Turn Reluctant Leadership Around in 5 Steps
22 Feb

Turn Reluctant Leadership Around in 5 Steps

Here it is, the third and final blog in the series on change leadership.

The first blog highlighted the key traits of excellent change leaders. The second blog covered what the four types of Change Leader are and how to work with them. This blog is on how to align all those different types of leaders when project managing a business transformation.

The Big Question

This blog started thanks to a good PM colleague of mine, Denise Cross. She asked me this question: “How do you build adoption if the stakeholders are reluctant?”

That’s a broad question and we discussed various solutions. But the main point I made is that in these cases it is particularly important to work with the leadership team. They have to be aligned around the objectives of the project. It is they who have the organizational clout to drive the change and act as backstop for any resistance that arises.

Then she had a follow up question: “But what if the leaders themselves are the ones that are reluctant?”

OK, now that’s a tough one. How do you build adoption with a group of leaders who are reluctant to adopt the change themselves? And what if in addition, as was her situation, the organization is only loosely hierarchical? Each member of the leadership team is independent and sees themselves as having some kind of veto power. There is no ‘big boss’, no ‘chain of command’ to backstop resistance among senior leaders.

This is one of the biggest challenges you can face as a change or project/program leader. But not an insoluble one.

What has worked for me consistently is a technique I am going to share with you in this blog. It is a technique that also works in situations where you need to get buy-in from a large group of influential, independent stakeholders. An example of this would be a group of salespeople in consumer goods company, or category managers in a retail organization.

A Fortunate Accident

I originally leaned this technique quite by accident. Here’s the story.

I was working on a project in a large, national retail organization and had to convince about 40 or so category managers to adopt a process change. This change was pretty significant for them and they were not in favour, to say the least. Since this group was the revenue and margin drivers of the company, they had a lot of sway when it came to implementing any changes impacting them. They were prima donnas, and they knew it.

As I grappled with how to turn around this critical group of stakeholders into change champions, I had some luck. I heard about this piece of company history.

This retailer had embarked on a significant program to rebuild their 400+ stores in anticipation of an onslaught of new, global competitors entering their market. It was a do-or-die program. However, senior management had a serious problem. The store owners themselves were against it.

The retail stores were not corporate stores, so each store owner had to agree to invest a sizeable chunk of money to upgrade their stores. And there was no guarantees that the rebuild would improve sales. Resistance was very high.

Reluctant Volunteers

Corporate management had to go a voluntary route and try to sell this program to the owners. It was a very hard sell. In the end, out of 400+ owners, only three were willing to participate. It was very disappointing to the senior managers who were working hard to convince as many owners as they could to participate.

What made it worse was that the three were underperforming stores. The owners of these stores were basically using the program as a last, desperate chance to grow their revenues. Corporate management feared that these stores were so bad that rebuilding wouldn’t make a difference. In the end the owners would just lose money and that would validate all of the negative predictions.

In the end they had no choice but proceed with the three owners who signed up.

For those not familiar with the retail industry, just a quick digression. A key metric in retail is year-over-year same-store sales. Same-store sales refers to the difference in revenue generated by a retail chain’s existing outlets compared to the previous year.

In a tough economy getting a 1% or 2% increase in your same-store sales may be pretty good. During normal economic times getting a 5% or 6% same-store sales increase is respectable. Each store in the chain is compared to this average to identify well performing or underperforming stores.

Early Results

Okay, back to our story. The owners of the three underperforming stores who participated in the program would have been content if their investment generated a 10% first year increase, followed by average, or above average, same-store sales increases thereafter. Word was out that a couple of the owners were dreaming of a 25% increase in the first year, but that was written off as just that: a dream.

So what happened that first year? Astoundingly, the worst performer of the three stores had a 50% year-over-year sales increase. The best of the three had over 100%. That meant that the store more than doubled its sales in just one year. This news spread throughout the chain like wildfire.

Still, the cynics were countering that, since these stores were so badly underperforming, any change would have resulted in improved same-store sales. They commented that fresh paint and new lighting would have done the same, for far less cost. None-the-less, the positive outcome convinced 7 store owners to participate in the program the following year.

The results were just as astonishing the second year. Once again, no store had a less than 50% year-over-year increase. And again there were a couple of stores whose increase was greater than a 100%.

This time the cynics were much quieter. The third year 25 owners decided to participate. Once more the results were astounding. This program was no fluke. If an owner participated, they made money, pure and simple.

The following year over 50 owners registered for the program, but corporate only had capacity to rebuild 40. The results continued to impress.

The Tables Turn

The year after that corporate management declared that rebuilding 40 stores a year would be their maximum due to construction capacity constraints. The initial program had now become an operational activity, and the company would rebuild 40 stores each year until all of their 400+ stores were converted.

Here something interesting happened. That year that this announcement was made, over 100 stores had applied to be part of the rebuild program. Now those same cynics and nay-sayers were livid that they were cut out of the program, as they saw it. These owners blamed corporate for “preventing them from making money”.

Corporate management’s response was a tart, “Where were you in year one? Or in year two, or even three?” Nothing doing, they had to wait, some of them up to three or more years before their store was rebuilt.

Success With Category Managers

That approach gave me an idea to try with the category managers. Maybe I didn’t need to convince all of them, all at once. Maybe I just had to get one or two, or maybe three, on board at first. I thought it was worth a try.

I looked over the list of 40 or so category managers and asked around who the most influential ones were, who were the most highly regarded among their peers. People gave me names of three such individuals. Unfortunately for us, these three were also the most vocal against our project. No wonder that category managers as a group were opposed to our project.

But I decided to go for it anyway. They were against the project now, and if I somehow screwed up, well, they’d still be against the project. We, as a project team, would not lose much.

I talked my ideas over with the project manager and sponsor, and then approached each one of the three category managers individually. Speaking with them it became clear that they understood changes were needed in order for the company to survive, and for them to keep their jobs. There were no arguments about that. But they each did object to some of the specific changes and how they perceived we were planning on rolling these out.

The “Ask”

So I asked them to work with us to help roll out these changes in the way they thought would work best. I basically made the following points and told them that:

I had approached them because they were the most highly regarded among their peers (flattering, but absolutely true).

We needed the category managers on board otherwise the project would likely fail and a lot of work would go to waste (also very true).

They needed to participate by providing their input and feedback. That meant they would be even busier than they were now, but they could not have it both ways. They could not refuse to help and then complain that they were not consulted (they accepted that logic, albeit reluctantly).

We would accept what we could immediately, tell them what we couldn’t do and why, and we would negotiate the rest.

Finally, I asked them to start changing the narrative and messaging when they were chatting with their peers by the water cooler. I told them we were counting on their leadership in this regard because of their status. They didn’t need to suddenly say they loved the project, just start telling their colleagues that this project is mission critical and that category managers will have input, and will be an important part of the change itself.

The Results

We were all shocked by how quickly the messages spread and how efficient the informal communications network was. Within the week we noticed a visible difference in behaviour among category managers. They started to approach members of the project team with questions and suggestions, rather than the other way around. Busy category managers suddenly had time for us when we did ask to meet. Some even started stopping us in the hallways and elevators to tell us how things could be improved. When we asked for things we received what we needed quickly.

I don’t want to paint the scenario like it was nirvana. It wasn’t. There were hiccups. People made some silly mistakes (present company included, yes). But the goodwill was there. After a few pointed conversations here and there, which at times felt like verbal slaps upside the head to those at the receiving end, things moved forward at a rapid pace. The air was cleared quickly, misunderstandings were ironed out fast, and people started thinking along the same wavelength.

We tracked engagement through quarterly “Check-point Surveys”, which were in essence Readiness Assessments. By the time we ran our third and last one, a year into the project, the participation rate was over 90%. The survey results review meetings were over-capacity. And, the suggestions for improvements were so many that a process was created to roll these out as part of operations after the project was complete.

Success With Executive Leaders – 5 Steps

Having had success here I decided to try this particular approach with executive teams to get them aligned ahead of the change. It has never failed me. Here, to summarize, are the steps:

  1. Identify the most influential leaders (even if initially they are not part of the project governance structure).
  2. Be clear with them that you are meeting with them because of their influence and reputation among their peers. Everyone likes to hear that, and people too often hold back positive comments while being far too ready with critical ones.
  3. Ask them to participate. This is key. In some ways this is a sales job. You have to ask for the sale.
  4. Let them know what’s involved (usually more work for them, and typically these are already the busiest managers). You have to be honest and up front. But also tell them the positives that will come out of the project when (not “if”) it is successful.
  5. Finally, give them specific tasks to perform (I know, it sounds backwards – delegating to a leader, rather than the other way around). This could be attending an upcoming series of meetings, reviewing a document, and/or delivering some key messages. Until they actually do something, you won’t know whether they are truly on board. So this is an absolute, non-negotiable, must.
Two Important Caveats

There are a couple of caveats, so be careful.

First, you have to be absolutely genuine. This cannot come across as empty flattery (or like you are “blowing smoke up someone’s a__”,  as one of my sponsors put it so delicately). It has to be one of those honest and courageous conversations.

The second caveat is that you shouldn’t expect to necessarily succeed at the first meeting. It may take getting together two or more times before a leader feels they trust you enough to open up and have a heart-to-heart conversation.

Whatever it takes, I would encourage you to try this. You’ll feel so much better when the project is a recognized success and you know that you were a key contributor.


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