Imagine your organization implemented a new CRM or ATS, or introduced a new strategy, process, skill or behavior and you’re ready to operationalize it into your organization. But how? How do you ensure team adoption and lasting results? I’ve been a part of hundreds of transformation efforts with hundreds of IT staffing firms. Below are my "lessons learned" and guiding principles for successfully leading change.
Since 2008 I have witnessed more than 400 IT staffing companies attempt to transform themselves into better businesses. They have included large staffing firms (Kelly Services) and small staffing organizations including a few that were on the brink of extinction and those that were doing well but simply looking to get into new markets. Their efforts have been referred to "right-sizing," restructuring, cultural change, sales transformation, turnaround and many others. But in every case, the goal has been the same, to improve business results by changing people's behaviors.
Change Management, The What & The Why
People naturally resist changes to their daily work routines and comfortable work behaviors. Introducing new ideas, systems, processes, skills, behaviors, methodologies and mindsets into an individual’s role including how to perform a job create uncertainty and stress. Successful change management and successfully leading change is the practice of driving business results by changing behaviors. By applying change management principles leaders can achieve the organization's ultimate goals and:
• Accelerate the pace of change to achieve timely outcomes and financial returns
• Address and mitigate risk
• Improve decision making
• Minimize the short-term drop in employee productivity and
• Strengthen the organization's ability to handle change in the future
Below I share with you my guiding principles for successfully leading change. Many of the change efforts I have been involved in were successful, several were complete failures but most fall somewhere in between. If you're leading a change initiative or transformation effort within your business, I think you will find my "lessons learned" and guiding principles highly relevant.
The overarching challenge to executing and operationalizing each guiding principle is time. Most companies don't have the time or patience that it takes to achieve successful change. However, skipping or short-cutting any of the guiding principles only creates the illusion of the change being adopted, it never produces the desired results.
Guiding Principles to Leading Change
Your change vision provides your organization with a picture of what the future looks like after the change has been implemented and adopted. Your change vision defines your current state and your desired future state and answers key questions for stakeholders and employees such as; what is changing and why, who will be affected by the change, why we should let go of the past, how the sacrifices and hard work (today) will benefit employees, customers, and/or partners in the future. Your change vision creates clear expectations of what successful change looks like. It creates a sensible and appealing picture of the future and it provides guidance for organizational decision-making.
Managers and employees naturally want to know what is changing and why so that they can determine how realistic and desirable the proposed change is. If employees feel the proposed change is neither realistic or desirable than they will not embrace the proposed change. Executive leadership including the change management team responsible for leading change must articulate a clear and compelling message that demonstrates the future is a desirable place to go.
In every successful change initiative that I have been a part of the change management team defines their vision and communicates that vision in terms that are appealing and easy to understand for employees. Their change vision not only clarifies the direction the company is headed, but it clearly articulates why. Creating a change vision often takes weeks and in many instances’ months in which the change management team works through multiple iterations before arriving at their final version or draft of their change vision. As the change management team works through developing their change vision, the strategy begins to develop for how they will arrive at their desired future state.
Without a well-defined change vision that is clearly articulated to the organization, transformation efforts quickly die before ever getting off the ground. In fact, when I look back at change efforts that failed, I found that most companies did a good job with planning creating a task force, and defining project goals. But none of them had a defined and documented change vision. I've seen staffing organizations assemble three-ring binders describing their new sales process in mind-numbing detail in which they spell out processes, workflows, input fields, procedures, goals and methodology. But nowhere in the three-ring binder is a concise and compelling message stating the end goal and why all the change was necessary. Not surprisingly, most of the employees who I spoke with were either confused or alienated. Those three ring-binders are probably still sitting on a book shelf collecting dust. There are also cases in which the leadership team had a sense of direction, but it was too complicated or confusing to communicate. As a rule of thumb, if you can’t communicate your change vision in a few minutes or less and receive a response that acknowledges an understanding and interest, you have yet to define your change vision.
Commitment to Change
Most successful transformation initiatives begin when an employee or a group of employees start to look hard at a company’s competitive situation, market position, industry trends, and/or financial performance. They focus on things like a potential revenue drop if a key employee leaves the company, what if a key customer fails to renew their contract, or the three-year trend in declining profit margins, the proliferation of VMS and MSP programs consuming key customer accounts or a new, emerging market. They then communicate this information to all levels of the organization and put fear in people's mind. This fear motivates and inspires people to act. In fact, I once worked with a company that was compelled to take on a transformation effort because of "the cliff." Everyone in the company knew what "the cliff" was. It was the date in which their most lucrative client was to renew their contract. This customer was responsible for 80% of their revenue. Without this customer there would be massive layoffs. "The cliff" of course was a metaphor for the steep fall the company would take if this customer chose to not renew their contract. Fortunately it was renewed but it was the fear of "the cliff" that motivated the change effort including the leadership team to take action by going into new markets.
Experiencing something like "the cliff" is enough to motivate any business to start a change initiative. But most change initiatives fail because the leadership fails to commit to the change. Most executives that I have worked with drastically underestimate how hard it can be to push people outside of their comfort zones and adopt new behaviors and ways to thinking. Many others lack patience. In other instances, executives become paralyzed by the potential negative outcomes. They fear key, tenured employees will rebel or even leave the organization and then morale will drop, and short-term business results will be jeopardized. Staffing owners and CEO's fear they will be blamed for creating a crisis. So, they stick to the status quo and continue to do things the way they've always done them despite their exposure.
A paralyzed senior management often comes from having plenty of many managers but not enough leaders. Management’s mandate is to minimize risk and to keep the current system operating. Change, by definition, requires creating a new system, which in turn always demands leadership. Phase one in a renewal process typically goes nowhere until enough real leaders are promoted or hired into senior-level jobs.
Transformations often begin, and begin well, when an organization has a new head who is a good leader and who sees the need for a major change. If the renewal target is the entire company, the CEO is key. If change is needed in a division, the division general manager is key. When these individuals are not new leaders, great leaders, or change champions, phase one can be a huge challenge.
Bad business results are both a blessing and a curse in the first phase. On the positive side, losing money does catch people’s attention. But it also gives less maneuvering room. With good business results, the opposite is true: convincing people of the need for change is much harder, but you have more resources to help make changes.
But whether the starting point is good performance or bad, in the more successful cases I have witnessed, an individual or a group always facilitates a frank discussion of potentially unpleasant facts: about new competition, shrinking margins, decreasing market share, flat earnings, a lack of revenue growth, or other relevant indices of a declining competitive position. Because there seems to be an almost universal human tendency to shoot the bearer of bad news, especially if the head of the organization is not a change champion, executives in these companies often rely on outsiders to bring unwanted information. Wall Street analysts, customers, and consultants can all be helpful in this regard. The purpose of all this activity, in the words of one former CEO of a large European company, is “to make the status quo seem more dangerous than launching into the unknown.”
In a few of the most successful cases, a group has manufactured a crisis. One CEO deliberately engineered the largest accounting loss in the company’s history, creating huge pressures from Wall Street in the process. One division president commissioned first-ever customer-satisfaction surveys, knowing full well that the results would be terrible. He then made these findings public. On the surface, such moves can look unduly risky. But there is also risk in playing it too safe: when the urgency rate is not pumped up enough, the transformation process cannot succeed and the long-term future of the organization is put in jeopardy.
When is the urgency rate high enough? From what I have seen, the answer is when about 75% of a company’s management is honestly convinced that business-as-usual is totally unacceptable. Anything less can produce very serious problems later in the process.
Failure to Communicate the Change Vision
When it comes to communicating the change vision, I've witnessed two different patterns. The first group does a nice job of developing their change vision and then proceeds to communicate that change vision to the team by holding a single meeting or sending out a single communication, typically an email. This group is surprised that only a few people seem to understand the new system, process, strategy, idea or approach. They're even more surprised when employees tell them they were not aware of the new system, process, strategy, idea or approach.
With the second group, the change management team invests the time required to create the communication plan including the messaging and communication vehicles. But despite hosting fire-side chats, giving company-wide speeches, creating newsletters and posting print-outs throughout the office, most employees still don’t "get it." Why? Because key and visible leaders continue to behave in ways that support "the old way" which undermines the change vision. The net result is confusion and cynicism among the troops. This issue often stems back to lack of commitment to change.
Teams who effectively communicate their change vision incorporate messaging into their daily routine. In a typical conversation about a business problem, they talk about how proposed options or solutions fit (or don’t fit) into the strategic change vision. In a coaching conversation or performance review, they talk about how the employee’s behavior supports or undermines the change vision. In a review of a team’s monthly or quarterly performance, they talk not only about the numbers but also about how the team's leader is contributing to the transformation and successful change. In a routine Q&A with company employees they tie their answers back to the change vision and their desired future state.
With the successful transformation initiatives that I have been a part of, senior leaders and middle managers used all available communication mediums to repeatedly communicate the vision. This includes 1:1 meeting, team meetings, fire-side chats, off-site meetings, email, social media, newsletters and more. They turn boring and unread company newsletters into engaging articles about the change vision and how it is be adopted including the results and how the business is benefiting. The guiding principle is simple: they use every possible communication channel to consistently communicate the change vision.
More important than consistently and effectively communicating the vision are leaders who don't just "talk the talk" but they "walk the walk." They embody the change vision and everything they do is done with the intention of becoming the living and walking symbol of change. This however is never easy. I once worked with a a 27-year IT staffing sales veteran who developed his sales skills in the mid 1908's. Those skills served him extremely well over the years. As a result, he would not suddenly adopt new selling behaviors and drop his old, bad habits overnight. But people can and will change, if done properly. He changed because his leadership team gave him a change vision, they repeatedly communicated the change vision and they surrounded him (and all team members) with ambassadors of change who were committed to supporting him and his success.
The takeaway is that communication comes in both words and actions, and the latter is typically the most powerful form. Nothing undermines change quicker than behavior and actions by key team members that is inconsistent with their words.
Planning for Change
Planning for change requires leaders including the change management team to ask themselves key questions such as:
1. To what degree are we asking the company and employees to change (for the change to be operationalized and sustained)?
2. Who are we asking to change and why?
3. Who will be affected by the change and how?
4. What level of reinforcement and sustaining activities will be required to ensure the change permeates the organization and "sticks."
Most important of all, each leader needs to ask themselves:
To what degree of change am I personally able and willing to commit to in order for the change to stick?
From my experience, most leaders never ask themselves this question because they think or assume their change effort only requires their employees to change. To be clear, the degree of successful change is directly tied to the degree in which leaders themselves are willing to change. Employees will never adopt change if the leaders are unwilling to change themselves.
Identification and Engagement from Your "Ambassadors of Change"
Organizational transformations often start with just one or two people. From there a change management team is established including key members from the executive leadership team. One of the key differences between leading a successful change initiative and a failed change initiative is gaining critical mass. With organizations that have successfully achieved change, they were able to identify and gain active engagement from their "ambassadors of change" outside and beyond just the change management team. In a small company of 30 employees, I'm talking about a change management team of 4 or 5 and an additional 5 to 10 "ambassadors of change." Your "ambassadors of change" are key employees not part of the executive leadership team or the initial change management team, but key employees who sway influence and power within the organization via their job performance, title, company tenure, knowledge, capability, expertise, and/or their reputations and relationships.
It is widely accepted that major change is impossible without complete buy-in and commitment from the CEO. This is true. But what I am talking about is different and goes far beyond commitment and support from the CEO. In the successful transformations that I have been a part of, the owner, CEO or sales leader plus another 4 or 5 people came together and developed a shared vision for change and a commitment to improving business performance. But in the all successful instances, the team that collectively made up the group of "ambassadors of change" was always powerful in their ability to influence others in the organization. In short, the change management team couldn't have achieved successful change without them.
In both small and large organizations, the initial change management team may consist of 1 to 3 people with a handful of "ambassadors of change" but by year two that number doubles or even triples. In big companies, the team needs to grow from the 20 to 50 range before much progress can be made. Because your "ambassadors of change" typically includes members outside the management team, they tend to operate outside the normal hierarchy and standard operating procedures and protocols. This can be awkward but is absolutely necessary for success. After all, if the existing hierarchy were working well, there would be no need for organizational change. Change generally demands activity outside of standard operating procedure, expectations, and protocol.
A strong sense of urgency within the change management team is required but is never enough. Individuals, often from outside the senior management team need to gather and collaborate with people to help them objectively assess their company’s operations to identify their problems and opportunities. This aids in creating a basic level of trust and communication. Companies that fail at building a team of "ambassadors of change" typically make the mistake of underestimating how difficult it is to produce lasting change including the importance of an engaged team of "ambassadors of change." Often the CEO or sales leader or another senior leader is expected to lead the change with the support of other senior managers, but with no engagement and support from individual contributors and/or personnel from other departments. Regardless of how capable or committed the senior leader is, change initiatives without strong "ambassadors of change” never gain the influence needed to achieve lasing change.
A common mistake in the pursuit of transformational change is an overemphasis on the “launch” of the new idea, skill, behavior, methodology or process, and an under emphasis on the post launch reinforcement activities required to sustain and solidify the change. So how do you achieve lasting results? The answer is committing to the “sustain” phase. “Sustain” encompasses all the activities post "launch" launch that integrate tangible change into your organization’s culture – making your new strategy, message, methodology, process, behavior or skill part of what you do and how you do it.
“Sustain” activities often feel like extra work because front-line managers are so busy, getting them to take ownership of a change initiative and doing the necessary groundwork required to sustain long term change is difficult. But these supporting activities lead to application which lead to habits which lead to results. You’ll need an action plan for ensuring your transformation initiative meets expectations and delivers your ROI expectations. Most of the organizational change and transformation efforts I have been engaged in revolve around sales transformation and recruiter transformation including the roll-out of new systems, processes and training. In these cases, your plan to sustain should be organized into three areas: reinforcement coaching, recertification training, and content.
Creating a coaching culture maximizes your investment in the change initiative. Research shows 4 out of 5 sales reps want coaching from their managers but coaching often doesn’t reflect the reality of a manager’s day-to-day responsibilities. Here are coaching activities that will drive change and ensure lasting results:
• Coach the Coaches Lead weekly and monthly follow-up with managers to assess progress in post-launch coaching and reinforcement with their teams. Collaborate on problem areas and how to celebrate progress with the managers’ respective teams
• “Conversation Ready” Certification Equip managers to certify team members are “conversation ready” by incorporating certification scorecards for validating each employee's ability to deliver the new story, new message, new rebuttal, or lead a consultative sales conversation
• On-Demand Coaching Deliver on-demand coaching & reinforcement via the Menemsha Group sales enablement platform. Sales reps and recruiters are tasked to audio/video record themselves delivering the new message, story, or behavior and managers provide quantitative and qualitative coaching feedback
• Quarterly Leadership Workshop Retreats Within 90 days of the initial launch, bring managers back together for an in-person workshop. Reinforce that sustaining change is not about a one-time training event and that the organization will continue to enable managers to drive long-term change. Managers can share results, explore what’s working and not working, adjust, and learn from their peers
• Monthly Executive Leadership Updates Hold monthly reporting calls with executive stakeholders via video conference/webinars. During the reporting calls with executives, summarize the change that is occurring/not occurring, celebrate wins, and continuously refocus the team to overcome any existing roadblocks. During leadership webinars, provide updates on overall progress, gaps, and sales leadership expectations
Even if there’s no opportunity to bring the entire recruiting team or sales team back together in the months after launching your change initiative, you can still enable your team virtually to reinforce best practices and share success stories. This builds and maintains momentum.
• 90-Day Challenge Launch a 90-day challenge at the initial rollout to get to some early wins and quickly build momentum. Set milestones for employees to meet including certification guidelines that establish standards for success and what successful change looks like
• Virtual On-Demand Enablement & Reinforcement Reinforce your new strategy, idea, message, skill, behavior or process through virtual enablement. Menemsha Group’s sales enablement platform is a great tool for sharing voice-over presentations that reinforce training content. Highlight best practices across the team; provide insight on recent sales success stories, and profile new content and tools. Sales teams that reinforce training with video coaching see 34% more first-year reps hitting quota. (Aberdeen Group)
• Reinforcement Workshops Host quarterly training webinars and workshops to engage the team, reinforce best practices, advance skills, and update the team on new content. Establish an owner for the ongoing reinforcement and training through your consulting partner, or a sales enablement or training team member.
Research from Seismic shows that 74% of salespeople feel access to conversation ready messaging playbooks would better prepare them for sales conversations. 50% of companies say the quality of their content fails to meet sales expectations. Keeping your training content fresh and making it easily accessible to all team members will be far easier with the right content authoring and delivery tool. Fresh, updated content enables the right behaviors and accelerates knowledge transfer. Fresh content including messaging playbooks takes the team from the training room to ongoing self-education and just-in-time sales and recruiter call preparation. As you look to refresh your content, make sure it is user-friendly and customer/candidate conversation-focused.