A client firm learned of a major regulatory change, one that would significantly change how their products could be positioned. It was not a welcome change. The CEO, in his speech at a major sales conference, expressed his frustration with the regulation and promised to be active in seeking changes through lobbying efforts. He then funded a project and instructed the project team to be fully ready to comply with the regulation by its introduction date. Throughout the implementation, there were problems with acceptance and adoption of the change. Everyone was denying that the change would really take place. After all, the CEO didn’t support it and even said he was working to reverse it.
This is a pretty evident form of mixed signals leaders send during times of change. Others are more subtle, but equally damaging to the success of the change effort. One senior vice president voiced deep commitment to a system change that would reduce manual rework for employees, but then reduced the budget for the effort and pulled some of the resources off the project to work on another priority. Another leader was a great voice for the need for a change up front, but as the difficult and complex work began, he was no longer visible.
So what are the most crucial signals for you, as a leader, to be sending – and more importantly, modeling – during times of change?
Your commitment is only as strong as your personal desire for the change, so check your sincerity and be sure your tone, language and body language are all telling the same story. When change is imposed on the organization by laws, fiscal reality or other factors that are not your fondest desire, reflect on what positive outcome you are committing to, and get your language right. The CEO in the opening could have said, “None of us was enthusiastic to see this regulatory change handed to us, but we are an organization that prides itself on always doing things better than anyone else. I am committed to making sure we carry out both the letter and the spirit of this regulation, since it’s meant to protect our customers – and so are we.”
Commitment is not only a launch event. Employees look most often for commitment from leaders when they’re slogging through the stressful process of implementing the change: “Remind me why we’re doing this miserable change.” Your job is to stay ahead of that anguish, letting them know you appreciate what they’re going through and that their efforts are going toward something you still value highly.
The flip side of commitment can sometimes be over-enthusiasm for a change, even in the face of significant problems. If all you give is good news and great cheerleading, you and the change effort will lose credibility. Admit issues when they arise, thank the people who bring them up, thank the people who are working to solve them, and express confidence that the good outcomes envisioned up front will still occur, even if adjustments have to be made in order to achieve them.
Remaining open to bad news is equally important. Ask about issues, and demonstrate interest in discussions about solutions.
Make sure the ducks are lined up. If you sense dissenting viewpoints about the need for the change or how it will play out, open conversations with those people and decide where you will land. When employees see a gap in the united front, no expectations of compliance from them will hold any water. They’ll know they’ve got a resistance champion. This unity is important all up and down the management chain, and it is the responsibility of leaders to proactively monitor it and keep it in synch throughout the change.
A common pitfall of leaders is to champion a change, but fail to resource it appropriately or later change its urgency. When you put your commitment behind a change, be sure you don’t then move on to the next big thing. Keep the same level of focus and intent throughout the change effort. Your job is to make sure resources and schedules throughout the change effort match the urgency of the need you identified in announcing the change.
People will overcome personal obstacles to make change successful when they know their leaders are paying attention. “I heard from the training team that this work group is quickly becoming expert in the new system. Congratulations!” “I heard that there were some questions about whether anyone’s work locations would change. Are there some significant concerns about that in your group?” A leader’s continual interest encourages accountability and gives needed strokes during difficult times.
Finally, get some help holding yourself to these signals. Ask a sampling of people in the organization, “What am I doing that you feel is supportive of the change we’re trying to accomplish?” “What am I doing that might undermine the success of the change?” “What am I not doing that you think would help the change succeed?” Ask these questions today – and frequently thereafter.
Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant