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Uncharted Waters: Leading Change Meaningfully

Every time there is a shift at the helm or a new leader comes on board to implement change, the business can expect some cultural upheavals. Most attempts at organisational transformations have limited levels of success in large part because these schemes did not have the buy in of the vast majority of the employees that keep the corporate machine running. As a McKinsey study has revealed, only a mere 26% of attempts to transform structures succeed. Most successful transformations have one thing in common: "Change is driven through empowerment, not mandated top down."

Identifying a tangible goal

While the new CEO may have lofty ideas of a complete shift in culture, he or she must understand and accept that the vast majority of employees may have been doing things a certain way for some time. Most people are creatures of habit and like routine. Changing that ingrained practice or mindset will most definitely ruffle feathers and be met with resistance.

Major organisational change may end up alienating the team and causing Counterproductive Work Behaviour. Your team has to understand what it is you are trying to implement in clear and tangible objectives.

According to the Harvard Business Review: "Every change effort begins with some kind of grievance: Costs need to be cut, customers better served, or employees more engaged, for example. Wise managers transform that grievance into a “vision for tomorrow” that will not only address the grievance but also move the organization forward and create a better future. This vision, however, is rarely achievable all at once. Most significant problems have interconnected root causes, so trying to achieve an ambitious vision all at once is more likely to devolve into a five-year march to failure than it is to achieve results. That’s why it’s crucial to start with a keystone change, which represents a clear and tangible goal, involves multiple stakeholders, and paves the way for bigger changes down the road."

While leaders think of the big picture, they may need some help in mobilising the organisation to achieve that vision. It often requires the setting up of an external Special Projects team or task force with specific analysis of what is stagnant and where the new change or direction needs to take place. It would be insurmountable for leaders or internal teams to manage this organisational shift on their own.

Engaging the Team

For genuine transformation to take root, early momentum has to be built upon. Successful transformations have to be implemented like a structured movement. If there isn't a grave threat or timeline to execute this by, then start with a “human” element systematically, phase by phase, moving across different business units to deploy small disruptive processes, cultural norms and standards. Cultivate a small group of people to inspire and unite, making them the mouthpiece for this change. Each member of that initial group will then create and nurture other smaller groups. In this organic grassroots fashion, the movement then spreads and grows.

This type of growth might well be slower than simply issuing orders and directives from top down but, it will have greater long term and embedded impact. An example of a success story was when Wyeth Pharmaceuticals initiated a major push to adopt leaner manufacturing practices; it began with just a few groups at a few factories. The effort was then gradually spread across to thousands of employees across more than a dozen sites and eventually cut costs by 25%.

Making the Change Meaningful

The most effective change management strategies are those that focus on the human behaviour element. In major transformations of large enterprises, leaders and their advisors conventionally focus their attention on devising the best strategic and tactical plans. But to succeed and make meaning out of this, they must also have an intimate understanding of the human element of change management — the alignment of the company’s culture, values, people, and behaviours — to encourage the desired results.

One of our clients who is a leading Engineering Company has been pushing for organisational structure change for the past 5 years and they have admittedly shared with us that in reality, very little has shifted due to unspoken resistance from all levels and masked with an overall perceived harmony amongst the people. It is truly a feat in their minds to shift from Good to Great.

When we started working with the management team, we realised that they have different motivations and points of view about where the organisation is moving for them. What had to be executed was a deep dive alignment among the leadership, which happened over multiple sessions of unpacking and reaching consensus.

Were they too stagnant and complacent? What motivates them to move out of their comfort zone? Important & fundamental questions and leadership initiatives were designed to engage both leadership and employees to enable them to create meaning for themselves personally and impact people around them at the same time during the transformation. It was definitely designed to be a journey, and a sustainable one.

The organisation started experiencing a positive shift in mindsets and an increase in collaborative and confident relationships among the employees after 2 months in the transformation. The change that this introverted but competent engineering team needed was a Growth Mindset - a learn-to-build culture to create new market opportunities and mind-share in their industry which they otherwise thought that is non-existent.

Change doesn’t have to happen at a grand scale to disrupt the sluggish waters in the business. Just remember 3 main points when leading change:

Start at the top

Humans are typically adverse to any type of change. The leaders themselves must embrace the new approaches first, both to challenge and to motivate the rest of the institution. They must speak with one voice and model the desired behaviours. All eyes will turn to the CEO and the executive team for strength, support, and direction. This process of aligning and committing to the change initiative by the leadership team will allow the work force to trust this transition and be able to deliver downstream results.

Address every layer and create ownership

Change efforts must include plans for identifying leaders throughout the company and pushing responsibility for design and implementation downwards, so that change cascades throughout every department. At each layer of the organization, the leaders who are identified and trained must be aligned to the company’s vision, equipped to execute their specific mission, and motivated to make change happen. Execute a “Emerging Leadership” program.

This approach is an excellent way for a company to identify its next generation of leadership and possibly double the company’s revenue ahead of schedule.

State the official case for change

When employees start questioning to what extent is this change needed, this is where frequent and transparent communications from your task force team who is the mouthpiece leading this change comes in. First, they have to articulate a convincing need for change and tie it to specific business outcomes. For example, An engineering client needs to innovate their surveyor mapping processes to be more up-to-date with current AI technology. Therefore, changing to a new digital platform or software may require disruption in their daily operations and employees then have to adopt to a new way of doing things. Second, demonstrate faith that the company has a viable future and the leadership needed to move in this direction so that the teams will not be left alone to fend for themselves.

Finally, ask for constructive feedback from every employee on how this change is helping them. Provide a road map to guide behaviour and decision making. Leaders then need to customise this message for various internal audiences, describing the pending change in ways that matter to the employees and the business in the long run.

This is how the team at Engaging Leaders can step in to support milestone changes from the general vision and drive meaningful adoption by the people. Most leaders find it all too tempting to dwell on the plans and processes, which don’t talk back and don’t respond.



Key Contact: Monica Tan,

Monica Tan, Engaging Leaders, leads our clients through a journey of performance and change. With more than 15 years of client and project management experience, she serves as a key advisor to our clients.


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