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 / Winter 2008 /Issue 53(originally published by Booz & Company)


Stand by Your Change Agent

Because such laggards fall short in both embracing change and developing leaders, they must work harder to make a change initiative succeed. First, they should be very deliberate about the selection of change leaders. Because the risk of poor execution is so high, it may be advisable to select from among the company’s most experienced and successful leaders, not merely from bullying “fixers” who may have handled such assignments in the past.

Second, knowing that change leadership is a high-risk, low-reward role, savvy executives may resist taking it on. It is essential to explicitly address this issue; the CEO and project sponsor should engage the prospective change leader in candid conversations about career risk and retention. They should let the leader know that they recognize the difficulty of the task and that the company does not want to lose or sideline a valuable executive. It may be necessary to offer unusual re­wards, incentives, and even guarantees to induce the right person to take the job.

Third, laggard companies must focus on providing in-depth organizational support for the project and the leader. Expectations for the leader’s time should be established clearly, and the com­pany should take care not to underestimate the demands of the new initiative or the leader’s other re­sponsibilities. In many cases, change leadership should be defined as a full-time job. The executive sponsor, in addition to acting as a mentor to the change leader, must have enough seniority and clout to be able to remove obstacles, provide resources, and get people to cooperate across organizational silos. The members of the steering committee, who should be representatives of the constituencies affected by the project, should also be senior enough to remove barriers to success. They must be given the power to make binding decisions, provide re­sources, and insist on organizational alignment — and the responsibility to establish a clear charter for the project, set milestones, monitor progress, and intervene as needed to keep the project on track. Although such practices are important for all companies, laggards — given their track records — should pay particular attention.

Restoring the Human Factor
At the end of the day, warriors and masters do little better than laggards at rewarding and retaining change leaders. Masters move about eight of 10 change leaders laterally or see them leave, and the figure for warriors and laggards is nine out of 10. All three categories misuse and lose talent on a vast scale. At paragon companies, by contrast, six in 10 advance their careers. In some cases, of course, change leaders are lured away by other companies that recognize their value, in effect taking advantage of the previous employer’s witting or unwitting investment in leadership development. But much too often, the company loses valuable talent and the talent loses, too.

Ask almost any seasoned CEO for his or her greatest regret about a change initiative, and the answer is likely to be: We should have moved much more boldly, and sooner. But at the outset, senior ex­ecutives natu­rally worry that too much change, too soon, might break the orga­nization, alienate valued people, or alarm the board. It is also natural for executives to feel discomfort at rewarding change leaders who might be rough-edged, visionary, or wide-ranging in their interests. And some executives worry that change leaders, once they have led a broad-based successful change initiative, won’t be satisfied going back to their old roles and positions.

In practice, companies can address all of these concerns by putting the right measures in place up front. And when managed well, change initiatives can energize or­ganizations and unlock the creative potential in people. If there is a guiding principle for all companies contemplating major transformations, it is this: Put your compassion for change leaders into action. Managed well, change is not only a catalyst for success and an engine for generating value, but also an opportunity for talented people. The companies that understand this best are the ones that retain and promote their change leaders. 

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