Protecting Your Change Initiative


Much of my practice has been devoted to change leadership. For over 20 years I have been involved in helping my clients deliver the future they want, not the one that the status quo dictates.

The difference between success and failure in change programs can be summed up in one word: leadership.

The kind of leadership required to go the distance depends less on cheerleading and motivational speeches at town-hall meetings and more on making the difficult decisions that drive change every day.

Too many CEO's delegate the responsibility for organizational transformation to subordinates. They abdicate responsibility for the hard work of tackling large-scale systems change.

For change to take root, it must be carefully stewarded from the top. It is far too easy for change to be thwarted by cultural conditioning and agents of the status quo that resist the discomfort and exposure that change can produce.

No matter how well intentioned, competent and committed your employees are, they do not have the power or authority required to overcome some of the challenges that they will meet making change. They need you!

Here are ten things that CEO's should do to ensure that the change initiatives they introduce are brought to fruition.


1. Lead The Campaign For Change Daily

Many CEO’s start the change initiative with the recognition that it will take time for change to take hold. They are very engaged and visible at the beginning but their interest peters out over time.

Why? They are overcome by firefighting or move on to new organizational interests or needs.

The result? Change begins to lose momentum or meet obstacles that require the attention of the CEO. That’s when the going gets tough and without CEO sponsorship change initiatives can wither.

CEOs need to sign on for the long march to renewal. That requires daily engagement and leadership. It’s a hands-dirty approach that wins the admiration of the organization and keeps the difficult work of making change moving forward.


2. Insist On Senior Executive Buy-In

The easiest way to sabotage organizational change is to have the CEO espouse the vision, values and goals of organizational change to public support from C-level executives. But in private, or when the CEO is absent, these same executives either consciously or unconsciously oppose the initiatives that they have publicly endorsed.

If a CEO is unaware that this behavior is happening, for a short time they have the sympathy of the workforce. When misbehavior persists, the leader loses credibility and is seen as disconnected, naive, or lacking the courage to address the problem.

CEOs must be willing to challenge the executive team to buy-in or get out. Opposition should not happen behind the CEO’s back. If there are differences or concerns they should be discussed and resolved in Executive Team meetings.


3. Ensure The Rules Apply To Everyone

Another common mistake is to allow high performers an exemption from the behavioral requirements demanded of others.

For example, your change initiative demands high collaboration across the organization. Your high performer sees this as a waste of time and resists. They are clever enough to say what you want to hear when confronted but continue to behave in a way that serves their own best interest.

It is easy to be seduced by the fear that your superstar will walk if you don’t cow tow to their needs. That’s a difficult predicament. But failure to apply the rules is an announcement that it is the superstar, not the CEO that really controls the organizational culture. There need to be consequences for bad behavior, even for high performers.


4. Make The Tough Decisions


Dithering over difficult decisions, especially about people, is another surefire way of undermining change. In too many organizations, poor performers are tolerated for far too long. Lazy, incompetent or disengaged employees need to be motivated or removed. Those busting their butt to move the organization ahead eventually resent the waste that results from people not pulling their own weight.

As well, when systems, processes and procedures are faulty or outdated and they are not improved or corrected because of failure to make decisions, change is thwarted. This leads to frustration and disengagement.

Canada's Paul Martin is perhaps, the poster child for the problem. There is much to admire about the former Prime Minister. He was an excellent Minister of Finance. But an article in the Economist completely undermined Martin's credibility: "As finance minister, Mr. Martin acquired a reputation as a tough and decisive deficit-cutter who transformed the public finances and oversaw the renaissance of the Canadian economy. But as prime minister, his faltering leadership has earned him the sobriquet of Mr. Dithers."

He was through. And so were the Liberals.


5. Overcome Organization Defensiveness

Change challenges the status quo and often forces everyone out of the comfort zone and into new behaviors. For some of us, that is very good news. We love the excitement that comes with learning, growth and new approaches to solving business challenges.

For others, nothing could be more frightening or threatening. Fear can result in defensiveness and resistance, reactions that impede individual and organizational learning. Organizational defensive routines occur when people feel threatened.

For change to succeed, people need to succeed. A thorough job of planning that anticipates how to ensure people get the support they need, along with ongoing forums for problem solving, skills training, and team-building, can minimize the distress that inventing the future can cause.

Change agents, both internal and external, are amongst the most visible and vulnerable employees. They have a difficult role in managing the change process. All too often, these employees or consultants are given a mandate to act but not the power or sponsorship to deliver on change plans.

Especially vulnerable are employees at lower levels of the organization who must deal with superiors who do not appreciate or respect the role these change-makers have been given. All too often, their work is derailed when senior managers or executives "pull rank."

6. Don't Create Change Orphans

Change agents must routinely challenge the organization to move away from repetitive operational and behavioral patterns and embrace new methods and means of producing results. That can unleash the shadow behaviors of individuals, teams, and even the Board.

The CEO must protect the people he or she sends into harms way on behalf of the organization. The wellbeing of your change initiative is directly tied to the well being of your change agents.


7. Expect Failures

Failure is the experience of falling short of goals or expectations. You must expect to fail at some of the new things you are trying to accomplish through your change initiative.

Through failure, people and organizations discover what is missing or wrong in their assumptions, approaches, structures, processes, and products. That is precisely the information required to generate a breakthrough. The knowledge gained from that experience, applied to the next attempt, creates progress.

How a CEO responds to failure is critically important. It can mean the difference between an organization maintaining it's curiosity, creativity and resiliency or descending into reactivity, blame and conflict.

One of my clients at The Boeing Company, Partha Mukhopadhyay, is fond of telling the engineering teams that work for him: "Don't be afraid to fail. Just make sure you do it early enough." He understands the importance of experimentation and timing!

Stupidity is doing the same things over and over expecting a different result. That should not be tolerated. But honest mistakes, made in pursuit of continuous improvement, should be seen for what they are: organizational learning.


8. Manage Your Impatience

The affliction of every visionary leader is impatience. CEOs are often out ahead of their own organization and struggle with the long march to the future. That can lead to "pushing." Leaders who push too hard and too long risk an equally hard push back from the organization.

Change is demanding. Learning new skills and behaviors, changing systems and processes, building new collaborative practices, and simplifying how work gets done aren’t accomplished over night.

Sometimes it can take months and years for change initiatives to be accomplished. CEO's must create a sense of urgency as a catalyst for change. At the same time they must recognize how to pace the change process. Far too often a marathon is attempted as a sprint.

9. Stay Connected


CEO's can lose touch with the organization during change when they assume that they know what is happening. Where the door was once open, it has been closed through a punishing schedule of meetings, Board responsibilities, fires lit by stakeholders, or an inner circle that has effectively "captured" the boss.

Critics suggest that a White House out of touch with the people caused the recent defeats suffered by Democrats in the mid-term elections. That can happen to CEOs as well. Get out of your office and wander around. Engage in casual conversations with as many people as you can at different levels of the organization.

Learning about the victories, challenges, frustrations and needs of your people as they move the organization towards the preferred future can mean the difference between a change process that keeps employees engaged and one that leaves people angry and embittered by the absence of leadership from the top.


10. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Change programs usually begin with a flourish. There are launches and town halls, employee engagement meetings and team alignment sessions. Then nothing.

In the absence of ongoing communication people can easily forget why they signed on to fight the good fight. Change fatigue sets in and before long cynicism has overtaken the water-cooler chatter.

In a Washington Post article about the failure of President Obama's communication strategy before the U.S. mid-term elections, writer Jeffrey Pffeffer cited former GE CEO Jack Welch on the need for ongoing communication:

"In speaking about the work of building organizational culture, Jack Welch talked about the need for leaders to be relentless and boring--to repeat, more often than a leader felt necessary, a message that would resonate, help people make sense of what was going on and what they needed to do, and remind them of what the overarching vision and objectives were. The importance of language is widely recognized in studies of leadership."

It is ironic that the very gifts that got him elected have been under-employed by President Obama.

Remember CEOs. The honeymoon can be brutally swift. Change initiatives require your protection.


Posted on November 1, 2010 .