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So, You Want to Be a Change Leader

By Leslie Allan

You may have been selected by your executive to initiate and see through some change program in your organization. Or you may have decided that the time has come to make your mark by dusting off the cobwebs in your workplace. However your change role came about, you have a challenging task ahead of you.

Consider this sobering thought. In spite of the importance of successfully implementing workplace change for maintaining your business’s competitiveness, most change initiatives fail to deliver the expected organizational benefits. This failure occurs for a number of reasons:

• absence of a change champion or one who is too junior in the organization
• poor executive sponsorship or senior management support
• poor project management skills
• hope rested on a one-dimensional solution
• political infighting and turf wars
• poorly defined organizational objectives
• change team diverted to other projects

Do you recognize one or more of these in your organization from previous initiatives? You have probably experienced already one major cost of such failure. The cynical and burned out employees left behind only make the next change objective even more difficult to accomplish. It should come as no surprise that the fear of managing change and its impacts is a leading cause of anxiety in managers.

Your first step in becoming a successful change leader is fully understanding your organization and matching the initiative to your organization’s real needs. This means not just adopting the latest management fad. Recognize that bringing about useful and meaningful change is fundamentally about changing people’s behavior in certain desired ways. It is not primarily about installing a new system or rearranging the organizational structure. If people in the end do not behave and work differently, then the money and time spent in “doing stuff” is wasted.

You will see from the above list of reasons for failure that lack of technical expertise is not the main impediment to successful change. Leadership and management skills, such as visioning, prioritizing, planning, providing feedback and rewarding success, are key factors in any successful change initiative. Concentrate on these skills that will help you get people on board and to keep them on board for the life of the project and beyond. Get your mentor or a training consultant to perform an honest gap analysis on your skill set and then get the coaching or training that you need.

Whatever change program you are implementing, one key area in which you need to pay close attention is the identification and management of your change program stakeholders. A stakeholder is any person with an interest in the change process or the outcome of your proposed change. Be politically savvy. Your stakeholders will bring a mix of competing interests and will often act to further their own power, influence and survival. An added challenge for you as change leader is that such political maneuvering is often disguised as impartial and rational argument. Think about who are your major stakeholders. Think about what you will say to them to get each of them on side. When you have done that, write up a stakeholder communication plan and make sure you follow through.

Another essential activity you would do well to not neglect is setting clearly defined and measurable objectives. Goal setting done well engages stakeholders and commits them to the program. Other benefits include focusing effort to where it is important and providing a yardstick for measuring program success. Are your program’s goals fuzzy and hard to put a finger on, or are they specific and measurable? Do they link to the strategic objectives of your organization? Get all of the key stakeholders to work with you in devising the goals that will define the success of your program. Getting their input during the initial stages will give them a genuine “stake” in your program.

Fundamentally, it is people and not money or infrastructure that will make your organizational change happen. Change initiatives fail where roles and responsibilities are left unclear or not agreed. In organizations with a toxic performance culture, many employees and managers spend much of their time and effort in hiding from responsibility. What are the key roles and responsibilities for bringing about the needed change in your area? Have you identified the key tasks for each person belonging to each of the four key change role groups: Change Driver, Change Implementer, Change Enabler and Change Recipient? Selecting the right people for the right roles is also critically important. Find out all you can about selecting, leading and managing teams.

I mention teams here because no matter what your change program is about, most likely the people working in the various change roles will not be working in isolation. More and more, results can only be achieved through people working collaboratively – in teams. Are your teams of the optimal size of around five to eight members? Is each team being led by the right team leader? Do they have the necessary technical and interpersonal skills? One reason why teams are much more productive than individuals working in isolation is that team members leverage off each other’s strengths and compensate for each other’s weaknesses. So, do your teams have the right balance of natural working styles? There will be times when one or more of your teams get stuck. When they hit a brick wall, make sure that you have a strategy in place for moving them forward. As you have already guessed, a permanently stuck team leads to a permanently stuck change program.

All this talk about the value of teams highlights the importance of training in skilling up teams and bedding in change. Many organizations, however, fail to benefit from the resources spent on training. Soon after the training is completed, employees continue to cling on to the old way of doing things. Review how successfully your organization is using training to improve people capability. Ensure that your change program has a well-articulated training plan based on a thorough analysis of skill gaps. I said that successful change is about changing people’s behavior. So, make sure that your training programs focus on behavior change and are not simply about delivering the most content in the shortest possible time. To help bed in the new behaviors, budget and plan for lots of back in the workplace support. Change will not happen if your managers do not actively support the training. Make sure that they “walk the talk” and are not simply feigning approval in front of the executive.

Even if your training is well delivered and supported, a proportion of your employees, customers and suppliers will resist your change efforts. Unless you have a well thought out strategy for dealing with negative reactions, these resisters will wear your program down until it fizzles out or ends with a bang. Find out which of your resisters are actively fighting out in the open and which are working from the underground. Sometimes the reasons given for resisting change are a smokescreen. In these cases, you will need to do some digging to reveal the real reasons for the resistance. In some instances, resistance is a natural reaction to the proposed changes. Help these people work through the psychological process of denial, resistance and finally acceptance. Importantly, develop a strategy before implementation for identifying sources of resistance and for turning it around.

You have before you a huge task fraught with uncertainty, but filled with incredible opportunity. The above guide to being a triumphant change leader is not the last word on how to bring about successful organizational change. In fact, it is just the beginning for you. Read all you can about leading, coaching and influencing people through change. Your most important and rewarding lessons, though, will be learned as you apply your new found knowledge to your real-life change initiatives. I suspect that the most important lesson that you will learn is that to be successful your change program must not be your change program. I wish you well on your journey.

© Leslie Allan. All rights reserved.

About the Author: Leslie Allan is Managing Director of Business Performance Pty Ltd, a company providing practical online information and resources in a range of business areas. Find out more about change management and download the free introductory chapter to his practical guide, Managing Change in the Workplace.








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