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Who Should Lead Change?

Oct. 24, 2013
One of the best practices for successful organizational change is putting senior leaders — not middle management — in charge.

One of the best practices for successful organizational change is putting senior leaders — not middle management — in charge.  This rule is supported in study after study, including a Gallup poll conducted earlier this year.   

Top executives are usually most able to understand the macro-level need for change.  They’re also likely to understand the economic ramifications of not changing better than anyone else.  Finally, these leaders are usually the most effective at communicating change messages to the ranks.      

At the very least, top management in an organization should sponsor major change initiatives, even if others carry out the day-to-day work.  This rule of thumb might appear obvious.  But ongoing research from Prosci shows that year after year, change projects fail because executives are not visible enough throughout the process. 

Why does this happen? 

There are many reasons, but one that’s easily overlooked is this:  it’s common for managers at any level to underestimate how much their employees look to them for leadership.  Employees may not even realize themselves how important this guidance is. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously wrote that “our chief want in life is someone who shall make us do what we can.”

During the poet’s life, “want” used in this way usually meant lack or deficit.  Emerson probably wasn’t saying that people consciously desire someone to bring out our best.  I believe he took it as a given that humans respond well to inspiration, but felt that we don’t have enough of it.    

Today, the mushrooming popularity of business and personal coaches underscores this idea.  It seems there’s still a great need and demand for people who can help us work to our potential… to “do what we can.”    

What does this have to do with organizational change? 

Senior executives can benefit from recognizing that their people need and want their guidance, even if they don’t express it.  These leaders are the best suited to champion change efforts.  Research and experience shows that to the extent they do this, the greater the chances that their organizational changes will be successful and long-lasting.

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