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Leading a Change (Part 2 of 2)

This is the fourth post in our series on change management. In this post, we’ll finish walking you through the steps you need to take to implement a significant change to your business successfully.

A quick recap of the last post, which you can read here. As a reminder, these are based on the work of John Kotter as published in the Harvard Business Review. I’ve expanded on Kotter’s work based on my experience in the Green Industry and working for companies undergoing these changes. 

In the previous post, we learned about the following:

  • Identifying the problem that you need to address.
  • Assembling the change team to lead the initiative. 
  • Creating the vision to appropriately communicate why the change is needed, how you’ll get there, and what the future looks like after the change. 
  • How to communicate that vision so everyone in the company “gets” it. 

Now, let’s look at the final steps we need to consider for a change initiative to be effective in our businesses. 

Step 5: Empowering Others to Act on the Vision

For whatever reason, this step seems to be a real struggle for most people. I believe it’s because many business owners view their businesses as their kids. It’s a documented phenomenon that business owners’ brains fire in the same places as parents thinking about their children while having their brains scanned. The parallel is clear: business owners consider their businesses their “babies.” 

In this case, I know I’m asking you to trust someone else with your “baby’s” safety. Just like you eventually have to put them on that school bus and trust another adult with them, you’ve got to trust other people here with your business. Except here, you get to pick who the “bus driver” will be by selecting the right change team and empowering them to make the necessary changes. 

Pitfall #1: Failing to empower the change team with authority

I know it’s scary. I’m not telling you to completely cover your eyes and take your hands off the wheel. 

I am telling you that you must give this team the proper authority to make needed changes to how you conduct business. If you don’t, you’ll have undone all the goodwill you’ve built by asking for their input and probably kill any chances you had at making substantive changes. 

Pitfall #2: Allowing senior leaders to undermine the effort

We’ve all got that person who works with us who resists anything that remotely gives off the scent of “change.” When that person is a senior leader in your organization (Ops or Sales Manager for smaller companies; Branch or Division Manager, Director, C-level, etc. for larger ones), and they resist change, it completely undermines the entire initiative. 

This is why choosing the right change team in Step 2 is vital. You must have a team with senior-level leadership to enforce the changes. You must also have a team that’s got enough “political” capital internally to help you pull off the change. These are those influencers we talked about, the ones who may not have a title but are well-respected throughout the organization. 

However, you’re sunk if you allow another senior leader NOT on this team to resist or outright refuse to cooperate with the change initiative. No, you’re worse off than when you started. 

Solution: Hold EVERYONE Accountable and Empower Your Team

I know sticking to your guns on this one will not be easy, so I’m not sticking my head in the sand and oversimplifying here. 

You must empower this team to begin the changes they’ve arrived at and that you’ve agreed to implement. If it’s a process change, a new software, adding a new staff position and restructuring the org chart, whatever – if you put this team in charge of the solution, and it’s going to solve the problem you identified in Step 1, you have to give them the authority to get the ball rolling. 

As an offshoot of the authority you’ve given them, if this is the direction you’re taking the business, you cannot allow other leaders (people with influence and/or titles) to undermine it. If you tell people, “We’re going to the right! Everyone takes the road to the right!” but have a senior leader that says, “Nah, I’m going left. I hate right turns,” you’re going to have some people that follow them to the left. 

You must ask them to course correct. If they do, you’re in good shape and get 100% behind the change. If they refuse, you must have some hard conversations with them, up to being willing to help them offboard to another company. Offer to help them with their job search and write a recommendation for them. However, no one must be above accountability for this, or else you’ll be in a worse position than when you started. 

Step 6: Engineer Wins and Celebrate Them

This step is critical but often overlooked.

These changes are difficult for your organization. But they’re hard because they’re hard on your people, and your people make up your company. 

You must give them encouragement. After weeks or months of extended (often overtime) hours trying to implement this change, an “Attaboy!” won’t cut it. 

Definite milestones that are a “win” along the way create a sense of accomplishment for your team. When they can see where they’re headed, that’s helpful. But, in a marathon, a picture of the finish line isn’t enough for some runners. They need to see the markers along the route to encourage them to continue running. 

Create “wins” along the path. Start one division or department at a time if it’s an overhaul of the organizational structure. Make sure that each time a division’s org chart is complete, you throw a party for the entire team involved in developing that chart. Throw a big one once it’s complete. 

If it’s a software implementation, do the same a smaller milestones throughout the process. Once your team can all enter a customer’s information capably and find new customer jobs in the new system, cater lunch for the team. Then, when they can enter new jobs in the system, create new proposals, or learn how to bill a job, have a cookout. Once all the reporting comes from the new system, and you’ve reconciled it with your old software’s reporting – you get the gist. 

You must be deliberate about this. Otherwise, you’ll find your change initiatives lose steam very quickly as your team (the whole team, not just your change team) becomes discouraged. 

Pitfall #1: Failing to Identify “Wins”

If you don’t define these early in the process, you’re setting yourself up for failure. You must identify strategic points in the process where you can declare a “victory” and celebrate. 

They don’t have to elaborate or even be difficult to attain. However, they MUST be timed to motivate your team to move the change initiative forward. If you don’t thoughtfully and carefully craft these wins before the initiative starts, you’ll doom this initiative to failure. 

Pitfall #2: Failing to Get “Wins” Early Enough

Similar to the pitfall above, this failure involves keeping your team motivated. If you aren’t deliberate about helping your team see AND feel they’re making progress, they’ll quickly lose enthusiasm for the project. 

You’ve hand-picked this team because they’re well respected and capable. Considering those stakes, it’s impossible to understate the damage this would cause if you fail to keep them motivated. A team of highly influential people in your company who are suddenly unmotivated to make a change is a recipe for disaster. 

Creating “wins” early and often in the process will keep them engaged in this initiative. Do this well, and you’ll be successful. 

Solution: Define Achievable Wins at Regular, Short Intervals

You must carefully consider the milestones and try to get a “win” for your team about every four-to-six weeks. If you push it much longer than that, people will lose motivation and enthusiasm for the changes. 

Look at the entire process. What needs to be accomplished to get from where you are now to arrive at the change the team has decided upon? Once you see the pathway clearly, define the steps you must take to get here. Set deadlines for these steps, and celebrate when you attain them. 

Note: Do this even (or perhaps especially) if your team falls behind. Don’t skip a chance to celebrate because they delivered late. Keeping your team motivated means reminding them of their solution to the business problem, empowering them to enact that solution, and celebrating with them as they implement it. Even if they arrive at a milestone later than planned, celebrate it. Then, remind them they’ve got less time to hit the ground running for the next “win.” 

Step 7: Streamline Improvements to Accelerate Change

You’re almost there! The next step to ensure your change initiative is successful is streamlining improvements.

What the heck does that mean?

It means you have to look at the gains you’ve made honestly. Are they as efficient as they could be? Even if the “change” is an improvement over the “old way” of doing things, is it the most efficient way to do things? Could it be improved even further?

The thinking behind this step is so obvious that it could be easily overlooked. In short, you need to take advantage of your team’s willingness to try something new before they settle into a “new normal.” While they’re still willing to embrace some “growing pains,” you need to refine the change to be as effective and efficient as possible. 

Pitfall: Declaring “Victory!” Too Soon

There’s a great temptation here for you and your team to say, “Wow! This is better than it was before. We’ve 100% solved the original business problem, so we’re done!”

Do not do this. 

If you don’t press for the best possible change, you’ll need to repeat all these steps much sooner than you would like. 

Business problems have a way of rearing their heads at really inconvenient times. Change is hard, and marshaling your team’s will and energy to make significant changes is extremely hard. Don’t push them into that type of change more often than is necessary because you gave up on streamlining the “new way” too soon. 

Solution: Keep Pressing for Change Until the Team Reaches Consensus 

Again, I realize this sound overly simplistic. But this is really how you go about doing this.

Keep asking the team to look for opportunities to improve. Ask them to check with people they trust on their teams and look for improvements. Once the team is completely satisfied that there are no further improvements to be made to your “change” (business processes, org chart, etc.), you can consider this step to be completed. 

Step 8: The “Change” Becomes the “New Normal”

In this final step, you begin to cement the change as “the way we do things” in your business. 

This includes updating training documents and manuals, creating onboarding resources for new hires that show this as “the way” to do something, and holding existing employees accountable for following the processes. 

In short, you must help your team see things differently. It can no longer be “the new way” to do something. It must simply become “the way” to do things. 

Pitfall #1: Failure to Create New Norms

Your team must understand and abide by the change. It must simply be “how we do business” for it to stick. 

People in your company must understand the reason for the change, agree with the need for it, and be eager to help you implement it for the change to work. 

For it to “stick,” you’ve got to make sure people understand “this is how we do things.” 

Pitfall #2: Hiring, Promoting, or Tolerating Leaders Who Don’t Embrace the New Norm

Leadership will help determine how successful your business will be. Good leaders elevate the business. Bad leaders are a cancer, destroying it from the inside. 

If you hire from the outside, communicate clearly about “how business is done at this company.” The new, outside hire won’t have any idea what the “old way” even was, nor should they. There’s no reason at all for them to embrace a different culture; you get to set the tone at the beginning of that relationship. Do it. 

When promoting from within, carefully consider the message you’re sending. Promoting someone that embraced the “new normal” or was part of the original “change team” sends the right message. It tells your team that people who are team players and embrace what is best for the company get ahead. 

Promoting someone who had good performance before the change but has opposed it or hasn’t fully embraced it, sends the wrong message. You’re telling the people who work for you that they don’t need to be team players. And worse than that, you’re sending the message to the team that you, the owner, CEO, president, etc., were never committed to the change. 

For leaders who were in place while the change was happening but haven’t bought in yet, you need to coach them on the new normal. If they refuse to embrace it, you must help them transition to a role in another business. Do it gracefully; be their advocate. Help them get interviews. Write recommendations.

But do not tolerate leaders who undermine what you’re trying to do to move the business forward. I’m all for work/life balance. Still, leaders who intentionally put their comfort with a workflow ahead of business results cannot be tolerated at your company if you’re going to succeed. 

Solution: Documentation, Communication, and Accountability

To enshrine the “new normal,” you must document it. If it’s a process, make sure it’s written step-by-step for people to follow. Create a flow chart, so visual learners get it. Make a Loom video and or record it on a cell phone. Ensure everyone who has to follow the process knows where to access it.

However you document it, it must be documented. Ideally, you must document it in multiple ways so that people with different learning styles can digest and understand it.

You must communicate the change ad nauseam. Make sure you tell people about the change and point them toward the multiple ways you’ve documented it. You must do this relentlessly until it becomes “the way we do things.” Communicate it via email, in company meetings, in one-on-one meetings, during informal conversations, and when you’re training in the field. 

Lastly is accountability. If you’ve made it this far with a change, you’ve put a lot of time and treasure into making this new initiative become a reality. If you don’t hold yourself and others accountable for following the change, you’ve wasted everyone’s time.

Leaders, even senior-level leaders, must follow the new process. If they cannot get behind the change, offer to help them find a new place of employment. Write a recommendation letter for them. But under no circumstances should you tolerate that type of behavior. That individual is putting themselves ahead of the entire company. Don’t send the wrong message to everyone by allowing that person to intentionally “buck” the change. 


Here’s a quick recap of the whole process. In the first part of this two-part blog, we learned: 

Step 1: Identify the business problem you need to address. 

Step 2: Assemble the right “change team” to devise a solution. 

Step 3: Help that team craft a concise “vision statement” to explain the change. 

Step 4: Help creatively and effectively communicate that vision. 

In today’s post, we learned: 

Step 5: Empower the “change team” to act on the solution and bring the vision to life. 

Step 6: Engineer and celebrate short-term “wins” to motivate the team. 

Step 7: Streamline improvements and keep pushing for the most optimized solutions. 

Step 8: Normalize the “change” so it’s simply “the way we do business.” 

Hopefully, this framework (again, originally proposed and published by John Kotter in the Harvard Business Review and revised and expanded by me) helps you push the needed change in your organization forward successfully. 

Go back and read Leading a Change (Part 1 of 2)

Keep reading our Change Management series with Common Change Scenarios

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