Challenge 19. Change leadership is not owned

Nut to crack: How do you activate the proper understanding of roles?

In a transformation process where the path is often unclear upfront and mat- ters tend to shift along the way, confusion about who is leading the change is commonplace. This means that change leadership needs to be activated. How do you ensure change implementation is truly leader-led?

Nutcracker: Change leaders lead, and change enablers enable

I see transformation journeys derail in practice because ownership for the organisational transformation was not felt.

You can categorise change leadership into two core roles: the role of a change leader, and the role of a change enabler.

The change leader is the person who leads the change using their heart and mind by giving direction, initiating the dialogues, and taking decisions. This would typically be the role with the final primary responsibility for the busi- ness results.

The change enabler is the person who orchestrates and coordinates the transformation process. This role is typically filled by strategy, hr, finance or it business partners, programme or project managers, change managers, or consultants hired temporarily.

To be thorough, sometimes people switch roles from one moment to the next. Imagine an it director, for example. They play the change enabler role while guiding the business during the implementation of digital solutions, but they also play the change leader role in managing their department.

As a change leader, you typically have several core responsibilities:

  • You select and appoint the team leading the transformation and guide them through the planning and implementation
  • You set the course through vision, inspiration and a compelling change story
  • You set the principles and the framework and take the decisions on the design of the change interventions and solutions
  • You have the tough conversations and make sure people display the changed behaviour
  • You coach change leaders who report to you and support them in fulfilling their role effectively

As a change enabler, you typically have these responsibilities:

  • You teach the team how to use change management methodologies and techniques to plan and implement transformation and innovation effec- tively
  • You help design and implement organisational transformation solutions
  • You identify obstacles, put them on the agenda and make sure action is being taken
  • You coach change leaders to manage the transformation

To activate change leadership, it helps people to experience these two roles in workshops. I ask them to wear the cap that most accurately represents the nature of their role in the transformation. Doing so instantly makes it clear that some individuals are wearing the wrong cap, need clarification about their role, or do not see a part for themselves. Clarifying this early in the transfor- mation has enormous benefits.

Change leadership is the combination of the change leader and enabler roles. This can mean that the change leader can take over specific tasks of the change enabler at some point, and vice versa, which can be necessary if you don’t want to drop the ball. That’s fine, as long as the balance is not lost, and you are both clear on who is playing which role.

You create clarity by having the people involved work out early in the process whether they are best suited to the role of change leader or enabler, and whether this role corresponds with their activities. The real-life example will illustrate this.

Titles versus functions

In practice, you’ll find that many titles indicate change leadership roles. These can vary from sponsor and change agent to ambassador and transformation director. These roles are often assigned to a selective number of people. The disadvantage of assigning such titles to a limited number of people is that a significant number of leaders and enablers don’t feel they have a role to play. For example, when you appoint a change manager on a project, the line manager of the project’s department is often unaware that they have an equally important role to play as a change leader. However, because this role did not get a title, its importance is often underestimated. Or, when a sponsor is appointed, it is typically unclear for the manager reporting to the sponsor that they have to play an equally significant change leadership role at their hierarchical level.

You’ll also find that the terminology being used can be confusing. A title can be puzzling when someone who heads up the transformation programme is named transformation director but plays the role of change enabler towards the business. The responsibility for the realisation of the business results of the programme lies with the line organisation, not with the transformation di- rector. But the title suggests otherwise, typically resulting in a passive stance from the actual change leaders, like the business unit directors.

Making people aware of their roles as change leaders and enablers does not have to stop you from assigning specific roles to a selected number of peo- ple, naming them sponsors, for example, as long as everyone is clear about their individual role.

Support tool: Change leadership checklist

If you would like to go into more detail on whether the tasks and responsibil- ities corresponding to change leadership are being executed, the checklist can help. After that, it is up to the change leaders and enablers to agree on who does what. The assumption is that any agreement is valid if it’s clear to both and it’s in line with the design principles that the change leader leads the transformation with heart and mind (by setting the course, having the conversations and taking the decisions) and the change enabler orchestrates and coordinates the transformation processes.

Real-life example: Activate a proper role in understanding

Niek is the programme manager of a considerable Enterprise Resource Planning (erp) system implementation. The responsible business leaders say that erp implementation is essential, but their actions suggest otherwise. They delay critical actions and cancel meetings. Niek knows from experience that if this behaviour continues, the go­live in two months will be unsuccessful. How can he break this pattern?

Niek asks the cfo, one of the sponsors of the erp implementation, to invite the business leaders for a two­hour meeting. During this meeting, Niek regales them with two stories: one of a failed erp implementation which led to discontinuity in the business, and one of a successful implementation that went live effortlessly and led to the system being correctly implemented and desired benefits monetised. He describes in detail the dif­ ferences between the two cases.

In the negative case, the leaders initially resisted the new system. Consequently, the local team was understaffed, and the project was deprioritised compared to other local business initiatives. The central programme office was at the helm. Red signals were either not given or received during the erp template design phase and pre­implemen­ tation. This resulted in a disastrous go­live three months later, during which customers were not receiving their scheduled deliveries at the agreed time. They suffered millions worth of damage, and the stress levels led to multiple burnouts of individuals involved. In the positive case, the business leaders tied their success to successful implementation. They installed a solid local team who ran a detailed project and milestone planning. The central programme team worked together with the local team equally as colleagues. Everyone was on the ball during the design phase, and conflicts were handled construc­ tively based on clear design principles and a tightly directed decision­making process.

They then proceeded to test and run simulations, understanding that the implementation could only move to the next phase after sign­off by the local business leaders. This led to a delay of two months because the facts showed that the organisation was not ready to work with the new system. Subsequently, the actual go­live went effortlessly, and they freed up enough people’s resources after the go­live to take maximum advantage of the implemented erp system’s full potential.

The cfo asked the leaders present which case resembled theirs the most. It became painfully apparent that they were heading for failure, and some admitted as much. Then the cfo introduced the two roles and asked them to reflect on their change leader role and compare it to what they were leaving to their programme team. The mismatch was felt here too, and it became apparent that the change leaders were not in the change leaders’ seats, causing the supporting programme team to compensate by taking over tasks and responsibilities.

Building role consciousness and providing insight into the consequences of continuing along this path proved to be sufficient to generate a breakthrough; change leaders went back to behaving like change leaders, and conditions which were missing were put in place. As a result, fortunately, the eventual go­live went pretty smoothly.

Tip for change leader

A common misconception is that you lead a transformation alongside your regular job. As leaders, once you realise that you don’t lead transformation alongside your job, but that it is your job, activating change leadership on all organisational levels becomes easier. Therefore you should start with this mental first step if it causes obstructive thoughts.

Tip for change enabler

Suppose you are structurally spending more time enabling the transformation than the leader spends on leading it. In that case, it’s probably an indication that you are taking on tasks belonging to the change leader. Challenge 20 explores this further.

Kernel: Clear role insight is an essential condition for success

Failed transformation journeys are typically caused by a vague sense of ownership and change leadership at all levels of the organisation. This is triggered by inadequate role consciousness, role misunderstandings or capability gaps of essential players in the transformation journey. Activate change leadership understanding in all layers of the organisation to ensure change implementation is truly leader-led.

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