Organizational Change Leadership Solved: It’s Just Leadership

Written by:
Afterburner Team

Organizational Change Leadership Can’t Just Be About Change

First, there was change management, where organizations tried to temper the unpredictable forces of change through structured processes and rigid management styles. Then there was organizational change leadership, the forward-leaning, charismatic big brother to change management. As businesses around the world tried to master change management and change leadership—while simultaneously trying to figure out the differences between the two—academia and the consulting world moved on to transformational leadership, another top-down leadership fad that is still being defined today. There are different approaches to each type of organizational change management, yet very few initiatives are successfully implemented, hovering somewhere between 60 and 70 percent over the last four decades.

The problem with change management, organizational change leadership, transformational leadership and whatever management trend is likely to come next, isn’t in the overarching intent or even in the processes, it’s the mentality. It’s a mentality that takes a transactional approach to stakeholder buy-in and organizational improvement, paving the way for change-centric leadership binges that expire with mission completion. Questions regarding which approach is best or how to best implement are all subordinate to the overarching question that no one seems to be asking: why do organizations still view change as the trigger for effective leadership?

Successful Change Management Comes From Strong Leadership

One of the biggest flaws in the concepts behind change management, change leadership, and transformational leadership is that they boil down to change-driven leadership binges. If you wait for a change initiative to campaign for team member buy-in or to remove obstacles to mission achievement, what are you doing when there isn’t a change initiative underway? Most of the processes found in change management and change leadership models should be standard operating procedures, integrated into your day-to-day operations and reinforced by strong leadership regardless of change initiatives. Change is ubiquitous so you must position your organization to prepare for change as a constant rather than a series of solitary events.

In a 2014 Harvard Business Review article, Greg Satell wrote that top-down initiatives are the reason change management efforts are prone to failure, asserting successful change implementation requires empowerment rather than management. Even in name, change management and change leadership are about taking a high-level objective and making it palatable for an organization’s general population; petitioning for buy-in from a group that may or may not feel it’s been earned. What these approaches fail to address is that change implementation isn’t about the change or the opportunity it presents or even the change leaders who drive it. It’s about John down in the assembly line. It’s about Diane over in accounting. It’s about Tom, the logistics supervisor for your transportation vendor. It’s about all of the front line executors whose day-to-day environment is where your strategy meets execution. But it’s not just about motivating them or making them feel valued (which are both key factors to success), it’s about empowering those front line executors to leverage their expertise in these environments to develop and own the mission plans and ensure strategic execution.

To put it simply, stop looking upward in the organizational hierarchy for answers to implementation and start empowering your stakeholders to own it. There is no question of how individual buy-in affects the outcome of change initiatives, but this buy-in shouldn’t be tied to organizational opportunity. It should be earned year-round through effective leadership and open, collaborative communication. Flawless Execution equips organizations with a framework to do this, providing process structure that empowers leaders to earn the commitment of their teams. It establishes a method that allows top-level leadership to plan within the appropriate purview—enterprise strategy and direction-setting—and defer to the expertise of mid- and lower-level leaders and their teams to establish ownership of planning and executing the supporting missions that ultimately determine success. This is how you transform team members into change leaders.

Keep Your Organizational Development on Track With Effective Leadership

When you allow top-level strategic change to precede effective leadership and improved processes, it sets an expectation that they are somehow tied to that change and not a standard organizational development initiative. For example, in his Forbes article The Status Quo Will Kill Change Management Efforts, Mark Murphy submits that without the “why” behind change initiatives, stakeholders may see it as a threat to the “status quo.” If your change initiative is aligned with your company’s High-Definition Destination (HDD) and you have been successful in clearly articulating the HDD to the organization, the correlation between the change, everyday tasking and the overarching organizational goals will be far easier to link. Murphy goes on to say that the “how” is as important to articulate as the “why.” In doing so, he advocates one of the biggest flaws in top-down management that eliminates an opportunity for organic buy-in. Teams need to literally buy-in to an initiative by investing their time, effort and knowledge into answering the “how.” With an understanding of the HDD and clearly articulated leader’s intent, you can empower your teams to collaboratively develop the most appropriate plan for that environment. What does this achieve? Stakeholder buy-in, plan ownership, accountable execution and an approach to leadership that’s effective and sustainable.

Opportunity is the fruit of change and yet organizations around the world still approach change in a prescriptive manner. The principles of change leadership aren’t wrong, but the leadership binges and pervasive top-down approach are ineffective. Trade management fads and one-off organizational development for a year-round commitment to continuous learning, leadership development, and a mission-first mentality . When you alter your outlook on change, you can control how, when and where change impacts your business. With the right processes in place, you can build a culture that thrives on the opportunities of change and demonstrates agility and innovation not in wide-sweeping overhauls but in the systematic organizational pivots empowered by a shared mental model and structured processes. When you invest time and energy into creating this culture, you can stop worrying about change and start exploiting it.