Four Actions for Change

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How executives eliminate threats to achieving organizational change

By Rick Maurer

My professional work centers on helping business leaders build support for organizational change, but recently I found something I had been missing. Last year, I was in a lot of client planning meetings across North America and Europe, and I began to notice a pattern. When the most senior leader was in the room actively engaged with his or her sleeves rolled up, the quality of those meetings was often far superior to meetings where the leader just wasn’t there.

I wondered if there were some things that only the senior leader could provide. And, if he or she didn’t provide those things, the project was at risk. I conducted a study and found four essential things the senior leader must provide to help ensure his or her organization successfully achieves any intended change. When leaders were doing those things, it made a huge positive impact.

Here are some comments from the survey: “Everyone is now ready for full participation and enthusiastic about what they … can get out of it.” “It’s no longer seen as something that IT is forcing on anyone.” “On time, on budget and sustained itself over time.” “A hospital for ranking worst in the state in three years later ranking number one.”

Now notice the contrast with comments from participants in the study about failed changes: “Extra work with minimal value for employees.” “Ill conceived.” “Benefits not realized, staff demoralized.” “Six years into a three-year project and still (have) not met goals.”

You might think that leaders of successful change were doing something unique or something extraordinarily difficult. But they weren’t. They were just doing four of the following things that would be easy to miss. The difference, of course, was that successful leaders didn’t miss those things.

  1. Visibly supporting the change from beginning to end. A comment from the study: “Our CEO has taken many opportunities to personally get involved—from speeches and lots to working with our senior team.”

    People can see when a leader is firmly behind an organizational change. In some instances, they are actively involved in planning and implementation meetings. In others, they delegate wisely while demonstrating that they are fully committed to the project.

    Sounds simple, I know. But given how busy executives are, it is easy to get a change started and then turn your attention to other pressing issues. But the moment you do that, people tweet #theleaderjustmovedon and there goes the momentum for the project.

  2. Demonstrating trust in the people who need to carry out the change. From the study: “The program vice president entrusted us to follow through, and we all knew that if needed, we could come to him to break down barriers.”

    It’s one thing to assign tasks—that’s easy. But delegating is harder. It demands conversation and allowing yourself to be influenced by the people you are delegating to.

    In the January issue of ICBA Independent Banker, Rik Nemanick, a management consultant, highlighted a new trend in mentoring called “reverse mentoring.” He wrote, “The idea of reverse mentoring takes the mentor’s learning that was already occurring and formalizes it by having the senior partner become the protégé and identifying her or his own learning goals.”

    While there are many ways of demonstrating trust, I believe that reverse mentoring gets at the spirit of this essential skill.

  3. Communicating the urgency for change. From the study: “Frequent all-hands meetings keep everyone informed—there were no surprises. It was all out on the table for both program personnel and our support folks.”

    In another study I conducted about 10 years ago, I learned that when organizations communicated an urgency for change throughout the organization, there was far less resistance and far greater success.
    The 1990 article “The Leadership Qualities of Today’s Community Bankers Instill Confidence and Loyalty” in ICBA Independent Banker, reported how Jimmy Webster, president of City National Bank and Trust Co., meets at least twice a year with successful leaders at other community banks to discuss current trends and discuss new ideas. The article pointed out how Webster learns a lot of ideas in those meetings that he shares with his colleagues to apply at the bank.

    Now take that a step further. Consider what James Collins found while researching his book “Good to Great.” He wrote that great companies seldom talked about change management. As he dug deeper, he found that great companies kept people in the loop all the time.

    In other words, people knew where the challenges and opportunities were. It is great when top executives learn from other bankers. But it’s even better when they share that knowledge with the men and women throughout their banks.

  4. Keeping supervisors (and other key stakeholders) in the loop. From the study: “A very active engagement of the CEO, the world and political leaders.”

    In organizational efforts where change failed, the leaders often keep their “bosses” in the dark. You can imagine the reaction of supervisors when problems came up that surprised them. These key stakeholders usually don’t need to take part in the change, they simply need to know what’s going on so they can bless the project and cover your back when problems occur.

My guess is that you have the skills to successfully handle those four actions when tackling organizational changes. But here is the challenge: It’s called positive illusion. Psychologists know that most of us think we are highly skilled in many areas where we really aren’t all that great. The antidote: Create a feedback loop. Find out if people believe that you are truly with them from A to Z, that you trust them with important work and that you do communicate a sense of urgency for change. And find out if “your own bosses” feel like they are in the loop. It’s tough to do, but essential.


Rick Maurer (rick@rickmaurer.com) is an advisor to senior business leaders on building support for organizational change. He is author of “Beyond the Wall of Resistance” and other books on change and leadership. Download the results of his study at www.rickmaurer.com/squandered-opportunities