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We often talk about change leadership within an organization:  Whether the organization is changing their software, the sales function, or the entire business focus, having the right leadership is crucial to success.  And in many cases, leadership starts with the president or CEO - it's important for the person at the top to be a positive, engaged role model for the change.

dueling banjos in change management

But what happens when the change is happening in an M&A (mergers and acquisitions) context?  In those cases, there is often more than one person 'at the top' - each organization has a president or CEO or chairman, and it may not immediately be clear which of them will, ultimately, be in charge, or who will ultimately wield more power.  This can create serious problems for change management, particularly in change leadership.

A few years ago, the British Journal of Change Management published a study in which several organizations were studied over the course of 7 years.  One of their findings was that during the M&A process, change was derailed when individual workers felt that change had been imposed on management, rather than being led by management.

It's not surprising:  In most mergers and acquisitions, one company is seen to be dominant, while the other feels like it's getting 'swallowed up'.  It's not unusual for the senior leadership of the 'swallowed' company to feel like they're just marking time until their position is made redundant and they're given a nice severance package.  It's hard to lead anything - including change - if you're just waiting for your pink slip, even if that pink slip is going to come with a lucrative cushion.  And that's the best-case scenario.  If the merger/acquisition has been acrimonious, there may be active negativity emanating from the executive suites.

When leadership figures appear to be ambivalent (or actively disparaging) about the changes happening to the organization, two things happen:

  1. Leaders stop being leaders:  When leaders appear disengaged from the process, they stop leading and start looking like they're just victims of change.  That's when employees start feeling like the change has been 'imposed' on the leaders - and start seeing their former leaders as fellow 'victims' of change.  It's hard for anyone to lead much of anything when everyone's feeling sorry for them because they're a victim.
  2. Change resistance becomes more entrenched:  It goes something like this:  "If the president, who we've always liked, isn't engaged with this merger and seems to have been unwillingly stuck with it, then it must be bad.  So we're just going to keep doing business as usual, and let those new corporate overlords put that in their pipes and smoke it!"  This isn't good for anyone:  It makes the existing employees of the 'swallowed' company look petty and unproductive; it makes the work environment for everyone toxic; and ultimately it costs a whole lot of money, either in lost productivity or in massive turnover.

What's the solution?  More attention paid to the importance of transitional leadership during a merger or acquisition.  Letting the leaders of the acquired organization disengage or take on a victimized attitude is short-sighted - and costs money in terms of productivity, increased turnover, and a longer ROI horizon.  Leveraging those leaders to help facilitate change during the M&A process means the new, merged/acquired organization can start delivering efficiencies more quickly.



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A few months ago I started working with a new client to develop and implement a change management strategy around their sales processes.  “We really just need you to create the strategy and oversee the implementation,” the senior leadership team told me in our preliminary meetings.  “We have a full-time project manager who’ll be able to handle the day-to-day.”

“Great,” I thought - after all, if you leave all your change up to external consultants, the changes often walk out the front door when the consultants do.  So I was looking forward to working with the project manager.

Our first meeting seemed to go well:  She came prepared, with an organized binder full of reference materials and some good questions about implementation details.  I thought we were off to a good start.

Until the next day, when I sent her a follow-up email - and she replied, CC-ing no fewer than 8 other people.  “Okay,” I thought, “she’s just letting everyone know we’ve gotten started in earnest.”  But no.  Every email response was a ‘reply all’, and if the email had been sent only to her, in her reply she added everyone who’d ever been involved in the conversation - juniors, co-workers, managers, senior leadership, sometimes even suppliers. 

Thanks to the relentless use of ‘reply all’, by the end of the week I had 62 emails about a project that hadn’t even really started yet, and I was exhausted.  When you’re working off-site with a new client, you have to pay close attention to emails.  Spending so much time re-reading ‘reply all’ threads in case they contained important information somewhere in the scrolldown was driving me nuts - especially when it turned out that most of them consisted of really crucial information like “Thanks.  Talk to you on Monday.”

But in some ways I was glad it had happened so early on, because a chronic ‘reply all-er’ can be a real problem for a change initiative.  Here’s why:

  • They aren’t respectful of other people’s time.  I wasn’t the only one who had to sift through 62+ irrelevant emails that week, and I’m quite sure that the other 8 people who’d been CCed on everything had many more productive things to do.  When people see a change initiative as a huge time-suck, they’re more inclined to resist it as the project moves forward.
  • They don’t know how to prioritize information.  When a project manager doesn’t realize that, for example, the CIO doesn’t need to be copied on an email regarding the design of some new materials for the sales team, it’s a good indication that they won’t understand how best to communicate information about the change to the rest of the organization.  And this can be a huge barrier to change management success.
  • They’re too worried about office politics.  People who CC everyone on every email are usually trying to cover their own backside, spread blame, or make it look like they’re busier than they really are.  All of these tendencies can be lethal to a change initiative.

So how do you handle an obsessive CC-er?  Since she was a long-time employee of my client’s organization, and was internally well-liked, I couldn’t have her removed from the project.  And she was quite good with managing timelines.  So I put her in charge of ensuring we were on track with various deadlines, and, using the “We need a single point of contact” approach, I got her to funnel all communications through me for the duration of the initiative.  The change implementation was successful - and we never had a 62-email-week again.


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'Change' seems to have become a hot topic for businesses again.  As a change architect - and someone who makes her living from organizational change - I find myself greeting the news with mixed emotions.  On the one hand, I’m thrilled that more organizations are recognizing the need for change.  On the other hand, 70% of change initiatives still fail in some way, so it’s not like organizations are getting better at it.  And sometimes it seems that ‘change’ has become a strategy in and of itself:  “We need to improve the bottom line.  Let’s change…something!”

Organizations are still looking for the mythical silver bullet, that proprietary alchemy which will magically make their changes work.  Each time they set out to change, they look for some new silver bullet, because the old silver bullet didn’t work.  The problem is that it’s not about finding a magic bullet - it’s about recognizing that successful change needs the right strategy and implementation.

I’ve led lots of change projects over the years, and not one of them has failed.  That’s not because I invented a magic bullet - it’s because I’ve spent more time than most people learning to understand the way I, and the people I’m leading, react to change. 

It’s important to remember that being the ‘changer’ (the leader of change) is much different than being a ‘changee’ (one of the people affected by the change).   Within an organization, senior leaders are used to thinking of themselves as ‘changers’.  But when their change initiatives don’t succeed, it’s often because they forgot that they’re also ‘changees’ - and that their reactions to change, as a changee, are influencing the process in a negative way.

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that you are Joe (or Josephine), the CEO of a $30 million company in the retail sector.  You’re on your way to work (where you’re scheduled to be in an important meeting as soon as you arrive) and discover that your usual route is closed thanks to unexpected roadwork.  You’re forced to follow a detour that not only takes longer but goes through an area with which you’re entirely unfamiliar.  The delay makes you feel panicky about missing the start of the meeting,  you’re unsettled by the confusion of the detour - and when you finally get to the office, you can’t shake your feelings of anxiety.

Then you dash into the meeting, where you’re hit with some bad news from your VPs.  “Oh, great,” you think.  “Once again, they’ve all failed to meet my expectations.  They’re always disappointing me - what the hell is wrong with them?”  You decide you’ll have to ‘do something about it’, but the thought of having to spend hours coaching your senior leadership team through the next quarter just sucks all the energy out of you.  By the time you head home for the day, you feel like you’ve been been on a forced march through the desert - and you never did get around to tackling all the other items on your to-do list for the day.

When this kind of relatively small, unexpected change unsettles Joe (or Josephine), it’s not hard to understand how big change can cause anxiety, even in senior leaders.  Anxiety can lead to a lack of action, sudden changes in direction, or apathy - and when the leader of a change is paralyzed, inconsistent, or detached, it’s not surprising that the rest of the employees are similarly affected.  (And thinking things like “my team is always disappointing me” is almost guaranteed to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.)

So if you’re finding yourself leading a change project which isn’t going well, the first step may be to look in the mirror.  Are you bringing your anxiety to bear on the project?  Are you setting your team up for success by believing in their abilities, or are you letting them meet your expectations of failure?  Most importantly, are you modeling the kind of enthusiasm for change that you need to see in them?

As the person who initiates change within the organization, you may not be affected by the change in the same ways that those lower in your organization will.  But here’s something to think about:  Change is just as much about ‘how’ as it is about ‘what’ - and how your employees react to change is directly related to the way you do.

Published in News
Wednesday, 27 March 2013 07:12

Change Leadership: A tale of two departments

A few years ago I was working with a mid-sized packaged goods company which had two large operations in different parts of the country.  Each operation focused on a particular product line, for which it had separate sales departments, and the change initiative was to unite the technology systems for both to allow for better cross-selling and customer service.

Six months into the project I was perplexed:  While one operation was proceeding effectively with the changes, and was already showing positive results (increased sales and better customer feedback, etc.), the other facility had stalled, and we were starting to meet active resistance.

At first, the reasons were unclear:  Though the organizational goals were aligned across both operations, we'd prepared customized change strategies for each location based on their people, process and technology.  How had we gotten one change plan so right and the other so - apparently - wrong?

As I've mentioned before, good communication is the foundation of any successful change management strategy and implementation.  I decided to spend some time at the underperforming facility, talking not just to project team members but to various other staffers as well, to see what I could find out.

Spending a few days on-site at the underperforming facility and talking to employees quickly revealed the problem:  The VP Sales of that operation had missed several key planning meetings at the beginning of the change process due to work-related travel commitments.  Though he'd been provided with documentation - and had participated in subsequent meetings - he'd been left feeling under-consulted and left out of the process.  In addition, there were long-standing rivalries between the two operations which hadn't been adequately articulated in these key early planning meetings - so the VP Sales was feeling threatened by the changes.

The result was that while the VP Sales of the high-performing operations was actively engaged in the change and was doing a great job of enthusiastically leading his people forward, the VP Sales of the underperforming operation was not only demonstrating lacklustre leadership for the change, but was actively undermining it by telling his managers that change-related tasks were a 'low priority' and could safely be sidelined in favor of 'business as usual'.

The solution

As it turned out, the solution to our problem was relatively straightforward:  We (the CEO, the VP Operations, and I) spent an afternoon with the VP Sales of the underperforming operation to review the change strategy, with particular emphasis on the decision-making rationale that he had missed earlier in the process.  We actively solicited his insight and input and made a couple of revisions based on that input.  He became a much more enthusiastic supporter of the change initiative, and went back to his people with a more positive leadership approach.

The lessons

  1. Don't underestimate the value of single individuals in the success or failure of a change initiative.  A single unengaged VP can derail an entire change initiative.
  2. Don't assume enthusiasm and engagement.  Even though the underperforming VP Sales hadn't been at some of the early planning meetings, we'd simply assumed that - since he hadn't expressed concern or issues at subsequent meetings - he was on board and as enthusiastic as everyone else.
  3. A little bit of TLC can go a long way.  Once we determined the problem, we didn't 'bully' the unengaged VP Sales into compliance or 'shame' him by comparing him to the high-performing VP Sales.  Instead, we took the time to review the change strategy with him, ask for his insight, and implemented revisions which addressed his concerns.  It's amazing how demonstrating respect and consideration can transform a non-engaged leader into a fully-engaged one.

BONUS LESSON:  If key members of the change strategy team can't participate in early meetings, ensure they are provided with one-on-one follow up.  Making the time to keep everyone on the same page right from the beginning will save a lot of time and frustration later on.


Published in News
Sunday, 16 February 2014 00:00

Ignoring History Won't Make it Go Away

A few weeks ago I took part in a workshop session with other change leaders and coaches.  It's always interesting to hear how other people approach organizational change - you never know when you might learn something new - but I found myself disagreeing wholeheartedly with one participant, also a change management consultant.

"I never spend time reviewing an organization's history," he said.  "That's just wasted time.  I'm here to help them move forward, not dwell on the past."

beth banks cohn change management

While I agree with the last part of his statement - as change management consultants, we're supposed to be helping companies move forward into a changed environment - I don't believe that it's productive to ignore an organization's history.  What organizations can achieve is dependent upon their people, and people are the sum of their experiences, their history - they can't just reinvent themselves at 9 am on an arbitrary Monday morning and pretend their past experiences never happened.

In fact, you wouldn't want them to.  Much of your employees' value lies in their past experiences, both at work and in their personal lives.  Their education, their life experiences, their relationships with their team members - all of these can be positive assets as you move forward with change.

At the same time, of course, an organization's history can sometimes be a hurdle:  An ingrained resistance to change, old feuds between key departments, a non-productive attachment to outmoded business processes - all of these things can become obstacles to successful, productive change.

Burying your head in the sand is hardly ever a successful strategy

But ignoring these obstacles won't remove them from the path to change - and in fact you may be missing some key insight that could help your change strategy be more successful with less effort.  Here's an example:  You create a chanjge plan and issue edicts to various departments of the organization.  The purchasing department and the marketing department have had difficulty working together in the past, but you've decided that It's A New Day for the organization and proceed with your plans, assuming everyone will pull together - you don't have time to go into that history with them.  Except that 3 days before the change is supposed to take effect, you discover that the purchasing department hasn't released the funds the marketing department needs in order to properly communicate the change, and now you have to delay your change efforts for a month while the mess gets sorted out.  The organization loses money every day the project is delayed - and even more important, the change effort loses momentum while everyone waits around.

Now, there's something to be said for leadership encouraging employees to come to a change strategy with an open mind, and to try not to bring 'baggage' into the process.  But to pretend that the history of an organization - and that of its individual employees - doesn't exist only ends up being counterproductive.


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Sometimes it takes a physical change to spark a behavioral one

The countries of the former USSR are in a difficult period:  They know they need to hange, but are caught in the grip of hundreds of years of often-difficult history.  History is frequently a barrier to change, but a country isn't like an office:  You can't just buy some new office furniture, paint the walls and invite everyone in for a lunch'n'learn when you want to signal - and foster - a major change of direction.

But maybe you can do other things.

better change management through architecture

Recently, Georgia - the one in Asia, not the one in the US - unveiled its brand new parliament building in Kutaisi.  The new building has been described as a "sci-fi bubble" and represents a deliberate departure from Soviet-era architecture (a Soviet war memorial was, in fact, demolished to make way for the new building).

The whole point of the $83 million structure, uniquely modern in its landscape, is to be a tangible expression of Georgia's commitment to moving past its Soviet history and towards a more global, independent future.  Ramaz Nikolaishvilli, Georgia's Regional Development and Infrastructure Minister, said:  "We don't want our children's taste to be ruined by communist architecture.  We want beautiful buildings and we want the next generation to grow up with good taste.  This will help them live in a better and more dignified way."

Of course, the project hasn't been without its difficulties:  Demolishing the war memorial caused injuries; there have been cost and deadline overruns; and there are plenty of detractors who think the building is both ugly and a misuse of public funds in what should be a time of austerity.

Is the big risk going to pay off in big results for Georgia?  It's probably too soon to tell, but early signs suggest that bold moves like the new parliament buildings, combined with other efforts to remove Soviet-era reminders are helping Georgians to see themselves as independent, entrepreneurial, and ready to compete in a global economy - all of which will put it ahead of other former USSR countries in the long run.

Lessons for change management practitioners

It's tempting to think of 'change management' as something that happens in big companies, in 6-month cycles with tidy little project plans.  Georgia's new parliament buildings are a good reminder that sometimes 'change' is much, much bigger than implementing a new enterprise-wide CRM system.

At the same time, however, all business-related change management really involves many of the same things:

  1. Driving better business results - whether within an organization, an industry, or even a continent
  2. Knowing that sometimes you have to take big risks in order ot have a chance to achieve big rewards
  3. Having a clear vision of what you're striving towards will help you weather the criticism
  4. Remembing that visionary change involves more than just this year's fiscal reports - it's about making investments that will set you up for success in the long term
  5. Sometimes changing one thing changes everything else.  You may not be able to change everything (or at least not as quickly as you'd like to), but taking the first big steps at least gets you moving.


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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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