In change leadership we talk about “organizational readiness” to prepare employees to embrace change. Rarely do we speak of “leadership readiness.” Yet Prosci, a leading change research firm, reports year after year that lack of sponsorship is the number one cause of change failing to meet its objectives. It’s time to talk about “leadership readiness.”

There are three primary barriers to leadership readiness:

  1. Leaders don’t fully understand their role.
  2. Cross-functional dysfunction erupts due to lack of alignment on approach, intent or outcomes.
  3. Leaders don’t solicit enough feedback to engage employees.

Each of these result in changes that do not live up to their potential. When leaders recognize these barriers and take corrective action the probability of success increases significantly.

How leaders fulfill their role

Three things successful leaders do regularly:

  1. Provide active and visible support for the change.
  2. Understand the behavior impact caused by the change.
  3. Repeatedly communicate the need for change.

Provide active and visible support. Effective sponsors gain commitment from the team and engages them every day. Attend leadership meetings to provide direction, clarity, and accountability. Actively mitigate risks and resolve issues. Meet regularly with front-line employees to talk about the change and its impacts. Solicit and incorporate feedback into the change process.

Understand the behavior impact. Almost any change requires behavior to also change. Here are examples of behavior change drivers:

  1. The organization changes one or more of its business processes, causing the people who use them to interact differently.
  2. The organization restructures, causing former relationships to give way to new partnerships. Employees must now build new working relationships.
  3. One company acquires another often causing two different cultures to figure out how to work together. Employees must understand the behaviors and norms of their new colleagues and adjust their own to work together effectively.

Effective sponsors understand this early. Determine how behaviors must change, model the new behavior to the organization and speak openly about these changes.

Repeatedly communicate. Communications experts say that employees need to hear the message seven to ten times to fully comprehend. Sponsors and their leadership teams must regularly emphasize the why, what and how of the change:

  1. Discuss the business drivers causing the change. Define the value to the business. Describe how it fits into the overall organizational strategy. Communicate the downside effect if the organization doesn’t change.
  2. Define the impact to the organization. Describe how jobs will change. Define how roles will interact differently. Estimate job increases or decreases. Describe how things will be different.
  3. Explain how the change will impact individual roles. Specify support mechanisms available during and after the change. Identify new metrics and how they’ll be measured.

As a sponsor, it’s essential to take these actions.

How to avoid cross-functional dysfunction during change

Here are a few symptoms of cross-functional dysfunction:

  1. Conflicting priorities: one part of the organization develops work that is less important to one or more other areas.
  2. Misaligned requirements: part of the organization thinks that elements of the change are critical while others don’t recognize the need.
  3. Lack cooperation: part of the organization is attempting to accomplish work but lacks progress because they are unable to gain commitment for help.
  4. Political positioning: leaders advocate for their solution at a cost to others in the organization without considering the impact.

As a sponsor, ensure the leadership team is aligned with the expected outcomes of the change. A few questions to consider:

  1. Are the outcomes clearly explained? Is leadership team feedback solicited to shape the purpose and outcomes?
  2. Does the leadership team trust one another? Do they speak candidly about activities in their organizations, and in their personal lives as appropriate?
  3. Do they engage in healthy conflict? Do they challenge each other’s ideas without fear of reprisal?
  4. Do they seek commitment across the team to follow through on actions? Do they agree on a single owner and delivery date?
  5. Are they holding one another accountable? Do they follow up to ask about progress? Are they delivering?

The most effective teams behave as outlined above. They don’t wait for the “boss” to resolve conflicts, they do it themselves. They are not afraid to call out behavior that doesn’t align with the direction of the team, and actively acknowledge when team members make progress.

How to engage the organization through feedback

Leaders are busy. Board meetings. Stakeholder meetings. Analyst meetings. There is so much to do. To top it off, there is a large transformational change underway. The leader effectively advocates for the change. Frequent discussion occurs about the Why, What and How of the transformation. Don’t underestimate the power of this – employees want to hear from their leader during times of change. They also want to have input.

Engage employees so they become the ultimate owners and drivers of the change. Consider a few of the following ideas, and in all cases, incorporate feedback as appropriate into the program.

  1. Develop a change agent network. This is a group of employees who advocate the change at lower levels of the organization. Meet with them regularly to exchange information about progress and obtain feedback.
  2. Hold town hall meetings. Develop regular employee forums where they can interface directly with the leader, ask questions about the change, and receive feedback about progress.
  3. Hold focused meetings or lunches with a few employees at a time. Learn about concerns, dispel rumors, and ask for input.
  4. Conduct surveys. Conduct readiness assessments to obtain confidential feedback about the program. Use these opportunities to share the message.

Summary

These are the methods I’ve seen used most frequently to help employees embrace change and drive it to greater success. The underlying principles are to speak candidly, advocate the purpose and outcomes, genuinely seek and apply feedback, and engage employees to help design, implement and institutionalize the change.