The Role of Leadership in Change Management

Leaders aren’t immune to the pressure of people’s expectations. After all, employees look to their leaders for a lot—clarity, connection, and accountability—particularly in the midst of change.

A September 2013 Forbes article revealed some surprising insights about change management and leadership. For example, although 55% of leaders felt the changes met initial goals, change management initiatives over the long term were successful only 25% of the time. More than 87% of leaders said they trained their managers to oversee the process of change management, but the changes, once implemented, didn’t last. In fact, training was effective among just 22% of those surveyed. A third of those understood the reasons for organizational change, but that important message never fully trickled down to middle managers or front line supervisors.

So what does this tell us about the role of leadership in change management?

Having and practicing a change management mentality are two different things.  Lots of leaders want change, but only a select few actually help make it happen.

Adopting the Change Management Mentality

The reasons for not adopting the right mindset vary, and most are understandable. Some leaders allocate time and resources from the perspective of revenue—versus change initiatives. Others have difficulty gaining support in a consensus-driven culture. A few might even be unwilling to share their “intellectual capital” (the resources that contribute to the enterprise’s value and ability to compete) for the good of the change initiative.  Some might even want to avoid the career risk a failure might incur.

Many leaders learn through trial and error how to lead effectively during change. Unfortunately, their learning curve can be at the expense of the organization.

AlignOrg Solutions worked with a sales executive who had already made several significant changes within his organization prior to engaging us.  He reached out for help because he was having difficulty getting his sales team to adopt the changes he’d implemented and couldn’t understand why this was.

As we diagnosed and learned about the situation, it was clear that what he thought he was doing effectively and what was being received by his team members were two different things. Moreover, he had failed to clarify how the changes would reshape their roles, how they’d be equipped to fulfill those new roles, and how they’d be held accountable. As a result, people questioned the change—and ultimately his leadership.

The above scenario underscores the importance of adopting a change management mentality and the necessary skills to communicate and execute it properly. Those that fail to do so will have a difficult time enacting profound and lasting change.

 Manage the Change or It Will Manage You

 Anytime leaders fall short on fulfilling expectations, their teams become disillusioned, confused and unmotivated. The business suffers. Leaders must manage the change or it will manage them. When leaders fulfill the change management role, changes are made efficiently and sustainably, and the expectations of their staff, partners, stakeholders and clients are met.

AlignOrg Solutions has developed specific strategies to help leaders step into the change management role.  To highlight a few of the principles that leaders should embrace when leading through change, consider the following:

  • Clarify the vision and communicate it effectively. The role of leadership in change management requires that you help people buy into your vision for the organization. This type of communication needs to occur consistently, no matter if it’s the mundane, day-to-day issues or more serious change programs. Your message needs to be clear and consistent. Leverage your audience’s preferred communication methods to ensure receptiveness. That means making the most of social media. According to a November 2015 Harvard Business Review article, we spend an average of 3 hours each day on various social media platforms, with over 50% of employers using such platforms for internal communications. The same article noted that just 17% of employees rated their leader highly when it came to recent change-related communications.
  • Stay connected with your employees. Without this awareness, you’ll have a difficult time explaining your vision and enlisting support. Your employees look to you to be direct and transparent. They also want you to be approachable. The Harvard Business Review piece cited another study in which nearly three-quarters of employees said their CEO’s preferred social media platform allowed them to communicate more directly with the CEO. Similar numbers of CEOs believed such interactions helped them get a quick idea of what employees were thinking/feeling, which is important when aligning your change management initiatives with the capabilities of your people.
  • Be accountable and transparent. During times of change, leaders must be accountable for what is working and what isn’t working. Being accountable fosters a desire and commitment to fix problems to yield the best results. To be truly accountable means you are willing to let others see behind the curtain to candidly assess how things are going. As you do this, your team will embrace a similar, no-blame openness to performance. Accountable leaders look at all aspects of the organization—culture, processes, management, and employees—to ensure all are functioning optimally. If they are not, a good change management leader must be willing to admit the gaps or misalignments and take actions to address shortcomings.

Remember, perceptions of leaders are often shaped during times of transition and change.  The principles outlined above help leaders conquer the change management challenge. Don’t let people question your leadership and the mission of the organization. Such questions, undermine employee commitment to the change initiatives and their allegiance to you and possibly the company. Additionally, these leadership questions may ripple out to your customers, partners and stakeholders.

Be the Change You Want to See

 Don’t abdicate change management to others, such as HR, or leave it to chance because you think people will “get it” the first time. You have to take full responsibility, understand the mindset of your team, enlist their support and hold them accountable.

The role of leadership in change management requires care, communication and commitment. As the leader, you are the bridge between your organization and the envisioned change. If you understand your role and the expectations around it, clarify your vision, communicate effectively, and hold yourself and others accountable throughout the change process, you can successfully navigate even the most disruptive change.

Learn more here about organizational design, organizational alignment, and common change mistakes. 

This blog was originally published on April 16, 2016 and has since been updated. 

5 thoughts on “The Role of Leadership in Change Management”

  1. I believe “buy in” is achieved most effectively when everyone, at all levels, are involved in and participate in understanding the reason for the change. This may take a significant amount of education . Then they should take part Contributing to the design of
    how to attain the specific goals in their areas. The plan then becomes “their” plan as opposed to managements plan that is imposed on them.

  2. Leaders are struggling due to a combination of things such as not having: time, skills to manage ambiguity/complexity, the appropriate reinforcement for taking risks, and the passion to lead.


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