Organizational Change Only Works if Leaders Go First: Three Tips to Make this Happen

execution of chang

When it comes to organizational change, C-suite executives are responsible for much more than conceptualizing the plan. Yes they must develop the strategy, but they also need to educate their people on the why and how behind it, and most importantly, lead by example. As the HBR article “Anyone Can Learn to Be a Better Leader” states, “Occupying a leadership position is not the same thing as leading. To lead, you must be able to connect, motivate, and inspire a sense of ownership of shared objectives.” The only way for leaders to connect, motivate, and inspire around change is to embrace the change first. Leaders must lead the way.

Not convinced? Consider this real-life story. A Fortune 300 company debuted its new strategy to its top several hundred leaders. For three days the plan and the critical actions required for achieving the desired results was discussed among the group. People seemed engaged. Questions were being asked. Excitement around the potential successes was shared. At the end of the third day everyone was given the opportunity to anonymously voice how confident they felt about the new strategic plan. The senior leadership team had assumed that over the course of the three days, they had won the commitment of the attendees and these top leaders would share their support among their teams. However, the anonymous feedback resulted in a dismal 19 percent vote of confidence.

After the shock wore off, the attendees were asked for the reasons behind their skepticism. It was quickly discovered that the lack of endorsement wasn’t because the plan was faulty, but because people didn’t believe the leadership team would change. They felt there was hypocrisy between what the leaders claimed the new company direction to be, and the way senior leaders continued to exhibit “old strategy behaviors.” Once the leaders got the message and corrected their personal behaviors, the implementation of the strategy took off and drove a doubling of the stock price.

Three Ways Leaders Can Lead the Way

  1. Demonstrate honesty and show vulnerability. Successful change requires leaders to get super honest with the state of their business. They must analyze where they are at versus their goals they have and ask: What gaps or barriers exist? Why are we having these challenges? What’s good or bad about the company culture? As these tough questions are discussed, leaders need to remember that it is okay to admit how they personally will be changing to help bridge the gaps. For any transformation to work, leaders need to go first by identifying how their own personal behaviors are inconsistent with the new strategy.

When a leader admits that they too need to change, they are setting the precedent for others to be vulnerable and acknowledge the importance of embracing the discomfort associated with being accountable to drop old behaviors and adopt new ones.

Additionally, when leaders are publicly vulnerable on behaviors that need to change, they send the signal it is safe to talk about other company weaknesses and it encourages managers and employees to make key suggestions to change behaviors, practices, rituals, habits and routines for executing the new strategy. These honest conversations are critical to getting everyone on board with the discomfort of change because people feel they have a role in it all. They have the opportunity to be honest, to voice their concerns and questions, and this is an essential part in helping an individual prepare for change. Change doesn’t work if someone just intellectually understands a strategy, they must also feel emotionally prepared to weather the twists and turns of a transformation.

  • Be the first to “let go”. Change is hard. Most people fear it. They will do a lot to avoid change at all costs. And if this is the consensus among an organization, that strategic plan is never getting off the ground because fear will trump all efforts of being agile and flexible. Successful change requires organizations to break free from what they’ve been doing.

However, letting go is hard to do. Letting go of the business we know involves letting go of the actions, behaviors, and roles that provided the current sense of value, achievement, and recognition. It also means letting go of what someone was very good at to develop new skills vital to the strategy for the future. We must be willing to move away from what we know how to do in the “business of yesterday” – which we have been good at and rewarded for – to take the risk to do what we don’t know how to do and will be bad at for a while, which is critical to the business of the future.

  • Don’t leave people in the dark. Often leaders think that a person only needs to be told the information that pertains to their role or teams. But this is not the case. People want to understand the big picture. They need to understand the whole story in order to understand their role in it. If people are able to connect their personal shifts to the success of the whole, they will be more compelled to sustain the discomfort that change brings.

Leaders, this means that if a modification to the plan is made during a leadership meeting, this information need to be shared outside of the conference room too. This means that lessons learned during the transformation need to be shared in real-time. And successes – even the small ones – need to be communicated to all employees, as they happen. Discussing the good and the bad throughout the strategic change is imperative to sustaining the momentum beyond launch. Leaders must keep their people informed if they want their strategic plan to become a reality.

Walking the Walk Works

For leaders who don’t step into the discomfort of changing their own behavior to lead the execution of change, they will find out that what they are waiting for will never come. The emotional and behavior change we expect of others must first be the expectation of ourselves.

Root offers a masterful method that dives down deep into the inner workings of an organization to analyze its people dynamics. If you are facing big changes or want to build resilience, Root can help you identify leadership alignment issues or discover immersive educational resources that will help improve your outcomes. Head over to rootinc.com to explore the ways Root could help you.