How to lead change

Leadership + Management

Andrey Popov / fotolia

Studies picking global senior executives' brains on change management say that the success rate of transformational initiatives is not much above 50 per cent. This is worrisome since the costs are high when change efforts go wrong. Financially – and in terms of company morale. 

The following list of ten guiding principles by Strategy and Business can help executives navigate the difficulties of change and transformation in a systematic way.

1. Lead with the culture. Lou Gerstner, who as chief executive of IBM led one of the most successful business transformations in history, said the most important lesson he learned from the experience was that “culture is everything.” Among respondents whose companies were unable to sustain change over time, a startling 76 per cent reported that executives failed to take account of the existing culture when designing the transformation effort.

2. Start at the top. Although it’s important to engage employees at every level, all successful change management initiatives start at the top. A well-aligned group of executives need the support of the CEO. This alignment can’t be taken for granted. Make sure in advance that everyone agrees about the case for the change and the particulars for implementing it.

3. Involve every layer. Midlevel and frontline people can make or break a change initiative. Rolling out change is a lot easier if employees are tapped early for input on issues that will affect their jobs. Frontline people know where potential issues may occur and how customers may react to changes.

4. Make the rational and emotional case together. Strategic business objectives such as “we will enter new markets” or “we will grow 20 per cent a year for the next three years” do not necessarily motivate your people to buy into the change project. You need to reach people emotionally in a way that ensures genuine commitment to the cause. Engage their hearts as well as their minds, making them feel they are part of something consequential.

5. Act your way into new thinking. People do not shift their behaviours just because formal directives and incentives have been put in place. Managers need to become clear communicators with a mandate to deliver a message about the new strategy.

6. Engage, engage, engage. Leaders often make the mistake of imagining that if they convey a strong message of change at the start of an initiative, people will understand what to do. Nothing could be further from the truth. Powerful and sustained change requires constant communication, not only throughout the roll-out but after the major elements of the plan are in place.

7. Lead outside the lines. Change has the best chance of success when everyone with authority and influence is involved. In addition to the company’s recognized leadership group includes people whose power is more informal and is related to their expertise. Find the trust builders and informal leaders and engage them.

8. Leverage formal solutions. Persuading people to change their behaviour won’t suffice for transformation unless formal elements – such as structure, reward systems, ways of operating, training, and development – are redesigned to support them. Many companies fall short in this area.

9. Leverage informal solutions. Even when the formal elements needed for change are present, the established culture can undermine them if people revert to old habits. This is why formal and informal solutions must work together. Create an ethic of ownership in the product or service and kill the old excuse: “We just do what we’re told.”

10. Assess and adapt. Leaders are so eager to claim victory that they don’t take the time to find out what’s working and what’s not, and to adjust their next steps accordingly. So make sure to follow through and support the process of change throughout its life cycle.



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