Getting at real transformation: advice for aspiring change leaders

I recently asked a group of smart, experienced people what advice they would give others about managing change in an organizational context. The first response (after a short period of silence): “It takes time, and grit.” While subsequent suggestions may have been a bit more specific, the honesty and accuracy of that first response stole the show. It does take time, and leading change—particularly large-scale change—is not for the faint of heart.

How do you describe a change leader?

Emotional intelligence certainly helps. Change leaders must recognize, acknowledge and address both personal and organizational feelings of loss, uncertainty about the future and fear of the unknown. They must be willing to invest time, energy and resources in helping the organization move through the process and in managing resistance along the way. Change leaders must engage other change leaders, continuously building and supporting a team of individuals to champion and guide the change process. And they must emphasize communication. Great change leaders are optimistic and consistent in delivering a message of moving forward. They communicate regularly, talking with people face-to-face as well as virtually. They continually check the pulse of the organization.

John Kotter’s eight stages to transform

One of the most challenging aspects of leading change is ensuring that all stakeholders—clients, customers, managers, line staff, volunteers, board members, even funders—grasp the need for change. In times of stress (and who isn’t experiencing stress these days?), maintaining the status quo is tempting, as is “nibbling at the edges” by opting for small,less-painful adjustments over true transformation.

John Kotter speaks eloquently to this in his 2007 Harvard Business Review article “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail,” in which he outlines eight stages that must be managed in order to give your transformation effort the best chance of succeeding:

1. Establish a sense of urgency.
2. Form a powerful guiding coalition to lead the effort.
3. Create a vision to direct the change initiative.
4. Communicate the vision, using every vehicle possible.
5. Empower others to act on the vision, e.g., by encouraging risk taking.
6. Create short-term wins.
7. Consolidate performance improvements and produce more change.
8. Institutionalize new approaches developed during the initiative.

The danger of quick fixes

Over the years I have seen many organizations struggle to institute some kind of major organizational change, recognizing only later they had stumbled at Step 1: establishing a sense of urgency. Sometimes the impetus for change comes from the board and staff never fully buy into the need. Other times it is a charismatic ED, someone who knows the organization needs to change and sees a clear path forward, but doesn’t fully appreciate the doubt that still exists among line staff. Even those who see and acknowledge a need for change may not feel a sense of urgency. That is often when a range of “quick fix” suggestions are made.

Our clients don’t feel heard; let’s set up a Facebook page and encourage dialogue through social media. Turnover has been high; we need to re-evaluate our hiring process and make sure we are attracting the type of candidate who would succeed here. Our competitors are expanding the range of services they offer; perhaps we, too, need to consider offering a more comprehensive range of services. These may or may not be good ideas, depending on the situation, but chances are these actions in isolation will not solve the larger problem, or get the organization to where it really wants (and needs) to be.

Questions to start the change conversation sense of urgency? The following questions can help jumpstart the conversation.

What is happening internally that might indicate a need for change? What is happening externally?
What is (or will be) the impact on mission attainment, service quality, client/customer satisfaction, financial sustainability, and morale among staff and board members if these things continue?
How have others in the field addressed similar challenges and/or opportunities? Did they seek change? Why or why not? What was the result?
What could happen if we change?
What will happen if we don’t change?

That last question may be the most important. Sometimes it is the acknowledgement that the status quo will not, in fact, best serve the organization and its mission that is the most powerful driver. Change is hard, but in the long run, not changing might be a whole lot harder.

See also:

A Sense of Urgency

Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard.

Leave a reply

Welcome! Please provide your log-in information below.
Forget your password?
Enter your email or user name and your log-in information will be sent to the email on file.