I remember my initiation into change efforts like it was yesterday. Out of college, I joined a management training program with Lawry’s Restaurants which took over a year. Soon after being made an assistant manager, I was assigned to one of their restaurants that was losing money. Little did I know this pattern would follow me right into the C-Suite.
While I was still really green about how to manage a restaurant, my four years of accounting classes came in handy. I was able to do a financial analysis of the cost and revenue issues facing the restaurant using a manufacturing cost accounting method that wasn’t used by restaurants. This helped me calculate the restaurants breakeven point that showed the amount of revenue necessary for the restaurant not to lose money.
The revenue number shocked me because it was so much higher than the restaurant’s current sales. I told my manager about my analysis and he called the Senior Vice President of Operations who then visited the restaurant so I could explain my analysis. A week later I heard the results. My position was being eliminated so they could reduce the restaurants overhead since there was no way to bring in that much sales.
That lead to my being promoted to manager of their smallest restaurant, Lawry’s only fast food operation. And yes, that one was losing money too! My work on this resulted in my becoming the company’s “turnaround” specialist. Since that time, I’ve been thrown into one situation after another that required some type of change. So managing change became a way of life for me.
Change is the only way to fix things
As I reflect back on this decades later, I realize the thought of changing something never bothered me. Even after my first experience caused my own position to be eliminated, I never felt these change efforts were something to be worried about. It never occurred to me to resist making a change or try to keep things the way they were.
You can’t fix problems and challenges by keeping things the way they are. If there are no problems and everything’s running beautifully, that’s a different story. When something isn’t working right in how things operate, or attracting customers, or logistics or getting multiple offices all on the same page or serious cost issues, something has to change.
As both an executive and a consultant, I’ve been able to observe a large number of change initiatives. Some were small. Others were big. One was super jumbo size. In most cases, the critical issue wasn’t figuring out what needs to change or how to fix it. It was influencing the people involved to embrace the change and help implement it.
Leading Change is about influencing people
Successfully managing change is really about leading change. It’s about leading people to not only accept the change but commit to helping it succeed. Harvard Professor John Kotter’s research on change in organizations shows that major change efforts fail 80% of the time. Let that number sink in. Only one in five major change efforts initiated by an organization actually succeed.
These organizations are filled with bright, educated, veteran executives and managers. Many of them have been through extensive management and leadership development programs over many years. They can identify what’s wrong and figure out how to change it. They can make the critical decisions necessary to start the change effort. But they fail to successfully implement those decisions in 80% of the cases.
Turns out Kotter’s research is confirmed by many studies that show a similar percentage of failures to implement strategy effectively. Those studies weren’t specifically looking at change as Kotter was. Yet, what is a new strategy? It’s one type of change. See my article How Well Do You Execute Your Strategies to read about those studies.
Based on Kotter’s research study of change efforts in 100 organizations around the world, he offered the following perspective in his book The Heart of Change:
“People change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings.”
Leading change isn’t just about giving clear directions, point the way, and telling employees what they need to do now. That clearly isn’t enough. Leading change is about effective leadership. It’s about influencing people to voluntarily join with and embrace the change effort. It’s about reaching these people at an emotional level. It’s about your people trusting you, knowing you have their back and knowing you care about what’s best for them.
When you read Kotter’s eight steps for successful change efforts, they are all about influencing people to change. Changing what an organization does is about changing what people do. To make that work, enough people have to want to make the change that its implementation is inevitable.
Ultimately, leading change is about strategic alignment. To implement any change or improvement, you have to get all the employees aligned with the strategy. That requires effective leaders who are focused on aligning everyone with the change.
Effective leaders influence their people to enthusiastically align themselves with where the organization is going and how to get there.