In a transformation process where the path is often unclear upfront and matters tend to shift along the way, confusion about who is leading the change is commonplace. This means that change leadership needs to be activated. But how do you ensure change implementation is truly leader-led?
In her book The Nutcracker, Anne Kloosterboer (co-CEO of LQ) explains that transformation journeys often derail in practice because ownership for the organisational transformation is 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 business 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:
As a change enabler, you typically have these responsibilities:
If you want to go into more detail on whether the tasks and responsibilities corresponding to change leadership are being executed, take a look at the checklist in the Nutcracker PDF.
To activate change leadership, it helps people to experience these two roles in workshops. We 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 transformation 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.
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 Director. 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 people, naming them sponsors, for example, as long as everyone is clear about their individual role.
So, what if change leaders are not aware of their role? This is what happened to Niek, who was implementing a considerable Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system as a programme manager.
The responsible business leaders said that the ERP implementation was essential, but their actions suggested otherwise. They delayed critical actions and canceled meetings. Niek knew from experience that if this behaviour continued, the go-live in two months would be unsuccessful. How can he break this pattern?
Niek asked the CFO, one of the sponsors of the ERP implementation, to invite the business leaders for a two-hour meeting. During this meeting, Niek regaled 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 described in detail the differences 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 pre-implementation.
This resulted in a disastrous go-live 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 constructively based on clear design principles and a tightly directed decision-making process.
They then proceeded to test and run simulations, understanding that the implementation could only move to the next phase after sign-off 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 go-live went effortlessly, and they freed up enough people’s resources after the go-live 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 go-live went pretty smoothly.