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Six Tips for Becoming a Successful Change Manager

It’s easy to recognize a new change manager. You can tell by the panic in their eyes, their trembling hands, and the beads of sweat on their brow. Believing themselves inadequate to drive the initiatives essential to business transformation, they might even be wailing, “I can’t do it! I don’t know anything about change!”

It’s no wonder change leaders are uneasy. Although all organizations face change, many are only beginning to realize that they can control it. As a result, it may not be obvious who is best suited to fill the challenging role of change manager. Hence, the senior team calls on the “usual suspects,” the same individuals they count on to lead special projects, task forces, and the like. That isn’t necessarily wrong, but change management requires much more than project management skills.

Individuals who have been tapped to lead change ask me, “What does it take to be a successful change manager?” Here are six tips.

Learn the fundamentals of change management.

You have to start somewhere, and it only makes sense to school yourself in the philosophy, principles, models, and tools for change. These can be found in many excellent books, including Leading Change by John Kotter, Making Sense of Change Management by Esther Cameron and Mike Green, and Change Management: The People Side of Change by Jeffrey Hiatt and Timothy Creasey. Becoming familiar with the field will calm your fears, raise your confidence, and enhance your credibility as you promote change to others. While you’re studying, make sure you understand the basics of project management.

Get familiar with the current state of your business and industry, as well as the case for change.

Change ManagerMake sure you understand your organization’s business strategy, its challenges, and its short-term and long-term goals. Pay particular attention to the business rationale for change. Determine which units and individuals will be impacted and how, and focus on those with the most to lose as well as the most to gain. Helping others see why change is an urgent business necessity and what the new, improved organization will look like post-change is one of a change manager’s most important roles.

Research your organization’s track record for change.

If this is your organization’s first formal change initiative, or if other major initiatives happened before your time, you may not know how proficient your organization is at change. Find out who led earlier projects and take advantage of their experience to learn the how, who, when, and why of circumstances that threatened or thwarted change efforts. Does the C-suite present a united front publicly but sabotage efforts behind closed doors? Is your organization skilled at communicating but weak when it comes to training delivery? Simply asking past project leaders, “What would you have done differently?” can yield a wealth of valuable information.

Find out how senior leadership feels about the upcoming change.

As the change management leader for your organization, you should have full access to the C-suite and their direct reports. Senior level support is mandatory for project success. However, it is rare to find full consensus, rarer still to identify the dissenters before all hell breaks loose. Proactively getting to know the executive team and where they stand on the initiative you are undertaking will help you identify—and possibly avoid—potential obstacles before they become divisive and disruptive. Building rapport with this group early on will serve you well, as you likely will need their advice and support throughout the project.

Get to know the project team and their consultants.

Like senior leaders, individual members of the project team have opinions and agendas. As a possible outsider and often a late addition to the project team, it is important for the change manager to take time to meet with team members to learn their history with the organization, the jobs they have held, and their experience with systemic and strategic change. Their personalities and profiles, their fears, and their biases about the current initiative will affect the decisions they make. As the change manager, your awareness will allow you to discern conflicts and influence outcomes.

Assess how you stack up against the skills and competencies of a change manager.

Some organizations name a change manager before they fully grasp the extent of the necessary skills and attributes. Others write a profile so unrealistic that John Kotter himself wouldn’t qualify. The box below describes six characteristics of successful change managers. Review it and conduct an honest assessment of your skills, either privately or with help from trusted colleagues. A clear view of your areas of strength as well as your shortcomings will enable you to take steps to shore up weaknesses or enlist associates who have the skills you lack.

Characteristics of a successful change manager:

  • 360-degree influence—personal presence and the respect of superiors, peers, and subordinates
  • Strong communication skills—the ability to promote a clear vision to different audiences, altering one’s style, language, and approach
  • A “big-picture,” strategic mindset—knowledge of the business and its people, and the wherewithal to translate change into an organizational context
  • Conflict-resolution skills—tactics that may be applied to win over opponents, bring competing parties together, and craft a win-win agenda
  • Personal willingness and talent for change—to serve as a model of behavioral change, influencing others to pursue self-discovery and self-development
  • Passion for the current change—the best person to persuade others to support a change is an ardent champion of the effort

Keep your ear to the ground.

It’s important to listen…to hall conversations, to rumors passed on by friends and colleagues, to managers complaining about disgruntled employees or ineffective training. Not only does listening provide early warnings about misconceptions and burgeoning issues, it will help you begin to identify allies and supporters who may join the change team as it expands. You may feel alone at the beginning, but ultimately the change team will grow to become an extended network that will participate in training and communication activities.

In a world where two out of three major change initiatives fail, one finding stands out: Organizations that consciously manage change, by activities like communicating, leading by example, and engaging employees, as much as double their chances for success. That is an astonishing statistic, and one that makes the role of change manager vital to business survival.

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8 Comments

  1. Pingback: Six Tips for Becoming a Change Management Superhero | A path lit by words

  2. Henry Hornstein, PhD says:

    Organizational change has been studied since at least the time of Kurt Lewin. Hundreds of books and articles and certification processes have been generated. Yet it is remarkable that in spite of all the study and practice, many more change initiatives fail than succeed. The question, “Are we getting better at it?” is as difficult to answer now as it was when it was first posed. Susan Richards has made a valiant attempt to identify six tips for becoming a successful change manager. She has even provided what she has identified as characteristics of a successful change manager. But you know what? Even if one were to enact the tips, and possess the characteristics, I have no confidence that one would be more successful than if one were to approach change blind. Why is this the case? In a simple word – systems. Organizations are complex systems. In spite of what one does or doesn’t do, systems move toward homeostasis/equilibrium when they are disordered, as happens when change is introduced. People cannot identify all the variables that influence systems, therefore, they cannot hope to control them completely. At best, there are some variables that can be identified and “managed”, the goal being to influence the change/move to equilibrium positively.

    So, I’m sorry, but change managers cannot hope to reliably manage organizational change. Unpredictable/uncontrollable forces will enter and influence organizations in spite of peoples’ best efforts. The best we can do is to remain flexible, be able to adjust to changing circumstances.

  3. Succinct and to the point, delivering in the style, accurately, set out above takes energy, consistency and passion. These are not theoretical techniques they have to be lived out every day during the change programme and take real stamina.

    Good article

  4. Good advice, but I also share Henry Hornstein’s concern about the challenges of changing systems and the need for flexibility and agility in anyone leading such an effort. I’d also add two other “tips”:

    First, measure what you seek to change, and repeat the measurement periodically (I like one or two year intervals). Far too often change efforts are doomed to failure from the start due to faulty assumptions about the current state of the system and what needs changing. Recurring measurement (or formative assessment) also provides evidence that a change effort is gaining tracking or not, as well as important feedback needed for possible course corrections.

    Second, make use of an external advisor from outside the system to be changed. This external perspective will often identify implicit and inaccurate assumptions about the current system, what needs to change and how to proceed. An external advisor can also talk honestly and bluntly to your leadership in ways that you cannot.

  5. Susan Richards says:

    Thanks to everyone for sharing your thoughts. I am glad the topic is of interest to so many! I agree that the tips noted take a lot of energy and must be operationalized to be effective…We consider change management to be a very active process.

    I would never expect to control the change process or to avoid/eliminate every risk/issue that arises during change. However, I do believe we as practitioners have an opportunity and obligation to help our clients navigate the process rather than allowing them to be consumed by it. Using the techniques and tips shared in the original post and in the comments from colleagues, is a step in the right direction.

    Getting help from outside is also a great recommendation! Some of our other posts offer insights on what to consider when choosing outside help. However, we don’t recommend clients completely outsourcing the change management process. We believe it is important to build change capability into the organization.

    And the point about measurement is critical!! One of the components of our change management methodology is to build in measurements along the way in the change journey…before, during and after the project is over!

    I look forward to the continued conversation!

  6. There is a saying that “If you can’t measure it, you have not done it”. How can we measure the progress of organization change management? What can be those metrics, what should be the KPIs of a change manager? Can these KPIs be objectively measured. How do we find that we need some course correction based on some data?
    Can we at all generate some data based insights in change management. That would make it so much more credible.
    What are your thoughts here

    • Susan Richards says:

      Atanu, we do recommend clients implement program measures throughout the project lifecycle. We first want to build awareness and measure it through surveys, focus groups, interviews etc. As the project goes live and post-live we measure user adoption – how many are utilizing the new solution. That is usually done through analytics built into the solution and/or pulse surveys.

  7. Atanu: Conduct an Organization Readiness Assessment to identify Capability Gaps in Processes, Culture and Structure and with that t establishing KPIS accordingly. Repeat an Organization Readiness Assessment during and after deployment to ensure Change is being implemented as expected and if it is still the right Change for the Future

    I hope it helps