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I was about a month into the implementation of a major process-change initiative for a large global pharmaceutical company when I started encountering some real roadblocks.  We'd done a great job of creating a workable strategy, we'd stayed on-track with our initial implementation, and we'd had good responses to our internal communication efforts, but suddenly deadlines were getting missed, team leaders were showing up late (or not at all) to meetings, and the change team was hearing things like, "Look, I can't just abandon my everyday work to do this change stuff right now.  It's going to have to wait."

What was going on?

bad leadership

Finally I sat down with the VP who was championing the initiative and asked him point-blank what had changed:  "I thought this was a priority for you right now, but I feel like everyone's suddenly lost interest.  Is there something I should know?"

It turned out that two weeks earlier, his boss - the president of the US operations - had attended a global conference of all the company's senior executives.  While there, he'd heard about the other process-change initiatives going on in other countries - the German operation had this fantastic new CRM technology, the British operation had recently transformed their sales function and were outperforming the rest of the EU, etc. - and he came back full of doubt that our change initiative wasn't nearly as fantastic.

His real fear?  That the next time he met up with the global execs, his 'change story' wasn't going to sound as spectacular as theirs.

The result was that his attitude to the change project, hitherto enthusiastic, had become lukewarm.  This attitude was soon communicated to his senior leadership team, who then communicated it to their didn't take long before all the employees involved understood that what had previously been a high priority was headed for the back burner.

What the president didn't understand, of course, was that his sudden lack of enthusiasm was going to cause the very problem he feared:  When the people at the top start demonstrating their lack of interest in or passion for a change initiative, it's almost impossible for that initiative to truly succeed.

The solution:  With the VP's cooperation, I prepared a 30-minute 'Results Report', which I presented to the president and his senior team.  It reminded them how dramatic the results would be if we stayed on track, and I compared our post-change performance with that of the company's operations in other countries - demonstrating that our projected results would put the US operations in the top 3 worldwide.  The president was reassured that he'd still look good at the next global conference, and his enthusiasm returned.

Bottom line:  Change resistance that comes from the top can be the most damaging, because it has the most ability to derail a change effort.  The sooner you can get to the root of the problem, and address it head-on, the better you'll be able to keep a project on-track for the positive results you've worked for.



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A few years ago I was working with a large professional services firm which was implementing a new ATS (Applicant Tracking System) in their recruiting department.  the system was designed to take in and applications from the corporate website and various job boards, automatically respond to applicants, and then help the recruiting team keep track of candidates throughout the screening, interviewing and hiring process.  The idea was that the recruiting team would eventually have a deep database of candidates to call on, while applicants would be processed more efficiently and everyone would have a terrific experience.

change management beth banks cohn

Well, of course the system as delivered wasn't quite as perfect as it had seemed in the initial presentations by the company which built it.  It didn't perfectly match the current processes, it had some very complicated features, and it wasn't quite as easy to use as it had seemed in the original boardroom presentation.

The staff began to grumble, and adoption of the new system got a bit wobbly.  It was time for leadership.

The VP Recruiting, a well-respected and popular leader, undertood a successful 3-pronged approach:

1.  Insight and input:  He asked senior team members to provide, factual, non-emotional, functional-based feedback about the system.  He ignored vague critiques like "It sucks!" but carefully compiled specific items like "It's difficult to set up new job boards within the system".  Then he took this list to the developers and told them to fix them.

2.  Training:  In the original plan, the system had been positioned as so easy to use, it wouldn't require training.  When it was clear this had been wildly optimistic, he quickly identified a couple of team members who seemed most technically adept, sent them to the developers for some in-depth training, and made them subject-matter experts with a certain amount of authority.

3.  Brooking no dissent:  While working on productive solutions to the problems via #1 and #2, the VP Recruiting meanwhile put a stop to any negative conversations about the new system.  He didn't issue an edict or bark orders; he simply curtailed any complaints that walked into his office with a, "Yes, we're working on it - but in the meantime, just keep plugging, please," and when he encountered gripe sessions within the office, he subtly but firmly put an end to them by changing the subject or referring to the ongoing revisions and training.

Why did this 3-pronged approach work?

As a respected and popular leader, the VP Recruiting had the ability to influence his staff.  By demonstrating that he knew there were challenges (by asking for input about improvements) and was willing to spend resources to get the required training for staff, he maintained his credibility.  (When leaders pretend there isn't a problem when everyone knows there is, they risk look oblivious or clueless - both of which undermine their authority.)

Most importantly, however, he made it clear that regardless of the limitations of the system, the expected behavior for employees was to do the best they could and not waste time complaining.  He was changing the behavior even if attitudes weren't quite there yet.

The result?  The behavior change led to an attitude change.  With the negative grumbling curtailed and the knowledge that there were some solutions in the pipeline, employees settled down to the new system and got on with their work.

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What is motivation, and what happens to it during a business transformation?

MOTIVE noun \ˈmō-tiv : something (as a need or desire) that causes a person to act


Motivation is simply the drive that moves us to take an action.  These drives might be physical (to have a drink of water when we're thirsty); intellectual (to read a book when we're bored); or emotional (to call a friend when we're feeling sad).  As humans, we're motivated to do what we believe is in our best interests.  Sometimes that results in positive achievements; sometimes in (retrospectively) stupid mistakes.


Our beliefs about what our beset interests really are can make motivation in times of change particularly challenging for an organization.  When a new direction is announced, and involves potentially painful changes like reorganizations, staffing changes or business process restructurings, a quite complex web of motivations can arise:

Employees may feel their 'best interest' is simply to survive the change
Department managers may feel their 'best interest' is to keep delivering results at any cost - and to survive the change
Senior leadership may feel that their 'best interest' is to avoid being blamed if the promised results don't happen - and to survive the change

But how do you keep an organization moving forward when motivations are evolving, and so many people are going into 'survival' mode?

Establishing new direction

As a leader during a business transformation effort, establishing a new direction doesn't mean simply announcing a new strategy and then walking away as if the business will just continue as usual and the changes will magically appear.  It means putting a process in place which encourages and supports each individual as they define wha the new business direction means to them.

This isn't 'touchy-feely, sing kumbaya' stuff.  It's about helping employees understand their role in the transformation, how it will affect them, and what they can do to move forward - because it's only by helping them understand these things that the business change will achieve the ROI that it should.  After all, it's the people in the equation who make or break a transformation.

Removing barriers

The number of barriers the organization faces depends on the nature of the business change.  Barriers to change can be as simple as ensuring everyone in a specific department has adequate education in a new technology, or as complex as inspiring an entire organization to buy into a whole new strategic vision and approach to the marketplace.  Either way, they need to be taken seriously.

Engaging the individuals who are involved in or creating the barriers is the first step to easing them.  You can motivate a department to become engaged in a new technology by helping them understand how it will make their work lives easier; you can motivate an organization to become engaged in a new strategic vision by helping them understand how it will drive their long-term career goals and security.

Providing support

A key role for leaders is to provide support to the team as they change the way they operate on a day-to-day basis.  Supporting individuals means listening, empathizing, and concentrating on their progress through a change.  By providing assistance, feedback and counsel, you're helping them to see that their 'best interests' really do involve moving forward with the changes - and that helps keep them motivated to continue.

Remember:  Support may also involve reiterating why a change is being implemented, what the goals of the change are, and why the timing of the change is important.  This will help drive motivation.

Good leadership = Good motivation

People need leaders to lead, especially during a time of change.  Sounds simple, right?

Except that 'announcing' a change isn't the same as 'leading' one.  Leadership during a change requires a leader who is actively and visibly engaged during the entire process; someone who is seen to be removing barriers, providing support, and communicating the process in a credible way.  When leaders do this, individuals become more and more motivated to work towards a goal which doesn't just benefit 'management' or 'the company', but their own best interests as well.


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6 ways to get ahead of the problem

It's every CEO's worst nightmare.  You're in the midst of a change initiative, but you've had to make some tough decisions, and a few people have been asked to leave.  But you're sticking to the plan, and you think things are going as well as can be expected.  You can see the light at the end of the tunnel.  

Then one of your best clients calls to say that they're worried about next year's contract and thinking about reducing their spend with you.  You reassure them that everything is fine - and you think that it is.  But then you hear from a supplier who's wondering if you're still going to be paying your invoices on time, and expressing concern about their long-term relationship with you.

You're perplexed - until you happen to call a former colleague with whom you've stayed friendly and he greets you with, "What the hell is going on over there? I hear you won't be around this time next year!"


And suddenly you discover that a couple of employees involved in the change have been more confused and disgruntled than you realized.  They've been spreading the word, and it hasn't been positive.  They've been so vocal, in fact, that the word on the street is that your organization is on a collision course with disaster - and that's starting to make your clients, suppliers and other stakeholders nervous.

So what do you do, before someone forwards a confidential email to the competition, or, worse, decides to pen an op-ed about the state of affairs in a daily newspaper?

Managing change communications in a crisis

1.  Don't panic.  When you start hearing negative rumors from a couple of different sources, you can start to think that 'the whole world' is saying you're about to capsize, or that your entire workforce is staging a mutiny.  Chances are, things aren't that bad, and you've probably caught it early.  So don't go into full-on crisis mode until you've had a chance to speak to your senior management team and get an accurate assessment.

2.  Don't look for scapegoats.  You're probably feeling betrayed and angry, but looking for someone to blame, fire or castigate is only going to exacerbate the problem.  What's really happening is that you're getting negative feedback about the change - you're just not getting it through the most productive channels.  But negative feedback can be a good opportunity to gain insight about how the change is being implemented - so instead of looking for someone to blame, look for the opportunity the situation is providing you to improve the change.

3.  Help employees to see the big picture.  When quite a few of your employees are speaking to outsiders in a negative way, it's usually a good sign that they don't really understand why the changes are happening or why they're a good thing for the organization.  So you probably need to beef up your messages about what these changes mean for the long-term health of the company.

4.  Help employees to see the little picture.  If the source of the negative messages is a handful of people or a specific department, it's likely that those people or that department is feeling disengaged from the change or that they're being shortchanged in some way.  Arrange for one-on-one (or one-on-small-team) mentoring and communication to help thosse people understand their role in the changes and how their full participation is important.

5.  Be as honest as possible, as often as possible.  I've said it before and I'll say it again:  During a change process, it's virtually impossible to communicate too much or too often.  The more honest information you can share with employees, the more likely they are to 'get' the reasons for the change, and the less likely they are to spread negative messages outside the organization.

6.  Revisit your communication plan.  It's always better to prevent a crisis than to have to address it after the fact - that's why every change management initiative should have a well-defined communication plan built into the overall strategy.  However, if you find yourself facing challenges, don't just go into defensive mode:  Revisit your communication plan and make adjustments (more communications, additional channels, refined messages) as required.


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The right fit can make or break your change initiative

If you've been thinking that Change Management consultants are flakes who spend all their time talking about 'feelings' and not enough time demonstrating a commitment to the bottom line, you're not alone.  But the truth is that the right change management expertise can make all the difference to a chance initiative.  They can help improve ROI, speed the pace of change, help you retain your top performers, and prevent the project from going off-track.

It's just a matter of partnering with the right consultant.


Here's what you need to consider in order to choose the right consultant for your change initiative:

  1. Experience:  What changes have they implemented as part of an organization?  What changes have they experienced as an employee?  As a manager?  As a leader? Someone who has experienced change from a variety of perspectives is going to bring more understanding to your initiative.
  2. Who will actually be doing the work?  A senior consultant may be the one creating and overseeing the change plan, but delegating the actual work to specialists or juniors.  That's fine - but make sure you know who's on the team and how they'll be working together.
  3. Their role in the changes:  Change consultants can have experience in the technical, logistical or people components of change.  Be sure you know what component(s) you need, and look for someone with the right experience.
  4. Buzzwords vs results:  The best consultants are good at straightforward communications and outlining clear expectations.  If you're hearing a lot of terms like 'change agent' and 'transformation catalyst', call someone else.  Remember, a $25,000 diagram may look great in the boardroom, but isn't a guarantee of results.
  5. Approach:  Effective change management consultants ask good business questions and are looking to understand how all the pieces fit together before outlining a plan.  If they say they can just jump in and start delivering results, no questions asked, they may not have the skills you need.
  6. How many people will the consultant be bringing in?  An outside consultant may be able to bring clear vision and specialists to the table, but in order for a change to be successful, your internal employees should be fully engaged in the process.  Leaving change entirely to external consultants can mean the change leaves when they do.
  7. Pragmatism:  Good change management isn't about holding hands and singing folk songs with employees - it's about making smart business changes that ultimately lead to a better bottom line.  An effective change management consultant is one who knows that managing the people piece will drive business success.  That means demonstrating they understand the business and can balance the people side of things - if they only pay lip service to the people side, you'll have problems in the long run.  Remember:  People are your most important asset.
  8. What is their success rate?  Don't be afraid to ask. If they can't tell you it's higher than 98%, don't hire them.  It's that simple.
  9. Ask about their biggest failure - and how they turned it around.  Anyone who tells you they haven't had a failure is lying - and anyone who can't tell you how they fixed a big failure isn't ready to lead a change initiative.
  10. Does their process include a 'Lessons Learned' component?  It should.  Successful change management generates valuable knowledge and insight about the organizations, and it's important that this knowledge is articulated, documented, and transferred to the organization.  Otherwise all that knowledge just walks out the door along with the consultant at the end of the project.




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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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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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Change is a fact of life today in business, but that doesn’t make it any easier to carry out successfully. ChangeSmart™ is a framework, a way to approach change. It is a roadmap for success.
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