Confessions of a change-maker

What you need to know to lead change effectively.   By Liesa Hurn

If businesses don’t change, they will be left behind. It’s a phrase thrown around a lot. And while I’m not a fan of a cliché, it’s true.

There’s no denying that change can be frightening. Leaping into the unknown is an uneasy feeling.

When people are afraid of change, they aren’t necessarily afraid of the change itself – but that it will go wrong.

But change doesn’t have to be that way. It isn’t leaping entirely into the unknown if it’s led according to a planned process, inclusive of the people that will be affected, and approached with minimal disruption.

I’ve been a change management professional in some of New Zealand’s biggest companies – so you can imagine that change is something I thrive off.

From sales transformations to the emergency changes after the Christchurch earthquakes, I’ve learnt from my successes and mistakes how you can successfully lead the change process.

Following the process
For people to work with you to implement change in your organisation, they must understand it and how it’s beneficial for them. If employees don’t understand and believe in the change wholeheartedly, they’ll fight against it.

Several years ago, I was a marketing lead at one of New Zealand’s biggest insurance companies. In one campaign, I needed to market a new insurance scheme for tradespeople that involved a completely new sales technique.

How did we manage to persuade brokers across the country to work with us in cold calling and organising sales events when many of them didn’t receive any sales commission or other incentives?

It’s moments like these where the Prosci ADKAR change methodology is invaluable. It’s a fundamental model in change management, and for good reason – if you don’t take the steps to engage with change in individuals, you can never expect the change to go well organisation-wide.

To lead people through to change, you need to hit each goal:
1.    Awareness: Get people to understand the need for change – two-way communication is essential here.
2.    Desire: Beyond helping them understand the change, instil how exactly it will benefit them. Do they care profits are low, or do they care about their wages?
3.    Knowledge: Show people exactly what the change is and how they need to work from now on.
4.    Ability: Equip people with the skills and competencies to implement and own the change themselves.
5.    Reinforcement: Make the change a habit by providing ongoing support and feedback for employees.

In leading the insurance salespeople through change, I progressed through each of these steps with care and consideration for those going through it.

I helped them understand the new sales method completely, before explaining how exactly it would help them make more sales and provide great experience to add to their skillset.

We did training sessions to equip everyone with the knowledge and the abilities to own the change, before following up consistently months later to ensure that the change was still working for them.

It’s a long-term commitment to follow the ADKAR model completely – but you can’t underestimate the impact of change on people or short circuit it. It’s the most efficient and successful way I know to completely implement a transformation and make it stick.

Lead from the top and the bottom
When we think about leading people through change, you often hear the word vision. And while a strong and clear vision for change is important, leaders can’t expect all employees to be on board if they’re only following from the top.

To gain support across the entire organisation, the best change-makers follow what I call the sandwich approach.
Like a sandwich, this approach means having the supportive bread at the top and the bottom.

Lead by example as to how you’d like to move forward with the transformation but have your change cheerleaders throughout the organisation to develop the comradery you need – and provide regular feedback on how people are feeling through the change process.

Before you begin your transformation, assess teams that will be impacted by it. Understand the sentiment throughout the team and identify where people sit on a spectrum of willingness to change.

I’ve seen organisations use employee focus groups to understand feelings about the transformation. Not only are focus sessions a great way to get an idea of people’s emotions, but they provide valuable insights into how the process will be made easier for employees and lead to long term benefits.

There is nothing more disenfranchising for an employee than making them feel unheard or worried. I’ve heard of leaders implementing change in a way that makes employee’s jobs harder as opposed to easier – do not be that leader.

Lead with emotions, not just intellect
People often think that change-makers are busy-bodies. But if you want to be a change-maker that brings people along and has the support of the organisation behind you, you need to have just as much emotional intelligence as intellectual – that’s something I’ve learned along my change journey.

For many people, the word change is synonymous with job losses and restructuring as processes become increasingly automated.

For others, it brings back memories of ideas being ignored. Employees are people who bring their whole selves to situations, so there will always be a variety of emotions during a transformation. A leader’s job is to acknowledge those feelings and fears.

“It’s quite a juggle managing everyone’s expectations and attitudes during a significant change. When you are working with senior leaders, people from partnering organisations, and other employees who might be wary, it pays to be very careful and considered in how you communicate with people,” says Melissa, my partner in many transformations during the period we worked together.

When I came on board as a senior marketing leader at a large organisation several years ago, I met an employee who had some great ideas for thought leadership on a very relevant topic that could help organisations across New Zealand.
The only problem was that when she’d attempted to bring it up previously, she’d been rebuffed and left feeling hesitant towards approaching the idea again.

In this moment, all I had to do as a change-maker was listen. We had some meetings where I simply listened to the problems she’d faced in the past and her concerns, until I could get an idea of how to move forward. We worked side-by-side throughout the process, where I acknowledged her concerns as they arose and put plans in action to mitigate them.
Change management is a tough gig and you need to be resilient, persistent and show empathy for those going through it.
Acknowledging people’s emotions towards change means having meaningful conversations, listening to learn and not just for the sake of it, and approaching situations with sensitivity.

See the opportunities in change
I’ve dedicated my career to change and transformation projects because nothing makes me excited like change. Change means innovation, it means new ideas and it means better ways of doing things. I love change because I love seeing the positive impact it has on people’s work and lives when it’s executed well.

You’ve got to ask yourself “why not?”. What’s worse, staying the same and failing, or taking the plunge to change and elevate your impact?

Get your plan in place, have your team alongside you and all the tools in your toolbelt, and step out. You’ve got this.   

Liesa Hurn is a change management specialist and executive director at Anthem.

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