Preparing Leaders to Implement Real Change

As discussed in a previous blog (6 steps to get your people engaged in a process of change), bringing a carefully planned change intervention to a successful conclusion requires having well trained leaders who are totally on board with the process. As a first step, no matter what change is envisaged – a new IT system, a merger or acquisition, a gender balancing strategy - the complete buy-in and active participation of the CEO is vital. Almost no change in a business has happened without the highest echelons of management showing their enthusiasm and commitment to the project, and this is very different from simply having ‘the CEO’s tacit support’. If the CEO is MIA during a change initiative and never refers to the process during addresses to staff, in daily interactions with executives, or in a corporate brochure, an essential ingredient is missing.

Once your top leaders are driving the change process with both their energy and presence, you then need to take time to fully prepare, and enthuse all levels of leadership below the C-suite. 


Why is briefing all leaders so important?

Everyone knows how difficult it is to bring a change management programme to a successful conclusion. The generally accepted figure is that almost 50% of change initiatives fail, but McKinsey and Co have this figure as high as 75%. If you don’t have the commitment and eager participation of the vast majority of your leaders, you’ll contribute directly to these woeful statistics. A side effect is that you’ll also create low morale and cynicism that will probably put you a worse situation than before.

Even when senior management and executives are excited about change - perhaps having spent months with consultants and investing large sums of money to ensure a smooth transition – the crux is translating the process into an everyday, lived reality. Change won’t happen without cascading the passion and knowledge that’s been generated at the top to every layer of the business.

Getting your leaders ready to implement change means being realistic about the time and effort required to prepare them thoroughly. A simple briefing and a belief that they will happily go forth and lead the charge the way you’d like them to is often naïve.  In fact, unconvinced and unhappy leaders may well set out to sabotage your plans if you haven’t spent enough time addressing their fears and explaining the importance of the venture.

With your leaders being such an integral part of successful change management, how should you best prepare them and provide them with the requisite skills? Here are some pointers:


1.     Get alignment

It takes time to make certain that your leaders are well briefed to champion change, but it’s often said that you need to go slowly to go fast later on. You need to ensure that your leaders truly understand the reason for the change, how it will be implemented, what message will be communicated to the employees, what the milestones are, and how their success will be measured and rewarded.

When you spend time explaining the case for change, you’ll often discover that there are many divergent opinions and even resistance from the team. Leaders at different levels can have their own agendas and power bases, and when some actively work against you, this could scupper your plans. Just ask your HR departments and they’ll tell you how frustrating it is when they’ve gone through thorough training with new employees, only to have line managers undo their work when the new staff hit the ground (‘forget what you’ve been told in training – we’ll show you how things really happen around here!’). You have the best shot of truly explaining and persuading leaders to be aligned with your new purpose at the outset, so use this opportunity well.

By spending time on getting everyone pointed in the same direction, your leaders will develop a true understanding of the purpose and process of the change. This could almost serve as a ‘dress rehearsal’, and should give them the knowledge and confidence to handle the questions or objections their own direct reports might raise.


2.     Make certain leaders at all levels are engaged

A mistake that many companies make is that they don’t drive the change management education far enough down the organization. Your frontline people can be ‘make or break’. Once you roll out the change process, you need their full enthusiasm and commitment to avoid becoming a failed statistic. It’s often at the front-lines that companies experience push-back and resistance to change, so find the leaders here and involve and train them fully to ensure a smooth process. You may also include those who don’t have leadership titles but are clearly in a position of influence. In short, you have the best possible chance of success when those with authority and influence are champions of the change process.


3.     Provide deeds not words

Part of the reason for the incredibly high rate of change initiative failure is that the process begins and ends with words. Time is spent with consultants, plans are drawn and re-drawn, and the conversation never seems to end. The less challenging part of change is drawing up guidelines and processes, but the most difficult part is getting people to adapt their behaviours.

Change for most people is disturbing because they have an emotional attachment to ‘the old way of doing things’ and don’t like to give up the status quo.

Consequently, you need to ensure that your leaders know exactly what new behaviours are expected, and how to recognize and reward these. It’s important for the leaders themselves to behave in a new way, thus setting the example. The new pattern of work should be modelled on a daily basis. What’s powerful about this is that employees will see that the change is real and happening.

The reason people are called leaders is that others take their lead from them – when leaders adopt new behaviours and move forward confidently to embrace a change initiative, their followers will start to let go of their old, entrenched patterns.


4.     Make sure there’s constant communication

‘Change fatigue’ is a real thing and an absolute enemy of the change management process. When you’re implementing real change and you know what your desired outcomes are, along with clearly defined milestones, you’ll always be aware of whether or not you’re on-track. Much of the communication that leaders will need - and what they’ll be providing to your employees - should be along the lines of reassurance, praise for good progress made, understanding their discomfort at times, and reinforcing them with confidence if they start to flag.

Many companies launch a change initiative with huge fanfare and then the level of input tails off dramatically. It’s this very energy that needs to be sustained – particularly as so many change processes fall at the last hurdle – and constant communication is what will keep enthusiasm high. Your leaders need to keep rallying the troops so you need to keep rallying them to keep them motivated.

Also, leaders shouldn’t take on the task of running an important change process without it forming part of their KPIs so that they are evaluated and rewarded for their success. This is the reason that we recommend acknowledging and celebrating all successful milestones in a change programme until the initiative is successfully completed. It’s another way of communicating the commitment of the company to the change process and the value of those who are making it happen.


5.     Understand the important role of culture

Although this point is placed last, it’s actually the most important of all. As Lou Gerstner of IBM once said: “Culture is everything”. Peter Drucker is said to have coined the phrase: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Most organisational change requires a modification of culture, which can be a mighty obstacle and one for which your leaders need to be well prepared.

Your leaders need to explain the value and impact of a change to all the employees. As a result, they have to understand what cultural changes will be required and how this will likely affect people. How to carry out successful culture change is so important that it will be dealt with in a separate article, emphasizing what leaders need to know and how they can best assist their employees to embrace the company’s new direction. We’ll also outline a valuable model that will greatly assist leaders in bringing about a successful culture shift. 

Catalyst6 Team