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When Leaders Don’t Own Change, Change Owns Leaders

It's all too easy for leadership to derail, particularly when it's a bumpy ride.

Leading change is one of the most difficult challenges leadership teams face. As change becomes the new normal, leadership teams need to be nimble enough to realign themselves with the shifting demands of an uncertain tomorrow. Whatever the nature and direction of the change, this ownership requires two important factors:

  1. Leadership Alignment – the extent to which they are “on the same page” about what the change is, why it is important, what it will mean to the organization.
  2. Visible Executive Sponsorship – the things that they actually do to demonstrate their support for a change such as role modeling, prompt decision making, face-to-face communications, contributing resources and more.

During a transformation, the leadership team will be under scrutiny. If there is complete alignment and passionate sponsorship from the leadership team, then the transformation journey has the best chance of success. However, if the leadership team does not own the change agenda, then the change will end up owning them.

I remember a time when leadership in a transformation went drastically wrong.

This business was working on a new organization design. The changes involved a restructure including rationalizing several business divisions into fewer customer-aligned streams, extracting the functions (HR, Finance, IT etc.) from the business divisions to be horizontally aligned and serve the business as a customer, and achieving tens of millions in savings as a result.

The Executive Leadership Team (“ELT”) had to change as well, and people throughout the organization expected them to be a microcosm of the wider change and role model the new ways-of-working. Specifically, this meant the ELT doing a better job at facilitating synergies across the different business streams, using a clearer and tighter framework for decision-making (including on performance management!), and in general role modelling appropriate processes, governance and professionalism.

The new operating model had been announced and implementation had begun, however progress stalled after the first two levels of new management were put in place. Further announcements were delayed and no decision was made about the location of the new service center. It became clear that the ELT were no longer unified in owning the change. Project deadlines were missed, key talents resigned and a feeling of skepticism swept down through the business.

It was at this point that I was brought in to diagnose the issues and help them get back on track.

It was a tough atmosphere to encounter. It appeared that the ELT didn’t fully understand what they had signed up to, and they were too consumed by in-fighting to work it out. Equally, the project team did not have the full mandate for change and the project director was not perceived to be empowered.

If the leaders are not behind the change, then why should anyone else be?

When leadership alignment and sponsorship fail, things get messy. In this case, there were enormous consequences to stalling mid-implementation. Some functions had given up old ways in anticipation of new and better systems and structures, and when they didn’t come these functions therefore provided a far worse service.

It’s all too easy for leadership to derail, particularly when it’s a bumpy ride. Even seasoned executives can become paralyzed by the downside possibilities. They worry that senior employees will become defensive, morale will drop, short-term results will be jeopardized and that they will be blamed for creating a crisis.

Change can cause all of these things, which is why leadership teams need to assess and reassess where they (and their people) are on their journey of change. They must be agile in adapting (together as one) when required, and unrelenting in their support for every part of the process.

My initial contribution was simply to help the leadership team take stock, see and accept the reality of what was going on in their organization. There is great power in listening and I shared anonymized feedback from their direct reports, including quotes such as:

We needed the ELT’s support but they were going through their own drama.

We’ve ignored this project long enough and now I think it’s finally going away.

Once the ELT confronted the severity of their current state, they became highly motivated to pull together and get things back on track. Achieving acceptance of their true reality and avoiding boiled frog syndrome (google it) was the hardest and most important part of how I helped them.

From there, my role was to work with the ELT to regain control of events by focusing on their resolution and direction. Specifically, I facilitated them to:

  1. Re-establish purpose and credibility. We went back to basics, revisited the business case for the transformation and how it linked to the strategic objectives of the company.
  2. Update plans. No plan survives first contact with the enemy, and theirs certainly hadn’t. We created a new plan including more quick-wins to assist in regaining traction with employees.
  3. Take bold action, now. In order to change their trajectory, they needed to move beyond the incremental. They visibly increased investment in the project, they hired an external agency to take over the salary benchmarking exercise and add credibility to the process, they undertook a grueling campaign of face-to-face communications to demonstrate their unity, and more.

Today, change leadership is a fundamental skillset of the leadership team

If companies can’t reinvent themselves to adapt to changes in their business environment, they will fall behind their more agile and flexible rivals. Effective change leadership is a great driver of speed and agility. Today, organizations must accelerate the pace of building alignment and ownership around the wider strategic direction and all the continuous change that brings.

With seismic forces reshaping the business landscape at ever-increasing speeds, organizations can’t afford to leave change leadership to chance. It is no longer just part of a project transformation: it is a critically important daily skill-set of the leadership team.

Kristin Holter is enjoying writing on LinkedIn while looking for the next big HR role. Curious? Read my other LinkedIn articles and get in touch.

Originally published at www.linkedin.com

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