Making Major Organizational Change? Don’t Outrun your Sponsorship

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By Howard Seidel, EdD, JD
September 06, 2022
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As long-time career coaches, we have seen it happen a myriad of times: a previously highly successful executive leaves his or her new company after a relatively short period of time when the transformation they embarked upon, initially at the company’s request, creates too much of an organizational backlash. Consequently, one major piece of advice we give to all clients landing a new role: when implementing major organizational change, don’t outrun your sponsorship.

Implementing Change: What’s the Real Mandate?

Many new executives coming into an organization believe that they have been given both the mandate and the authority to change the organization in significant ways. However, when implementing such change, these leaders need to either keep in mind or quickly learn that such a directive comes with an unspoken caveat—don’t significantly disrupt the comfort of others in the organization while doing so.

Of course, that is not the message executive candidates typically receive throughout the interview process. There, the focus is about the organization’s need for dynamic change or “transformation” to stay viable in meeting the current demands of the market. This, coupled with the fact that the interview process is often imperfect with respect to the mutual sharing of information. During any interview process, job candidates are in a selling mode, working to convince others of their perfect fit for the role (“yes, I can do that”) while hiring managers (including the CEO), are in a recruiting mode, trying to put the best possible light on the company’s situation and prospects (“yes, we need and are ready for this kind of change”).

This type of selling and recruiting mindset sets the stage for a problematic dynamic—an executive, entering the organization with only partial information, not only believing they have been given an edict to engender change, but as a committed senior professional, feeling the need to attack that edict with a sense of urgency. Yet those good intentions backfire when that urgency runs against an organizational structure that perceives a particular set of changes as uncomfortable and/or unnecessary. The pushback often filters upward to a hiring manager or a CEO who, rather than recognizing the efforts of the executive in achieving critical organizational objectives, comes to see the new executive as a heavy-handed and somewhat clumsy leader who doesn’t fit the organization’s culture.

The Safer Way to Effectively Pursue Organizational Change

So, is the lesson of this dynamic for new executives to avoid pursuing an agenda including change? No, that perspective too is fraught with danger. The senior executive who hires someone with a change goal in mind does expect action and results; they often just want them done “clean” of the messiness often inherent in any major organizational change. Therefore, effective executive action is neither a blind pursuit of transformation nor an acceptance of the status quo. It’s finding that sweet spot where that mandate for major change emanates from an organization’s most senior leaders. That is, major organizational change requires broad and committed sponsorship at the highest organizational levels. 

What are the strategies for gaining that sponsorship to pursue a major change agenda?

·       Understand in concrete terms the hiring executive’s agenda and timing.

Many conversations about change, especially in the context of job interviews, can be relatively abstract. A hiring manager, even if it is the CEO, may have a general sense of where they eventually want to get with respect to an organizational issue or problem, but may not immerse themselves into the specifics of that vision or how they envision getting the organization to that point. A hiring manager may also not always want to share sensitive information – or ‘dirty laundry’ – with someone who is not yet formally an employee, especially while trying to recruit them for the role.

While it is often the hired executive’s job to figure out those details, it’s good to start with a deeper understanding of the hiring manager’s assumptions regarding the nature of the changes being sought. What would success look like for those changes? What are the expectations regarding the timeline for the changes to take place?

·       Dialogue with important change constituencies.

A hiring manager is perhaps the most important constituent for a senior executive, but not generally the only one. The first weeks of a new role should be spent speaking with others in the organization, in part to get to know people on a more personal level. But it also helps to get a sense of how others may be impacted by potential initiatives and who will have the power to support or quash them. Dialogue is important to get at the root of someone’s actual feelings about a change. Though sometimes initiatives are thwarted by overt pushback, often it can also be undermined by the more subtle sabotage of inaction or whispers of frustration designed to get back to the executive’s hiring manager and/or CEO. When executives are focusing on organizational change, let alone “transformation,” they need to build a realistic understanding of the forces both for and against it.

·       Recommend and negotiate a change strategy.

Change in organizations is often highly political. That’s not necessarily intended as pejorative, but as a recognition that individuals within the organization have different perspectives on what is right for the company, their team, and themselves. Like all politics, making change is about understanding these perspectives, influencing them, and building the right coalitions of support. Armed with the new information and perspectives, this also means going back to one’s manager with an honest assessment of what it will take to get the change, the pros and cons that come with it, and a recommended plan and timeline for doing so.

This includes presenting the unintended consequences of certain changes, preparing managers for the possible blow back from part of the organization, and their implications for the company’s ultimate success. Anticipating and preparing executives for challenges that may arise as part of a major change initiative will reduce the chances of other executives overreacting negatively when challenges do occur. Sometimes that means also pushing back on initial assumptions regarding expectations, strategy, and timelines for implementation. This can be hard, but an honest conversation in which realistic expectations are set in terms of reactions, results, and timing is better than failing to meet them.

·       Secure buy-in and sponsorship.

The culmination in assessing a change strategy, as well as its tactical approach, is to get explicit buy-in and support on it from would-be sponsors. Know that they understand and back the implementation of said strategy. This necessitates basic agreement on the scope and speed of making changes against the backdrop of how they will impact the organization, both positively and negatively. Tell organizational leaders directly what is needed from them in order to make a major change or transformation work. Utilize their organizational authority and influence as a resource for the change.

Advancing Organizational Change: There is Safety and Strength in Numbers

Major organizational change and transformation is inherently difficult. Change can evoke fears in an organization on a range of both business and personal issues that generate pushback. At its core, the central question in making a major change is: how critical and urgent is that change to the company’s ultimate success to live with the challenges and pushback that are bound to occur? And, who will convey this criticality and urgency? Successful execution of major organizational change is an inherently collective enterprise. Executives, especially those new to a company, who pursue change unilaterally, do so at their own peril.

We Can Help

Keystone Partners serves as a catalyst for the development of leaders and their organizations to create sustainable business advantage, and has been doing so for the last 40 years. Interested in learning how we can help your team create meaningful change? Contact us today to learn more.

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