Top 10 Lessons in Leading Change

Mergers, acquisitions, re-engineering, restructuring, new leaders, new strategies, systems upgrades, process improvements, staff reductions.  The one thing all these events have in common is a need to have a strategy for leading and sustaining change.  Change doesn’t happen because a group of leaders came up with a brilliant idea or because the charismatic CEO gave a visionary presentation at the Town Hall Meeting.   Here are ten key lessons to incorporate in your change strategy:

“60-75 percent of all restructuring failed — not because of strategy, but because of the “human dimension.”

Michael Hammer, author of Reengineering the Corporation

Lesson 1 – Understand the importance of people in every change initiative.

It doesn’t matter how successful the acquiring organization is, or how great the strategy – you need people to execute the strategy and to achieve success.  People must trust leadership, share the organization’s vision, and be included in planning in order buy into the change.  Since every person is wired differently, the approaches to engage them must also vary.  Organizations that use assessments to understand each individual’s preferred work behaviors and motivating needs can leverage this data to figure out who might jump on board as a catalyst for change and who might need more data, time to reflect or an emotional connection in order to get on the bus. 

Lesson 2:  Transformation is a mental, physical and emotional process; not an event.

Large-scale change has a tremendous emotional impact on all involved.  Transformation is not the same as incremental change.  It redefines what we do, how we do it and who we are as an organization.  It’s often unpredictable, fast-paced, and sometimes defies logic.  What worked in the past may not in the future.  Do not underestimate the depth and variety of emotions that people will have, and how this impacts the success of the transition as well as the impact on the culture. Handled correctly, people can be helped through the change process, which may start with denial and negative emotions and gradually move through acceptance to commitment.  Leaders must encourage people to move from one stage to the next – or risk losing talent and the success of the initiative. 

Lesson 3:  Leverage the talent and potential of people.

Prescribing to people what they should do differently usually prompts resistance.  Involving people in creating the future of their organization – their future – tends to evoke a spirit of cooperation and contribution.  People want opportunities to use their gifts and talents, their creativity and their ideas.  Within all people and organizations there is a positive core – a source of positive potential that is brought to life when recognized and stirred up. Demonstrate confidence in and commitment to employees. Turn the traditional hierarchy around; have employees tell management what they believe excellence looks like. Involving others and building on the strengths of people liberates the energy, enthusiasm and engagement throughout the organization.  Provide a forum for all to engage in designing the future.

Lesson 4:  Do an Impact Analysis:  How will the change affect each stakeholder?

Not everyone deals with change in the same way or at the same pace.  Consider all stakeholders, the impact on each and how to deal with it.  Some people are more resilient and adaptable.  Find these “change agents” early on and leverage them to help others get on board.  People who are resilient and adaptable are more satisfied at work since they have accepted the fact that the world will change.  Those who not only accept change, but are energized by it, can be assets. These individuals generally possess qualities such as self-confidence, coping skills, optimism, innovation, and perseverance.   

Lesson 5:  Communication comes from all directions and channels.

Formal communication is only a small part of the messages received by people.  Actions speak louder than words.  People will draw conclusions based on changes in the organizational structure or processes, actions of leaders, decisions that are being made, and behavior that is being rewarded.  The communication strategy must be aligned with the actions of leaders and the structures and systems in place.  What people hear and what they see will speak volumes more than the formal messages.

Lesson 6:  Be truthful and candid in communicating with others.

People will know if they are being fed information that has been “sugar-coated” or is veiled in corporate-speak.  Even if the intent is to protect others, being less than honest will destroy trust. People today want and deserve open and honest communication. While some people won’t be happy with the message, you face a greater risk by being less than honest.  Be up front and proactive in sharing information about challenges, risks, mistakes, failures, opportunities and what you don’t know yet. 

Lesson 7:  Help people to understand the rationale for change.

People need to understand the reason for the change and what the organization is trying to accomplish.  Share the strategy and spell out their role in achieving the goals of the change initiative.  Educate others by providing information about the business environment – economic, competitive, demographic and technological factors as well as industry trends and the financial realities of the business.  This is also true on a departmental level – explain why systems and processed need to change or why locations are being consolidated or job descriptions are changing.  And, once again, remember to involve people in the change.

Lesson 8:  Show the link between individual efforts and the goal.

One of the most effective methods to engage people is to show how their individual efforts and achievements help the organization to be successful and meet its goals.  People should be involved in setting their own goals in a way that links to those of the department and the organization.  They may come up with ideas that add value to those that might be developed by their managers alone.

Lesson 9:  Include others as much as you can – and value their input.

People feel a loss of control during change.  They can also feel unimportant and disrespected if they are not included in the change.  Remember that those closest to the work and the customers know things that management often doesn’t.  Plus, including others helps them to own the changes that will take place.  If it’s their idea, they are more likely to get on board and encourage others to do the same.  If most of the ideas come from management or the acquiring organization, resistance will surely rear its ugly head – even if the ideas are good ones.

Lesson 10:  Negotiate a new “compact” with employees.

Just as in any relationship, people need to understand what is expected of them and what they can expect in exchange.  The interests of both sides need to be considered; the relationship must be built on mutual trust and respect.  All parties have a responsibility toward the success of the business, as well as a right to share in the rewards of that success. Employees expect to be treated fairly and respectfully, compensated appropriately and to have opportunities to develop and have meaningful, challenging work.  The organization expects employees to be committed, to treat their customers well, to meet their goals and to be professional in dealing with others.  The best relationships come when both sides are working toward mutual benefit and areas that are valued by all.

At Strategic Imperatives we understand the human and organizational influences on change, how these can derail your initiative or how they can fuel it for success.  We use solid, research-backed methods combined with people data and decades of experience to help our clients successfully navigate change. Contact us to learn more.