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Organizational Change Only Works If Leaders Go First: Three Tips to Make This Happen

on September 16, 2021
Resources All Managing Change

When it comes to organizational change, C-suite executives are responsible for much more than conceptualizing the plan. Yes, they must develop the strategy, but they also need to educate their people on the why and how behind it. And most importantly, they must lead by example. In an HBR article from November 2020, Monique Valcour notes that “Occupying a leadership position is not the same thing as leading. To lead, you must be able to connect, motivate, and inspire a sense of ownership of shared objectives.” The only way for leaders to connect, motivate, and inspire all aspects of change is to embrace the change first. Leaders must lead the way.

Not convinced? Consider this real-life story. A Fortune 300 company debuted its new strategy to its top several hundred leaders. For three days the plan and the critical actions required for achieving the desired results were discussed among the group. People seemed engaged. People asked questions and showed excitement about the potential successes. At the end of the third day, everyone was given the opportunity to anonymously voice how confident they felt about the new strategic plan. The senior leadership team had assumed that, over the course of the three days, they had won the commitment of the attendees and that these top leaders would share their support among their teams. The anonymous feedback, however, resulted in a dismal 19% vote of confidence.

After the shock wore off, the attendees were asked for the reasons behind their skepticism. It was quickly discovered that the lack of endorsement wasn’t because the plan was faulty, but because people didn’t believe the leadership team would change. They saw a conflict between the “new company direction” and the way senior leaders continued to exhibit “old strategy behaviors.” Once the leaders got the message and corrected their personal behaviors, the strategy took off and the stock price doubled.

Three Ways Leaders Can Lead the Way

1) Demonstrate honesty and show vulnerability.

Successful change requires leaders to get super honest with the state of their business. They must analyze where they are in relation to their goals and ask:

    • What gaps or barriers exist?
    • Why are we having these challenges?
    • What’s good or bad about the company culture?

As these tough questions are discussed, leaders need to remember that it’s okay to admit how they personally will be changing to help bridge the gaps. For any transformation to work, leaders must go first by identifying how their own personal behaviors are inconsistent with the new strategy.

When a leader admits that they too need to change, they set the precedent for others to be vulnerable and acknowledge the importance of embracing the discomfort associated with being accountable to drop old behaviors and adopt new ones.

Additionally, when leaders are publicly vulnerable about behaviors that need to change, they signal that it’s safe to talk about other company weaknesses and encourage managers and employees to make key suggestions to change behaviors, practices, rituals, habits, and routines for executing the new strategy. These honest conversations are critical to getting everyone on board with the discomfort of change because people feel they have a role in it all. They have the opportunity to be honest and voice their concerns and questions – this is an essential part of helping an individual prepare for change. Change doesn’t work if someone just intellectually understands a strategy – they must also feel emotionally prepared to weather the twists and turns of a transformation.

2) Be the first to “let go.”

Change is hard. Most people fear it and will do a lot to avoid it at all costs. And if this is the consensus within an organization, that strategic plan is never getting off the ground because fear will trump all efforts of agility and flexibility. Successful change requires organizations to break free from what they’ve been doing.

Letting go is hard, especially when letting go of the business we know involves letting go of the actions, behaviors, and roles that provided the current sense of value, achievement, and recognition. It also means letting go of old skills and developing new ones that are vital to the future strategy. We must be willing to move away from what we knew how to do in the “business of yesterday” (which we have been good at and rewarded for) and take the risk to do something new (and be bad at it for a while) that is critical to the business of the future.

3) Don’t leave people in the dark.

Leaders often think a person only needs to be told the information that pertains to their role or team. But this isn’t the case. People want to understand the big picture. They need to understand the whole story to understand their role in it. If people connect their personal shifts to the success of the whole, they’ll be more compelled to endure the discomfort that change brings.

Leaders, this means that if you modify the plan during a leadership meeting, share this information outside the conference room too. This also means that lessons learned during the transformation must be shared in real time. And successes – even the small ones – need to be communicated to all employees as they happen. Discussing the good and the bad throughout the strategic change is imperative to sustaining the momentum beyond the launch. You must keep your people informed if you want the strategic plan to become a reality.

Walking the Walk Works

Leaders who don’t step into the discomfort of changing their own behavior to lead the execution of change will find that what they’re waiting for will never come. If you expect emotional and behavioral change of others, you must first expect it of yourselves.

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