Bullish on Transformation? Leading Change Comes First

Transformation, by definition, involves change. Then why do leaders pay so little attention to leading change when they are so bullish about transforming their organizations?

At Brandon Hall Group, we talk with leaders every day. Transformation is one of the first words they utter … digital transformation, cultural transformation, transforming the sales culture, etc. Comments about leading the change involved in those transformations rarely follow.

Many leaders are comfortable calling for change, but not leading it. To be successful, leaders must make a commitment to change themselves and be “comfortable being uncomfortable,” as Bob Rosen, CEO of The Healthy Leader, points out in his writings.

“To live fully, you must be willing to step into the unknown, now more than ever. Our digital and global world requires it. You must be willing to challenge yourself to grow and change,” Rosen said.

Every year, Brandon Hall Group surveys companies on their top business priorities. In 2021, we ranked 20 of these priorities. The top five responses all involved significant change: improve customer experience, create a culture of diversity and inclusion, digital transformation, improve the sales culture and drive innovation. Change management ranked 16th — fourth from the bottom.

This is what we call a disconnect.

Any new initiative requires some level of change leadership to provide a transition to the future state. In most cases, that must begin at the executive level and requires strong communication with employees about the level of importance and benefits they gain from the change.

In other words, if leaders want change, employees need to know what’s in it for them. It’s basic human nature.

The most effective leaders place themselves front and center communicating the need for change and answering any tough questions that result. It can be quite uncomfortable, but also hugely effective. By showing their willingness to face conflict and listen to their employees, leaders win trust. That can lead to employees embracing change — even if they don’t fully agree with it.

Sometimes leaders must also embrace or drive change they did not initiate. For example, when the Black Lives Matter movement accelerated last year in the wake of the George Floyd killing, New York City Health + Hospitals, the largest public healthcare system in the U.S., was deeply affected. 

Most employees and patients are Black, Latino or Asian. CEO Dr. Mitchell Katz, who is white, publicly embraced the social justice movement in several ways and personally invited staff members to demonstrate against racism and violence. This transparency won support and admiration from the staff, which was also in the throes of managing the coronavirus pandemic.

Beyond embracing the discomfort that comes with advocating for change, leaders should take a strategic approach. Considerations include:

•    Business need. What business challenges do we seek to resolve by the change and how do we communicate them?

•    Value proposition. For whom does the change create value? How do we communicate that? What is the short, compelling “elevator pitch” to communicate the benefit of the change?

•    Key stakeholders. Which executives and other business leaders do we need to champion the change?

•    Impact. Who will be most affected by the change? What do they need to know?

•    Advocates. Who are potential advocates/ambassadors for the change? How do we win and leverage their support?

•    Naysayers. Who are the likely opponents? Who will push back on decisions and actions in implementing the change? How can we address their concerns and mitigate their impact?

•    Outcomes. What are the top three-to-five benefits the company will see from the change? What will success look like? How do we measure it and communicate the realized benefit?

If leaders do a better job leading change, communicating the benefits and mitigating inevitable resistance, they will have more success and will become more effective leaders.

-Claude Werder, Senior VP and Principal HCM Analyst, Brandon Hall Group

For information on Brandon Hall Group’s research and how we can assist your organization, please visit www.brandonhall.com

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