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How strong leaders drive change

Carol SchifmanThis is a guest column from Carol Schifman, a member of The Wunderlin Company team who has worked with a wide range of organizations helping them plan and implement change. Her clients have included GE, Lenovo, Northeast Utilities, Wawa and the FDIC. To learn more about Carol's work, visit her page at our website.

What do you want your people to do differently to implement change, and what do you do to prepare, communicate and maintain momentum for the change?

In my experience, leaders often say, “They will figure it out for themselves. These are smart people.”

The problem is that we usually don't figure it out. We are creatures of habit. People typically do what they have always done with more effort and intensity early in any major change.

Why?  Because change is uncomfortable.  We keep trying to make the old ways work better in an effort to avoid or delay the anticipated pain of the new.

THESE COMMENTS come from reactions in the midst of a recent dramatic change in an organization:

  • “I say we fight like hell to do it our way."
  • "I'm finally getting it. We have been sitting here thinking it really was business as usual, and a huge wave is about to hit us."
  • "It's total chaos. No one knows what to do. People aren't coming to work. It varies by group AND by leadership styles within the groups."
  • "I really want out of this. It is becoming a whirlpool sucking out all of my energy."

This anxiety and confusion is completely normal. Many leaders underestimate stress, and how much support people need as they confront and implement change.

Does this ring true for your organization?

Listen to what people are saying. Use them as a gauge to determine if, indeed, they will figure it out for themselves. My hunch: you will need to lead the change.  Start with preparation -- laying the groundwork.

Laying the groundwork for change

Here are five questions to help you lead the change and make any change succeed in your organization:

  1. Does everyone clearly understand the outcomes this change is intended to accomplish?
  2. Does each department, functional group and team collectively understand what it must do for this change to succeed in its areas of responsibility?
  3. Do you know where the resistance is, why it exists and have a plan to address it?
  4. Do all appropriate individuals have the right channels of communication for information to come in and go out, to ensure or check for progress?
  5. Does the formal and informal reward system clearly reinforce and support new behaviors, attitudes and beliefs?

If you can answer “yes” to these five questions, people in your organization are likely to begin moving towards the changes you desire.  But this is just the beginning.  Change takes time and effort – keep communicating and building momentum.

Change takes time and effort

Implementing change is a process that takes concerted time and effort. Research shows that most leaders underestimate the magnitude of the change they plan, the level of resistance they will encounter, the amount of time required to implement their planned change, and overestimate their level of clarity communicating the change.

So what can you do to move people towards the change?

  1. Communicate often and directly – daily at the outset. Clarify plans, goals and roles and responsibilities.
  2. Legitimize the expression of feelings. Make it clear that people can voice concerns and ask questions.
  3. Listen. When issues come up, pay attention to the practical questions being raised and the underlying emotions that are being expressed. Involve people in the decision-making process where possible.
  4. Target a few quick wins.  As the process moves forward, recognize the first successes, even if they are relatively simple changes.  It demonstrates your support and commitment.
  5. Recognize new performance related to the change.  Make it a habit to publicly commend individuals and departments.  Encourage other leaders to do the same.
  6. Preserve employee influence wherever possible.  If there are suggestions from employees on ways to make the change go well, try to incorporate the best practical suggestions.
  7. Strategize and plan for the future. This is a long-term venture. The rollout is just the beginning.
  8. Continue to recognize anxieties that exist. You can have strong support and hard work by your team – but anxiety can persist until the new is the “new normal.”

From Our Bookshelf

Here are some of our favorite books to help you better understand the process of implementing change within your organization:

Leading Change by John P. Kotter.

The Heart of Change by John P. Kotter and Dan S. Cohen.

The Change Monster by Jeanie Daniel Duck.

Best Practices in Organizational Development and Change edited by Louis Carter, David Giber and Marshall Goldsmith.

Appreciative Inquiry: Change at the Speed of Imagination by Jane Magruder Watkins and Bernard J. Mohr.

Leading Change, Overcoming Chaos: A Seven-Stage Process for Making Change Succeed in Your Organization by Michael L. Heifetz

Execution by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan

Terms of Engagement: Changing the Way We Change Organizations by Richard H. Axelrod

The Answer to How is Yes by Peter Block

Managing at the Speed of Change by Daryl R. Conner

Conquering Organizational Change: How to Succeed Where Most Companies Fail by Pierre Mourier and Martin Smith

Managing Transitions by William Bridges

Cracking the Code of Change by Michael Beer and Nitin Nohria

The Real Reason People Won't Change by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey

Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail by John Kotter

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