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Winning hearts and minds

How can a change manager better help staff and colleagues to embrace change?

Deborah Feakins looks at what it takes.

I’ve talked in the past about what change management is and how to measure your success. But what about how to actually do it, particularly that most difficult part, winning hearts and minds? After all, if the changes aren’t embraced by the people who will use new structures, processes, systems and ways of thinking – there will be no change. Beyond the theory of change management, the ability to communicate and influence people is probably the most important tool that a change manager has at their disposal. Unfortunately, “good” in this area is poorly defined.

The work of my colleagues at the Change Management Institute has done much to professionalise the discipline and define the competencies and bodies of knowledge needed to succeed. But we’re a long way from the clarity and understanding that other disciplines have achieved. Consequently, many clients and recruiters struggle to identify good change managers – and even change mangers themselves have a hard time articulating what makes them special.

So what does it take to be “good” in practice? I’ll give you my take.

The art of stakeholder management

Most articles place a lot of emphasis on the change manager’s ability to sell the benefits. This is no bad thing. But I believe that a good change manager must be more than a ‘cheerleader’ for change. Not all change is positive and even when there is a powerful case for change and little risk of failure on paper, the politics can be complex. There are always winners and losers. Change isn’t positive for everybody and, if not careful, the change manager can become side-lined as a naïve enthusiast or an apologist for unwelcome news. Both situations undermine trust and trust is everything when you’re asking people to take a leap of faith on a new way of working.

The art of stakeholder management is, therefore, a deeper discipline than most give it credit. Tailoring your message to the stakeholder group is a start but we must go further. A lot of people show me their stakeholder plans and I often find myself saying, “That’s great, what are you actually going to do with it?” Very few plans I come across are properly actionable.

I find a similar challenge with change communications plans, they often leave out when do we communicate and why? They also miss out third parties, unions and suppliers. And yet, these stakeholders can have a massive impact on the success of change. Even those who run basic operations may have legitimate concerns that could derail progress or on time delivery. When you think how much work is completed by third parties for the UK’s largest PLCs – over 50% for some of them – we’re well advised to take this more seriously.

Lastly, but not least, good stakeholder management is about creating the space for others to lead in the right way around the proposed changes. I mean “space” in a couple of different senses. Firstly, many senior stakeholders will not automatically create space for things like impact assessments and change readiness exercises unless we educate them. Equally, I mean “space” in the sense that we need to convince them to give themselves the time to lead in the right way, think through their decisions and ensure the proposed changes continue to meet the needs of the strategy, portfolio and budget. In a Business As Usual situation, good senior leaders make decisions quickly. They can do this because they are familiar with the landscape, the challenges and the consequences. Change is by definition unchartered territory and leaders need to think carefully before they act or they could undermine all your and their own endeavours on the change project.

Dealing with politics

I place a lot of emphasis on listening. Of course I do – everyone does, particularly anyone writing articles about business. But before I lose originality, let me make this very practical. Before creating your stakeholder or communications plans in any detail, spend time with each stakeholder group listening. Observe the politics swirling around them; find out what they already know about the change. Get to know them, find out what their real concerns are and how they perceive the material benefits of the change. In short, find out what buttons to push to get the reactions you want in later activities.

A word of warning, the job is not to be Niccolò Machiavelli. When you do need to push those buttons always be truthful, never exaggerate or underplay the situation and never covertly manipulate behaviour. While it’s unlikely anyone will end up in a torture chamber like he did, they’ll still be caught out at some point and, from that point forward, trust is irrecoverable.

Realise you alone are not enough

David Packard of Hewlett- Packard (HP) fame once said, “Marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department”. His point being – beyond stoking a little bit of inter-departmental rivalry – that marketing activities should not be carried out in a single part of the business but they should be manifest in all the activities of the organisation. The same is true when it comes to change communications, they shouldn’t be the sole prerogative of the change manager and change communications specialist but should instead be extended to all participants and activities.

The reason I bring this up is that your soft skills are most likely good, can be honed further and will appeal to a wide range of people. Nevertheless, you must respect the fact that one person cannot do change management all by themselves. You’ll need the amplification of colleagues both junior and senior, whether in the form of change champions or simply colleagues involved in driving the change forward.

Another important reason that you are not enough by yourself is that you only think like you. There will always be a subset of affected stakeholders whose ways of thinking you find challenging or completely alien. Other people may prove a better fit to drive the message home. To use an analogy from biology, just as genetic diversity serves as a way for a population to adapt to a changing environment, diversity of thinking enables more staff to readily embrace business change.

Increasing diversity

If this article cuts through to anything, it’s the importance of embracing diversity to make change successful.

This exposes a fundamental weakness that we must address as change specialists – not just because it’s right, though that is reason enough – but because our clients need us to. It’s also an opportunity. There is currently a dearth of change management expertise in the industry so there is real scope to fill it with greater diversity. A recent report from the Management Consultancies Association shows that client demand is increasing but recognises the huge resource gap leftover from the global financial crisis.

If change management appeals to you, I’d strongly urge you to consider specialising in this area. Clients need you. Change management as a profession is challenging, terrifying, exciting and rewarding in equal measure, and it’s also the future.

Interested in finding out about how Marlowe can help you with your change management challenges?

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