Several years ago, my firm was hired by a large multinational company to shake up the way the organization communicated with employees.

"We're stuck in the past," said the SVP of Operations, executive sponsor of the initiative. "Internal communication must become more timely, more transparent and more engaging. We need a leading-practice firm like yours to lead the change." So the SVP authorized an ambitious plan with a substantial budget.

But the roadblocks appeared before we had even started the engine on our shiny new change bus.

"We can't provide any context or explanation for financial results, other than what we share with analysts," said the CFO.

"If we allow employees to make candid online comments, that would admissible evidence if we're ever sued," said the General Counsel.

"Employees are too busy to attend face-to-face forums," said the head of HR. "Can't you just write a newsletter article?"

The final straw came when our team sat down with the company president and provided recommendations for how he could significantly improve how his communication. The tone of the meeting was very positive--we weren't criticizing the president's past efforts, just suggesting ways he could be more visible and accessible.

Just two days later, we got a call from the project lead. "I'm really sorry to deliver this news, but we're pulling the plug on this project," he said.

Why? "Leadership team members feel like you're pressuring them. They're uncomfortable with your suggested changes, which are not a good fit for our culture."

I resisted the temptation to ask, "But isn't that why you hired us in the first place?"

I've heard dozens of similar stories from colleagues and clients. Like the time a pharmaceutical company engaged a senior recruiter to hire leaders from other industries, then balked when candidates didn't have pharmaceutical experience. Or the time an HR executive was hired to re-imagine performance management, then senior leaders were reluctant to remove numerical ratings "because it was too big a change."

What's the problem here? Leaders often become enamored of the idea of making a big change, so they hire a professional or retain a firm to be a change agent--the catalyst to drive change. But leaders then think their work is done--that the change agent will tap his/her feet together three times and make change magically happen.

Sorry, but change just doesn't work that way.

There are, of course, lots of great resources available about managing change. For example, I recommend John Kotter's book, Leading Change, or Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. And I've written extensively about what organizations need to do to prepare managers and engage employees in change.

But for now, I'm going to share some advice about how to set change agents up for success. You've decided to hire that hotshot pro or retain a terrific firm to help you with change. How can you make sure the change agent is not set up to fail? Here are 5 ways:

  1. Set specific objectives for what success looks like. "Changing the culture" is way too vague, as is "decreasing our attrition rate." You and other members of the leadership team need to be very clear about what success looks like--and you need to make sure that everyone is on board.
  2. Assign an executive sponsor who is entirely responsible for the success of the effort. I've been in situations in which the sponsor throws the change agent under the bus as soon as the going gets tough. That's obviously not good. But I've also had a couple of sponsors who worked hard to remove every possible obstacle.
  3. Ask the change agent to develop a detailed plan, including timing and resources. If the leadership team is not comfortable with the level of commitment required, then go back and revisit objectives--because it's likely that less time and fewer resources mean that less can be accomplished. Encourage leaders to have a candid conversation about whether scaling back is okay--and, if not, what does that mean for the organization?
  4. Provide opportunities for the change agent to work closely with leaders and other stakeholders to help them understand what's needed for significant change to occur. Too often, the change agent gets 15 minutes at a leadership team meeting to present high-level concepts. Leaders (who are half listening) nod in agreement, but then balk later when change becomes tangible. It's so much better to work through the issues in detail, so leaders can express concerns in a group setting, and those concerns can be resolved (or not--but at least then the obstacles are clear).
  5. Report on progress (and lack of progress) frequently and candidly. Change rarely goes according to plan, but it's essential to accurately assess how the journey is going. By doing so, adjustments can be made, problems can be solved, and the change agent can get what he/she needs to continue the effort.

It's true that change is never easy, but these steps will ensure that your change agent has what he/she needs to help you head in the right direction. 

Published on: May 31, 2018