By Don Ruse

It doesn’t matter whether a troubled initiative needs to be resuscitated or a new strategy is about to be unleashed by leadership. We’ve worked with clients in both situations and have seen the magic that happens when senior leadership sustains their attention on the things that truly drive transformational change.

The following critical success factors may not be surprising, but what we find surprising is how often they get lost as leaders encounter complexity, infighting, and organizational inertia when trying to improve their organization’s execution or performance. Keep these four critical factors front and center throughout a transformational change to sustain the initiative and deliver the promised benefits for your organization:

Change success factor: Build Active Executive Sponsorship: It’s simple, don’t start without it, no matter how tempting it might be to figure this out later once everyone is wowed by your initial progress. Senior executives ­must be out front and actively engaged in defining the vision of any change program, setting the parameters of the initiative and refereeing how resources are deployed. They also have to feel that they’re ultimately driving the change. This doesn’t mean they need to be in the weeds. In fact, that’s dangerous too because they can become bottlenecks rather than catalysts for the change.

Here’s a simple but powerful example. The CEO of a large energy company publicly demonstrated his personal sponsorship for a controversial initiative by signing his signature below the program charter that was shared across the organization, leaving no one in any doubt about his expectation that everyone would get behind the program.

Change success factor: Create & Sustain Stakeholder Alignment: Don’t assume that key stakeholders buy in to transformational change from day one just because the message has been sent down from on high. In fact, you should assume that they will not. It takes effort to build a deep understanding of why change is required, and perseverance to maintain the commitment and capabilities required to complete the journey.

The key stakeholder groups to target for continued investment in alignment are customers and the internal managers and supervisors who oversee the work. The former because they ultimately make the decision on whether the change is worthwhile. The latter because they have the greatest influence on any required changes to capabilities, skills, processes, and behavior across the organization, and are often the greatest source of ongoing resistance to the change (middle management are known as “permafrost” for good reason).

Change success factor: Pay Close Attention to Power & Governance: Major transformation initiatives need clear governance because of the inevitable changes in power structures and control. People often talk about resistance to change, and in our experience a loss of power ranks pretty high on the list of why people resist change. Take one example of a client where governance around critical investment decisions was moved from a division to an enterprise level as part of significant strategic transformation. This change was not just counter-cultural, but also was a challenge to the egos of all-powerful General Managers. However, by taking the right amount of time up front (believe us, it can take what seems like a ridiculous amount of time and effort) to really clarify the rationale and provide reassurances around major concerns, big decisions were consistently made with appropriate input and without delay, ultimately playing a big part in why that organization realized the expected benefits of the change.

Change success factor: Develop Leadership Change Capability: Executives are usually more comfortable running their business and managing operations than leading and managing change, but in our experience the most successful leaders are 1) capable of clearly communicating and building commitment; 2) adept at identifying and building organizational and individual capabilities required by the change; and 3) understanding of the need to be a role model of the required behavioral change, and to maintain focus on the change long after others have assumed it’s already fully embedded into “business as usual.” This need for both different and even more effective leadership during times of transformation is a tremendous challenge for most senior executives, so we’ll leave you with a simple statement that can help you best focus your time and energy when leading others through change—It’s not about you, it’s about them.

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