How to Lead a Successful Organizational Change

How to Lead a Successful Organizational Change

Change is never easy, particularly in organizations. But there is some good news because whether you're a start-up trying out a new software program, or a multinational corporation changing strategic direction, there are ways to make the change process easier and more productive. Effectively leading change requires many elements but here are a few of the basics to consider.

Harness the Buy-In

In business, it doesn't take too long to realize that before any new change initiative works, you need complete and total buy-in from front-line employees, owners, and executive leadership teams. Implementing any kind of change, even change that is needed against resistance, is nearly impossible. Buy-in ensures everyone is on board and the naysayers have no chance of derailing efforts. What's the trick to getting buy-in? Communicate early and often, be transparent, and make change positive for people by explaining the "why" as well as the "how".

Ensure Unified Direction and a Common Voice

There also has to be a single direction and a common voice for change to be effective. In most cases, it makes sense to have the CEO in charge of leading the change initiative, and in the case of divisions or departments the leaders of these units. Some years ago I was asked to become the CEO to lead an organization's move beyond its current growth plateau. It was growing steadily but the leadership team at the time didn't have the experience to move the company from its current size (around 40 million) to the next level. I agreed to help as long as I had the total support of ownership in the direction that we needed to go. Basically, I told them that strategies and measures to evaluate success were fine but without total buy-in, it would be too easy to second guess and undermine efforts. Change will always be met with skepticism so it's paramount to build it on a solid and well-thought-out foundation. A unified direction and common voice are key.

Own the Change

It's easy to blame your predecessor when things don't go as planned. But when it comes to change at some point down the road whether it's a few months or years you have to take responsibility. Owning change from the beginning gives you the perspective you need. Here's a quick story to illustrate.

John was hired to replace Jim in an organization. On the way out Jim handed his replacement two letters telling him if he felt unsure of himself to open letter number one. After a few months, John was overwhelmed with change and things were not going well. He opened the first letter which said "I understand things are not going as expected. Blame it on me. In 6 months if things are not better open letter Number Two". Sure enough 6 months later things were not better. John opened the second letter which simply said: "Dear John write two letters".

Tongue-in-cheek I've often said that the two most incompetent folks in the world are the one you replace and the one that replaces you. How often do you hear someone blame his or her predecessor or successor? Sadly it's too often. Leaders must accept full responsibility not point fingers and blame others. The point is change is hard. Without total buy-in and a unified direction, it's even harder. The nature of the organization is to resist change and people have a tendency to blame their predecessor when things don't go as planned. Own change from the beginning, communicate clearly and fairly and it's more likely to be a success. Lead with conviction, clarity, and by assuming complete responsibility and positive change will be embraced.