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All around us, in business and in politics, are sobering illustrations of what can happen if those called upon to lead change aren’t fully up to speed or on board with what is being proposed.

In times of organisational transition, teams automatically look to their leaders for a steer on what to expect, how to feel about the impending change, and what it means for their roles. Whether this is a fundamentally new culture, structure, or digital transformation if leaders are not on board and prepared it can significantly impact individuals’ likelihood of embracing the new ways of working. And this ultimately impacts the ROI for any change effort.

Almost 15 years ago McKinsey highlighted the importance of consistent role models when driving behaviour change – leaders who ‘walk the talk’ and ‘sing from the same song sheet’1. And, while new models of behaviour change are emerging that bypass the need for leadership involvement (such as viral change2), most organisations I work with embed change more effectively when the leaders are involved. Indeed, when they are not adequately engaged or supported with the right tools, skills and plans, change efforts can fall flat and the risk of business disruption is high.

One client told me that without the right change support for their leadership team, their department experienced an ‘implementation wilderness!’

We know that not all leaders are instinctively comfortable with ambiguity and adapting at pace, or have the skills or experience to truly help their people to transition. As change practitioners, we can help leaders become the role models they need to be by considering three factors: real engagement, disciplined preparation and targeted individual support.

Involve key leaders from the beginning

As an Australian in Britain, I have been a relative bystander in the unravelling of recent Brexit negotiations and the associated Cabinet resignations. When I look at the situation from a people change point of view, it appears that much of it came down to a lack of conviction among those who were going to be ‘selling’ the UK’s proposed EU deal. This confidence crisis among the senior ranks shifted the Government’s short-term priorities away from the job in hand, and on to how they are going to regroup, find new champions, and get back on message.

In a corporate change context, organisations want to avoid not only potential mutinies in their senior and middle ranks but also uncertainty or anxiety around any proposed changes. The more involved and supported leaders feel – and the more they appreciate the purpose and benefits of a change – the more effectively they can take employees on the journey with them.

Key to keeping leaders on side, therefore, means involving them throughout the transformation process and not just as an afterthought prior to implementation. It is critical to identify early the key leaders who will have the most influence on helping people to transition – and set realistic expectations with them on their accountability for making the change a success.

It is critical to identify early the key leaders who will have the most influence on helping people to transition - and set realistic expectations with them on their accountability for making the change a success.

I’ve worked with programme teams that resisted bringing leaders in ‘too early’, concerned that they would distract and hinder progress. Instead, I try to involve those leaders from the beginning, working through any conflict early and engaging them to hone the vision, design and roadmap. This sets up a united front to embody the new behaviours and continue to remove roadblocks long after implementation.

This approach enhances the chances that the change will stick. A programme lasts for a finite period; the leader continues to have an impact on the effectiveness of the change long after the programme has closed.

Prepare for a marathon, and enjoy the stroll

Preparing leaders is not about indiscriminately sharing every aspect of a proposed change in an overwhelming way. Instead, identify a series of targeted, culturally appropriate interventions that provide the discipline required for leaders to engage with, plan for and ultimately role model the specific change.

One of my clients recently said to me, ‘you prepared me for a marathon and then I enjoyed a stroll’. He was talking about a restructure in which a series of rehearsals, change workshops and business readiness checks had aligned him and his support team to work like a well-oiled machine! When it came to announcement and implementation, the team enjoyed less resistance than they had anticipated and ultimately faster adoption of the new ways of working.

Preparing leaders early with robust plans, advice, and confidence makes a significant difference to how the broader population experiences the change. Preparation should be targeted and agile – not an overinvestment in training or toolkits. Too often I’ve seen consultants attempt to support organisational change with a suite of frameworks and templates: everything they have learnt distilled into a robust toolkit. But, applied too generically, or without first listening to specific emerging change challenges, this can encourage leaders to merely go through the motions, ticking boxes to show that they haven’t skipped anything – or worse, rejecting preparation as too cumbersome.

Toolkits have their place but do not in themselves ensure effective change, and should not become a panacea for preparing leaders to be the role models their people need.

Acknowledge the person in the profession

Too often programmes simply assume leaders can pick up a new change role and absorb it into their day job without question. However, an inexperienced, unconfident or exhausted leader may miss key opportunities to improve the change experience for their teams – and fail to role model the necessary behaviours. A leader’s change aptitude can vary dramatically depending on their own transformation experience, time in a leadership position, competing priorities and comfort leading change. In complex or critical transformations, it is important to understand the individual journey that each key leader will experience – and provide tailored support accordingly.

It obviously helps when leaders start with an open and positive approach to transformation, and an appreciation of the process – including all the likely twists, turns and surprises along the way! However, while there is an increasing focus across organisations to enhance change capabilities (e.g. active listening), I’ve rarely come across a team in which every individual has a broad appreciation of – or appetite for – leading transformation.

It is therefore important to have empathy for those critical to leading people change and work collaboratively to provide targeted support. A range of interventions can smooth the way, including team offsites to strengthen the united voice, executive coaching on specific behaviours, resilience training, team ‘health checks’, and allocation of change mentors.

No toolkit, process or PowerPoint presentation is going to effectively execute change. It is up to the leaders in the business to role model new ways of working and support their people through the journey. And, as change practitioners, we have a responsibility to help them do so.

Caro Ruttledge

At Gate One, we are change experts. Our team will equip you to drive culturally-aligned, innovative change programmes.