountable and transparent. During times of change, leaders must be accountable for what is working and what isn’t working. Being accountable fosters a desire and commitment to fix problems to yield the best results. To be truly accountable means you are willing to let others see behind the curtain to candidly assess how things are going. As you do this, your team will embrace a similar, no-blame openness to performance. Accountable leaders look at all aspects of the organization—culture, processes, management, and employees—to ensure all are functioning optimally. If they are not, a good change management leader must be willing to admit the gaps or misalignments and take actions to address shortcomings.
Remember, perceptions of leaders are often shaped during times of transition and change. The principles outlined above help leaders conquer the change management challenge. Don’t let people question your leadership and the mission of the organization. Such questions, undermine employee commitment to the change initiatives and their allegiance to you and possibly the company. Additionally, these leadership questions may ripple out to your customers, partners and stakeholders.
Be the Change You Want to See
Don’t abdicate change management to others, such as HR, or leave it to chance because you think people will “get it” the first time. You have to take full responsibility, understand the mindset of your team, enlist their support and hold them accountable.
The role of leadership in change management requires care, communication and commitment. As the leader, you are the bridge between your organization and the envisioned change. If you understand your role and the expectations around it, clarify your vision, communicate effectively, and hold yourself and others accountable throughout the change process, you can successfully navigate even the most disruptive change.