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When people talk about 'great leadership', they tend to talk about things like inspiring employees, having a great vision for the organization, or being able to create effective growth strategies.  But change leadership is a skill unto itself, and it's important not to make assumptions.  Today we'll look at  the top myths about change leadership.

top 10 myths of change leadership

Image via Graphic Designers of Canada.

1.  I can control what happens during this change.

You can plan for the change, you can make predictions based on your knowledge of the organization, you can make as many charts and spreadsheets as you want - once a change starts, things will happen that you didn't foresee.  Remember that you can manage yourself and others through the unexpected, but you can't necessarily control it.

SOLUTION:  With a well-thought-out plan and clarity around roles and responsibilities, you'll be able to navigate effectively through any change.

2.  I don't need to be visible during this change; I'll just be a distraction.

People need to physically see you - the leader - during a change.  If you're absent, your people will feel like they're on a ship with no captain.  This is distracting and will get in the way of their work - and of the changes you want to make.

SOLUTION:  Being more visible will give your employees confidence that you're steering the ship.

3.  This change is not big enough to warrant a plan.

In today's organizations, departments and divisions are more interdependent than ever, and partnerships both inside and outside the organization are common.  In that environment, there's rarely a change that isn't 'big enough' to warrant a plan.

SOLUTION:  Creating a map of who is affected, and how deeply, will allow you to more effectively plan for change.

4.  Everyone knows what they need to do - we don't need a plan.

Unless your organization has just invented telepathy, I guarantee that not everyone knows what they need to do - and that people who think they know what they need to do aren't necessarily on the same page as everyone else.

SOLUTION:  Creating a plan which clearly articulates what people need to do in order for change to be successful will not only ensure everyone's on the same path, but will reassure them that change is being effectively led.

5.  People won't leave - the job market isn't that good

Remember that people don't actually have to quit their job in order to 'leave' it.  In a tough job market or an isolated location, people may stay with a company, but 'check out' emotionally or intellectually if they become disengaged.  In order for a business to survive and thrive, you must have the whole person working for you.  (And even in a tough economy, your top performers are often vulnerable.)

SOLUTION:  Ensure employees are engaged and invested in the change.

6.  Resistance is bad.

Resistance to change is information.  You're being told that there is a problem of some kind and resistance is giving you the opportunity to partner with the resisting group or individual to solve the problem.  In fact, if you announce a change and there is no resistance, it's time to be concerned.

SOLUTION:  Don't automatically assume that resistance to change is simply a result of a 'negative attitude'.  Investigate further.

7.  Saying everything once is enough.

Any time you announce a business change, it's important to remember that your audience is comprised of individuals, all of whom listen to and absorb information a little differently.  

SOLUTION:  Use the 10x rule when it comes to communication:  Use varied communication channels and repeat, repeat, repeat!

8.  No news is good news.

During a change, a lack of information will result in people making up their own, or listening to misinformation from others who have made up their own.  People have a much higher need to know what's going on during a change - because they're concerned about how it's going to affect them personally - and a lack of information will only cause the rumor mill to go into overdrive.

SOLUTION:  Give people as much accurate information as possible, as often as possible.  The more they 'know', the less likely they are to 'invent'.

9.  Saying nothing is better than saying 'something may change'.

You hired your employees because they're smart, capable people - and smart, capable people often intuit that changes are 'in the wind'.  When you don't address this, they start to feel a lack of stability and security.  Productivity and morale decline.

SOLUTION:  Being forthright with "This is the situation today.  It's possible it will change..." followed up with "...and I will tell you immediately if that happens" is not only reassuring but also reinforces your position as a leader who can be counted on.

10.  People know I'm always going to do the right thing - they should trust me.

Don't count on it.  Most people generally overestimate their credibility within an organization.  Ask yourself these questions - and be honest:  What public actions have you recently taken that show people that 'You always do the right thing'?  Do you have a network of individuals throughout the organization that can, and will, publicly support you and the changes you've announced?  Your answers will dictate the plan of action you need in order to successfully lead changes.

SOLUTION:  Don't underestimate the importance of honestly assessing your credibility within the organization - and act accordingly.


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Most large organizations don't keep a permanent 'change management' team on staff all the time - it just doesn't make economic sense.  When they need to make a change, they engage a third-party consulting firm to come in with a team of change consultants, project managers, trainers and facilitators.

External change consultants can be a great idea: They can bring an unbiased eye to a situation; they don't come with organizational baggage; and as experts they probably have an arsenal of tips and tricks that can make the process easier.

However, when organizations rely too heavily on external consultants, the change process can end up feeling like an external initiative - which means the changes walk out the door when the consultants do.

disconnected from consultants

Change must be rooted in employees

A change initiative may be designed to deliver short- or long-term results, but whatever the schedule, the key to success is sustainability.  There's nothing more frustrating - or demoralizing - for organizations than to invest in a change project that doesn't 'stick'.

That's why it's so important for employees to be invested in the change process.  Employees must:

- Understand why the change is taking place

- Engage in the change process

- Invest in the success of the change initiative

When the team understands, engages and invests in change, they begin to live the changes in their day-to-day activities - which is the only way the organization reaps the benefits of the change process.

Ensuring employees are part of the change

1.  Communicate, communicate, communicate

Well before the initiative starts, make sure your external consultant has created a comprehensive communication plan for your team and the project team.  It's critical that everyone on both teams understand, and clearly communicate, what the change is all about, why it's important, and how it will affect employees.  Communicate early, often, and make sure the entire leadership team is communicating a consistent message.  This helps employees feel that they're 'in the loop' and starts the engagement process.  Ensure the communication comes from inside: Having a change management consultant stand up in front of your people to announce a change confuses employees and diminishes the leadership's credibility.

2.  Make key internal stakeholders part of the change team

There's nothing worse for employees than watching consultants they don't know continually going into secret boardroom meetings with C-suite executives, and wondering what decisions are being made that will affect their careers.  So make sure that your change team is sponsored from within and includes more employees than consultants.  A consultant can be an advisor to the team leader, or, if that isn't possible, the team leader him/herself.  The work of change, however, is best done by employees.

3.  Make employees part of the knowledge transfer process

Instead of relying on external trainers to teach employees about the changes, train internal managers to train their teams.  This has two benefits: Managers become invested and engaged in the transition, and employees feel the change is coming from within, not imposed from without.

4.  Consider a gradual transition

I've been involved in change projects where the external consultants all arrive on a Monday morning, work feverishly for X number of weeks, then all suddenly depart at once on a Friday afternoon, leaving employees wondering what the heck just happened to them.  In large-scale change initiatives, with large staffs of external consultants, it's better to plan for a gradual exit, with key change facilitators staying on-site after the change process is 'officially' complete.  Remember to make sure that any tasks which are transitioning to internal employees are covered and that the appropriate knowledge transfer occurs.


Utilize change consultants to enhance and expand your capabilities during a major change, but don't ever forget that you and your team will be responsible for sustaining it.  Laying the groundwork internally, engaging employees along the way, and investing in the long term will ultimately lead to success.



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I think we can all agree that a positive organizational culture is good for business:  It makes people more productive, it ensures that top performers want to join the organization, it reduces turnover, and it has an important halo effect on the consumer brand.

And a positive culture is palpable.  We can all think of times when we've walked into an organization and the 'buzz' is unmistakeable.  People seem friendly, there's a hum of activity, and you think to yourself:  "This is a business that's really going places."

organic workplace culture

It's easy to think that this 'buzz' is organic, a natural outgrowth of an accidentally great group of people or set of economic conditions which favor the product/service the company is selling.  But nothing could be further from the truth.

The best workplace cultures do seem organic, because they seem genuine.  People who are happy in the workplace tend to communicate that happiness to visitors, and it's hard to fake a positive 'vibe'.  However, in an economy where people rarely stay in one job for more than 7 years (and often change jobs every 2-3 years), organizations can't rely on accidentally assembling a good group of people who will maintain a positive culture over the long term.  The culture needs to be bigger than any single person or team in order to survive.

So how do you ensure that your positive culture seems unforced but also survives today's job transiency?  Here are 5 tips:

  1. To thine own self be true.  The reason the best cultures seem organic is because they're based on the actual values and personality of the organization.  Trying to impose a free-wheeling entrepreneurial culture on a blue-chip investment firm isn't going to work - and it isn't going to deliver the benefits you want, anyway.
  2. Recognize that a 'culture strategy' is just as important as a sales strategy or human capital strategy.  Your sales team won't just 'accidentally' exceed their targets this year unless you establish a plan to get there; your organizational culture needs the same attention.
  3. Remember that a great culture can't reside in a single person or team.  Smaller companies and functional teams often think they've got a great dynamic going on - until one or two of the linchpin people leave, and the rest of the team sort of falls apart.  Yes, some people will naturally have more of an effect on your workplace than others, but culture needs to be embedded across the organization in order to survive in the long term.
  4. Be clear and specific.  It's not enough to sort of vaguely say, "We stand for, um, good service and ethics..." once a year at the company Christmas party.  You need to articulate core values and attitudes, and what this means for employee behavior, in order to foster hte actions that lead to a positive culture.
  5. Great cultures require a sustained effort.  Want to launch your new-and-improved corporate culture at a big all-employee rah-rah event?  Fantastic - but don't assume that a single event, no matter how exciting, will be sufficient.  As employees come and go over time, you need to ensure that culture-building activities, large and small, are going on all the time, from appropriate onboarding for new employees to monthly updates for long-term employees.

Want to learn more about developing a strong workplace culture that not only survives, but thrives, in a transient employee environment?  This whitepaper offers some interesting case studies about workplace, culture and brands that might inspire you.

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Big pharma needs to embrace change, but it's a delicate balance.

A while back I wrote about how change management in pharmaceutical companies involves managing people, pace and planning in the change process.

But pharma faces a larger dichotomy:  How do you foster innovation and growth in an industry where process and procedure are absolutely essential?  How do you encourage the lateral thinking that leads to new medicines when producing those medicines requires stringent adherence to specific processes which ensure safety and quality control?

balancing change in pharmaceutical industry

In my experience, managing change, even in a process-based environment, starts with understanding the psychology of change and how people react to it.

Human beings - whether they work in pharma or in any other industry - are hard-wired for homeostasis:  They want to get to a state of equilibrium where they feel most comfortable and secure.  Changes in the work environment disrupt the homeostasis people have achieved in their day-to-day work lives.  When a change is handled poorly, the drive to get back to a sense of homeostasis can be a real obstacle to successful change implementation.

So what do you do?

Fortunately, humans are also hardwired for storytelling:  They'll become engaged in stories that have a 'goal', they find narratives compelling, and are driven to 'finish the story'.  These traits can be used to institutionalize change even in the most procedural-based organizations.

Things to keep in mind:

  1. Successful change management happens when leaders understand both the psychological and the operational effects of change on their employees, and how they intersect
  2. The better organizations understand the psychological effects of change on their employees, the more they can plan for smooth transitions
  3. When employees are encouraged to redefine what change means to them - acknowledging the fears engendered by moving out of homeostasis - the more engaged they become in the process and the more they're able to 'own' the story
  4. When employees 'own' their own change story, they are more likely to be invested in coming to a successful conclusion

Instead of seeing change as a short-term, finite event that occurs at irregular intervals, make gradual, continuous change part of the organizational 'story' and culture.  By establishing a culture in which gradual change exists side-by-side with process and procedure, pharma companies can establish an environment in which 'homeostasis' includes both adherence to procedures and a more positive response to change.

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The other day I was having lunch with a colleague, a long-term change management practitioner.  "Getting people to understand the need for a formal change management strategy and implementation plan has always been a bit of a struggle," she said.  "But I feel like it's getting harder.  Leaders of organizations seem to just assume that everyone is comfortable with constant change, so there's no need to 'manage' it."

She's right:  These days, when organizations think about change, they tend to think it's something they do all the time (maybe it's called 'innovation' or 'disruption' or 'process improvement', but it's all 'change') anyway, so there's no need to 'manage' it.  And who needs a change management expert anyway, when a junior project manager with a GANTT chart can track timelines and send reminder emails to people who miss deadlines?

In some ways I agree that the role of change management has, in fact, changed.  Twenty years ago, launching a new enterprise-wide software system - for example - required a whole lot of change management, because it often signaled a fundamental shift in the way the business operated and the average worker took longer to adapt.  Today, depending on the organization, department and function, deploying a new piece of enterprise software is often easier, because the technology is more seamless and most employees are quicker to adapt.


Change management really isn't about chasing people around with a GANTT chart or making sure the latest Sharepoint update has been installed.  At the end of the day, change management - at least the way I see it - is about helping organizations handle change with the most beneficial effect on the bottom line.

Here's the thing:  Constant change is tiring.  As I said in my first book, when you are constantly changing, your employees aren't getting better at it - they are getting tired.  And when your employees are tired, they aren't as productive.  Employees don't really 'embrace' constant change - they just brace themselves because they know more change is just around the corner.  It's like when you're on a roller coaster ride and you grip the handrail really tightly in anticipation of the next wild turn.  Now, I know some people love roller coasters, but even the most die-hard fans don't want to ride them all day, every day, for a living.

That being said, I know change, even constant change, is now the norm for most companies.  So help your employees help you by becoming the best and most transparent communicator you can.  Spend time tellin gthem the 'why' of the change, help them see how they fit in, re-train them if necessary - and cut them some slack, acknowledge their pain.  You might just find that productivity (and enthusiasm) go up.

I've talked about this before:  When change isn't properly communicated and implemented with an emphasis on the 'people side of change', it costs the organization time, money, and, in many cases, the top-performing employees.

And that's where change management is important.  Developing a change management strategy is about gathering requirements, listening to feedback, communicating effectively and making time for training - all of which will ensure the change happens more seamlessly and painlessly than it would otherwise.  The result?  A healthier bottom line, faster.

Published in News
Friday, 11 October 2013 00:00

The Devil is in the Details


Change management can get derailed by the weirdest things

A few years ago I was working on a change management initiative:  Implementing a new CRM (Customer Relationship Management) process within a mid-sized organization.  The project mostly involved changes to the way customer inquiries and issues were managed and monitored, but the software was staying the same.

I thought the project was going quite well, until one Monday morning I checked my email to find 4 messages from the manager of the sales team.

"I can't stand this new system!" the messages said.  "You never told me you were going to change the whole computer system!  I thought were were using the same software as before!  I can't find anything!"  There were a lot of exclamation points, and the messages got progressively more strident.

change management frustration

I was confused, because I knew we hadn't changed the software.  The project was really about providing a better customer experience and ensuring that we had a more consistent message across all touchpoints.

Luckily I happened to be on-site with the client that day, so I stopped by the sales manager's desk to ask for more information.  I was glad I did.

It turned out that over the weekend (typically a slow time), the IT team had made some changes to the look and feel of the back-end of the CRM system, to make it more consistent with the front end of the website:  They'd added the company logo, changed some fonts and colors, and added a background image to the login page.  Nothing about the functionality had changed:  Users still logged  in the same way, entered the same information, and navigated through the same screens.

The problem?  The IT team hadn't told anyone that they were making the changes over the weekend, so when the sales manager called up the CRM system on that Monday morning and saw an unfamiliar background image, and was then faced with a system that looked different, she panicked.

The lesson?  When people are in the midst of a change initiative, they can feel more insecure and uncertain than usual, because they know they're going to have to learn to work - and be successful - in different ways.  That kind of stress can lead them to misread information (mistaking new colors and fonts for a whole new system) and then over-react (sending 4 panicked emails).  This is why it's crucial to communicate - and keep communicating - even the smallest details, throughout the process.  If the IT team had simply sent out an email on Friday saying they'd be making some cosmetic changes to the CRM system, the sales manager would have been prepared for what she saw on Monday.

BONUS LESSON:  Your sales team can be your most effective allies in a change management initiative - but they tend to be emotional engaged, so it's extra-important to manage their experience throughout the process.


Published in News

A year or two ago I was working with a senior executive team on a change initiative that would affect about 200 employees in the IT services department of a pharmaceutical company.  When we got to the portion of the strategy that dealt with how we'd communicate the changes to the team, I met resistance.

"Why do we have to have this 'kickoff' all-team meeting at the beginning and an intranet site for daily updates on the changes?" one of the executives said.  "I just don't understand why we have to waste all this time and money on explaining everything to the junior employees.  They don't understand the overall business, and they won't understand why we're making these changes.  If they want to keep their jobs, they'll just do what we're telling them!"

open communication for change management

Unfortunately, this isn't an uncommon reaction.  Many senior execs seem to think that (a) junior and mid-level staffers are too dumb to understand 'the big picture' and (b) people who are collecting paycheques should simply do what they're told, and not suck up all kinds of resources by demanding explanations.

The truth is that emplyees often have a better grasp of the big picture than might at first be evident - it's hard to be a successful, long-term employee in any job without having at least some understanding of the organization as a whole.  What's more, the internet age means that the average employee has more access, to more information, about the organization for which s/he works than ever before.  Employees are more familiar with terms like 'shareholder value' and 'market capitalization' and 'competitive advantage' than they were even 25 years ago.  All of which means they're probably much better equipped to understand business decisions - even those made 'at the highest levels'.

What's more, study after study shows that the best employees - the most productive, valuable ones - are those who are actively engaged in their jobs and their organizations.  In other words, the best employees are definitely not the kind of people who want to just 'do what they're told' - they want to understand their role within the organization, how they're contributing to the organization's success, and that their efforts are making a difference.

If organizations want to keep these high-value employees through a change - and keep them productive - they must communicate the reasons for change, the rationale for decisions, the process of change, and how everything works together to achieve the goal.  Does it take time and money to do this?  Yes.  Will everyone on the team understand every detail?  Probably not.  Will it, in the end, help you retain your top performers and navigate the change successfully?  Absolutely.


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Beth Banks Cohn, PhD, founder and president of ADRA Change Architects, is dedicated to helping you and your organization reach your full business potential…
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