Tips for Leading Major Change

Effective Change Leadership necessitates strong soft skills, a holistic perspective, and genuine stakeholder empathy. Read this blog for three leadership tips for enacting major change.

Growing a business requires constant change – this is axiomatic. A firm will need to redesign its approach to people, processes, and platforms many times to achieve and maintain success – and will then continue rethinking its organizational, operational, and technological strategies in perpetuity to keep up the necessary pace of progress.

Alas, as a business grows, so too does the complexity and scope of change needed to continue this evolution. While the definition and magnitude of “major change” are relative to each company’s circumstances, the time will inevitably come when your firm is faced with the challenge of a significant and strategic business transformation – and it is crucial to ensure your organization is positioned to navigate this journey and successfully lead change.

Anyone who’s tried to pilot an institution through a dramatically transformative reorganization or implementation initiative, especially those with cross-functional, enterprise-level impact, is familiar with the cliches trotted out in service of rallying the troops. Stop me if you’ve heard these ones before: “Change is good…change is the only constant…change is hard, but not changing is harder…”

Pithy slogans, sure, but these alone won’t inspire the collective spirit of change your company needs to overcome the inertia of the status quo and embrace innovation – and they definitely won’t help with the difficult, detail-oriented work that is needed to design, plan, and implement lasting change at the enterprise level.

For this formidable task, enter the “Change Management” team. These are the folks within your organization – or specialists brought in from outside – who have both the hard skills, and just as importantly, the time allocated, to execute on the project: Program Managers, Project Managers, Project Sponsors, Executive Champions, Solution Architects, Business Analysts, Data Analysts, Quality Assurance Analysts, Subject Matter Experts, and more. This is the mission-critical team that can simplify and redesign convoluted processes, draw valuable insights from reams of data, create technology enablement by decoding the coders, keep a small army of project participants organized and accountable, and deliver useful and timely information to key stakeholders.

Given the vast amount of content that already exists on this topic, there’s no need to spill more ink here on the best practices, tools, and techniques used for managing change. And it should go without saying that mastering the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of change management through education and experience is table stakes for any transformation effort – there’s no substitute for knowing how to get things done and get them done right.

However, successfully leading change – especially when it’s big, messy, and complicated – requires more than just extensive change management expertise. Effective Change Leadership also necessitates strong soft skills, a holistic perspective, and genuine empathy for stakeholders – which are often overlooked as key success factors for delivering lasting change. It’s the difference between leaving people feeling valued, empowered, and optimistic versus running a “successful” (at least, on paper) implementation that leaves carnage by the roadside and crushes morale. If managing change is a science, leading change can be more of an art.

With that in mind, below are three leadership tips to consider when entrusted with spearheading a strategic transformation initiative. Are these the only three? Not even close – a complete list of useful suggestions would easily stretch well into the double-digits. But I believe these are among the most important. During my near quarter-century of leading and shepherding many successful (and perhaps one or two less successful) enterprise change initiatives, these principles have continuously proven to be leading indicators of positive outcomes and have helped in guiding many organizations and teams through some of their most ambitious change agendas.

1. “Why” is as Important as “What,” “When,” and “Who”

The most important question to ask – and answer – to help create an inclusive environment in which people embrace change is deceptively simple, but worth putting real thought into: “Why are we doing this?” That question can be complicated and have many right answers, but everyone in an organization should be able to connect with a single objective that resonates – a common goal. Each stakeholder needs to be motivated and feel like they’re doing something incredibly important with their time. The benefits may be for an individual, an entire team, a client, the firm, society at large – or likely some combination thereof. This objective will help drive consensus across cross-functional teams and avoid siloed thinking or conflicting aims, so should be defined as early as possible in the project – and should not change without a major directive coming from the Project Sponsor.

Even when you have an answer that makes good business sense, you still might not have the most impactful one. Keep asking “why?” Dig a little deeper than the obvious corporate financial projections to get at a more noble driver that makes the whole effort worthwhile. You will create a shared sense of purpose, and having that North Star will generate excitement and engagement at the outset. It will also help sustain momentum through the inevitable rough patches, and allow flexibility in the path without losing sight of the destination.

People tend to gravitate towards the “What’s In It for Me?” incentives, which makes sense as these are easy motivators – but you can probably also help your colleagues find and connect to a more stirring cause. It’s going to be tough to inspire performance and integrity on your team if everyone is solely focusing on self-serving drivers – and without a common purpose, organizations slide into the mode of implementing change for change’s sake, without passion, without ownership, and without enjoyment. Tap into your idealistic side, find the “Why?” that inspires you, and be an evangelist for it – think Missionary over Mercenary.

Of course, the most rousing reasons for change mean nothing without an ability to effect it – so go ahead and wax lyrical and indulge your inner visionary, guru, or field marshal, but remember that your credibility will ultimately be based on your ability to remain laser-focused on managing the details and delivering the desired outcome with your Change Management team. You’re selling the sizzle, but there’d better be some steak to back it up.

2. Find Your Allies and Embrace the Critics

Understandably, there is often resistance to disruption at the outset of any major change initiative – but there are also always people who just seem to “get it” right away. They are knowledgeable, helpful, open-minded, enthusiastic, hungry for change, collaborative, and unafraid to challenge the status quo. These are your buddies, so keep an eye out for them and nurture your relationships with them – they are the ones that will sustain the project by acting as co-champions for change and ambassadors for the cause – and when the time comes for broad user adoption of new target operating models and technologies, you will need these folks to help model and drive the behavioral changes you need for a successful implementation. It can be a lonely road without them.

Unfortunately, despite all your best efforts to connect everyone to the “Why?” and rally them towards a shared vision, there will still be those who are apathetic and impervious to your charms. This is especially challenging when these are people in positions of power and influence. Leading change often means stepping into an arena of complex political dynamics, which can require some diplomacy and flexible maneuvering to manage different stakeholders across a range of priorities and personalities. Spend time connecting with them directly to understand their perspective and what’s driving their concerns. You can often win their hearts and minds over time simply by making them feel heard, acknowledging the validity of their concerns, and demonstrating a commitment to incorporating them in the decision-making process.  Often, an initial skeptic can eventually become one of your most powerful partners with simple outreach and inclusion.    

And yes, there may also be one or two that remain beyond reach, despite all your good-faith efforts, so at some point – unless they are actively undermining you – try not to worry about them. Life is too short, and you’ve got important work to do.

3. Be Pragmatically Ambitious and Ambitiously Pragmatic

Avoiding the perils of perceived prevarication…or, how to be both flexible and resolute without seeming wishy-washy or headstrong.  This is one of the finer lines to walk as a leader of change. On the one hand, you are there to set visionary goals and lofty challenges that inspire others to do great things and push past preconceived boundaries. On the other hand, you need to deliver bottom-line results by being the voice of reason, and periodically reminding everyone they’re living in the real world where the laws of physics and basic economics still apply. You need to show backbone and not be constantly equivocating, but curveballs are flying at you from all sides, and adjustments are constantly needed.  How do you navigate these competing perspectives?  

As you walk this line, one side you may fall on is being overly rigid in your goals or approach when a practical adjustment is clearly warranted. If you rally your people to die on every hill on principle, you’re probably not going to be admired as an uncompromising force of nature – more likely, people will just think you’re irrational and obstinate. You may deliver results that make the team look good, but it won’t work in the long run and you’ll just burn everyone out.

Conversely, there is also the risk of not taking the occasional stand to insist on doing the right thing instead of the easy thing.  As a leader of change, you’ll need to recognize and meet these moments head-on – if you can see greater value in staying the course when others are ready to take a path of lesser resistance, then by all means lead the charge and ask others to respect your choice and support you.  You’ll need to be judicious and take calculated risks, but when these opportunities arise, be decisive and act bravely.

Ultimately, everyone will have a different opinion about the correct balance between idealism and realism. Despite your best efforts to be inclusive, influence others, and drive consensus, just know upfront that you can’t please everyone – and that by trying to do so you risk pleasing no one.  As such, it’s crucial to spend the necessary time and effort to develop strong, well-considered positions about when to stand firm and when to compromise, backed up by detailed data, experience, and instinct that you can stand behind.

There’s never a perfect answer and every decision involves trade-offs at some level.  As long as you are rational and thoughtful in your approach, recognize and transparently communicate the risks and rewards, and ensure a straight line of accountability to the decision-makers, you will be able to give all your stakeholders the space they need to execute on a choice they may or may not agree with and keep the initiative moving forward. 

It’s helpful to keep the Iron Triangle in mind when evaluating choices in high-pressure situations with demanding sponsors and stakeholders:  There’s Good, Fast, and Cheap – and you can only pick two. Recognize and steer clear of pyrrhic victories, but don’t be afraid to make tough calls and lead by example when the time is right.

Laying the Groundwork for a Culture of Change

Being an effective change leader requires creating and sustaining a holistic change culture within your firm. Culture is an organizational quality, but the whole is ultimately the sum of its parts. While the appetite for change should be clearly modeled at the top of the house, it also needs to permeate all the way through the company to drive truly successful outcomes. By understanding the “Why,” identifying and embracing both your allies and critics, and finding a healthy balance between pragmatism and ambition, you can help everyone within your organization feel like they have skin in the game and be supportive of – and excited about – enacting major change.

ABOUT GRANDVIEW ANALYTICS

Grandview Analytics is a technology consulting and data management software company serving the insurance industry. We provide strategic advisory, technology implementation, and data services to help asset managers and asset owners overcome technology, data management, and reporting challenges associated with evolving regulatory requirements and a shift toward more sophisticated asset allocation policies for complex asset classes and multi-manager strategies.

Our managed data and reporting platform, Rivvit, integrates disparate data to give insurers a single source of accurate, actionable, and reliable data. Contact our team for more information about how to consolidate your disparate data sources into a single version of the truth for your organization.

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Barnes Evans

Barnes Evans

Barnes Evans, Managing Director, is Head of Strategic Alliances at Grandview Analytics. In this role, he manages strategic relationships with key technology platforms and providers across the financial services ecosystem to drive strategic network value for clients.

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