With the need to adjust and grow your business during a pandemic, as a manager in your organization, you’ll need to become a Change Leader, and work with others trying to do the same.

Some will be naturals at this. Their initiative will succeed. They will become highly respected, even admired, in their organization. Their careers will improve because of their ability to lead through challenging circumstances.

Others will not do well at all. Their initiative will face delays and cost their company money. People will become disappointed in them and disillusioned in their leadership abilities. Their career will stall or worse.

Yet others will be somewhere in between and will struggle. They may avoid the worst possible fate, but will come out bruised. The results of their initiative will be mixed, leaving lots to be desired. People will begin to doubt their leadership abilities. Their career progress may get bumpier.

In over 20 years of consulting experience on major transformation projects, I have worked with all types of managers who had to assume the mantle of “Change Leader”. Over time I noticed that change leaders had defined characteristics. And based on these characteristics they could be grouped into four categories. These characteristics fit on a scale from most likely to succeed, to most likely to struggle.

If you are an operational manager you can use this information, if you have to lead a change, to position yourself for success. And if you are a project manager, you can use this information to quickly assess the type of change leader you are dealing with and adjust accordingly.

So here they are.

The “Dream Leader”

This is the best anyone can hope for, and the characteristics of this type of leader have already been covered in a previous blog. Rather than repeat everything here, follow this link to read about these change leaders in more detail.

The only thing I will add here is what I have learned about how to best work with this type of change leader.

First of all, when you realize that you’re working with a leader like this, enjoy it! Whatever happens, do not take them or your lucky stars for granted. If anything, these leaders should be treated with ‘white glove’ care.

Keep them engaged and share progress with them. Just because they are all in, do not assume that they don’t need constant following up. If they are willing and supportive, keep them happy and involved. They can become your best friends, if you are a project manager.

The “Change Delegator”

In many ways this leader is very similar to the Dream Change Leader, except for one.

Managing a transformation means, if you are a manager, you have to “change the business while running the business”, as one of my clients put it so well. A Dream Change Leader understands this implicitly. A Change Delegator doesn’t.

A Change Delegator sees themselves as having to continue to run the business. The task of changing the business is delegated to the project manager and/or change lead.

Why is this difference important? Here is a metaphor that should clarify this, and one you may have heard before.

Let’s imagine you are renovating your home and hire a designer. Imagine you tell your designer, “Well, you’re the designer, you design the new house. I have to keep going to work to pay the bills.” Then one day you walk in and find all of your walls are painted in a pink flowery motif. Perhaps you like that, and then all is fine. But what it you don’t like it, not at all? Then you have a problem.

And even if you like the pink flower motif, you may not like other changes the designer decided on. It’s easy to imagine that you will have a lot of issues, a lot of debates and arguments, and will be frustrated by how often you need to get into these discussions “to sort things out”.

That basically characterizes the experience of a Change Delegator. They seem to be in constant fire-fighting mode because they underestimated the time commitment to change the business they currently happen to be running.

But otherwise, they are wonderful leaders. They mostly understand the importance of people, organizational change management and project management. They support these activities privately and publicly.

Working with a Change Delegator

So how to work with a leader like this? Their challenge is one mostly of perception. What needs to change is that they understand their importance in leading the change to the business they are running. If you can do this successfully, you will turn a Change Delegator into a Dream Leader. A leader needs to understand that at least 20% of their time needs to be dedicated to the transformation.

Now, this will not be that easy. It will not be a one-off conversation where they are smitten by your lucidity and suddenly clearly see the light. No, it will take time and many conversations.

It’s important to consider why this manager may be taking such a hands-off approach. Maybe they already feel overwhelmed by their regular operational demands. Perhaps they don’t feel comfortable leading the business change side because they have never done it before. Or maybe they feel intimidated and uncomfortable because they see the project leaders and team as having expertise they don’t.

So like anything else, being understood begins by understanding the other person. By understanding the reasons for their reluctance, and empathizing, you can more easily find solutions to build their involvement in the change activities.

The “Reluctant Change Leader”

The Reluctant Change Leader lives by the motto, “I understand change management is important, just don’t spend too much time on it.” Amusingly, they don’t see the irony in that statement. It’s sort of like saying, “Yes, children are important, just don’t waste too much time looking after them.” Doesn’t sound quite right somehow, does it?

The main challenge here is of understanding. You will have to spend time educating this leader on what organizational change management is and why a business transformation is different than other smaller initiatives they may have been a part of.

Unfortunately, often their lack of understanding is based on a lack of interest. That makes informing them more challenging since they don’t want to spend time listening to what change management is and why it’s important. It’s sort of like trying to explain the benefits of a good vegetable diet to a teenager sitting in Burger King. There’s not going to be a lot of uptake.

Working with a Reluctant Change Leader

So how do you motivate a manager like that to want to know more? I have found a few approaches that work, depending on the situation. You may need to experiment to find out which work best for you and your particular situation.

One approach is to simply ask whether they think their organization is good at implementing change. If the answer is a bit of an embarrassed “no”, then you can probe for reasons why they think that is the case. You can then guide the dialogue to the importance of understanding change management, the importance of change leadership, and so on. This can lead to them being more open to adopting more effective Change Leadership behaviours.

Another approach is to leverage a leader’s inherent competitive instincts. This involves highlighting some really effective change leadership behaviours that other managers demonstrated. Sometimes that’s enough to trigger more interest in the subject, which then results in a more effective change leader.

One other approach, is to use a highly regarded historical figure and examples of what they did or said regarding people engagement. In the past I have used General Patton and Jack Welch, among others, and what they did or said to make my case. These are inspiring leaders whose success is hard to argue against.

The “Lost Cause”

The “Lost Cause” manager cannot be technically called a Change Leader – thus the perhaps confusing title of this blog.

This type of manager lives by the motto, “I’ll just tell them to do it”. Yup, that about sums it up. If you get this individual as a sponsor, your best course of action is to replace yourself with another person, hopefully someone you don’t like very much.

The bottom line with this type of individual is that they just don’t understand people and why they’re important. Really. It’s not that they are bad people, necessarily. They are not sociopaths, although some may be. It’s more like they have a blind spot when it comes to what makes people tick.

With them at the helm, the risk of project failure is high. A recent research article identified that CEO’s get fired mostly because of poor organizational change management skills. My suspicion is that the bulk of these CEOs are the Lost Cause executives described here.

How does this happen, exactly? Here are a couple of examples from my own  personal experience.

First example, back in my Ernst & Young days, I was part of a pursuit team that was bidding on a $6 million ERP re-implementation. Our firm, and some of my team members, were part of the original $7 million ERP pursuit with the same client 2 years before. At that time our firm was rejected because we insisted on a $250,000 change management component. Their executive team felt that was overkill, because they would just tell their employees what to do.

So what was different now, 2 years later? Well, two things, mostly. The insistence in the RFP (Request for Proposal) for a solid change management component was one major difference. The other? We were pitching to the “new” executive management team. Yes, that’s right. You don’t lose your company $6 million in two years and get to keep your job.

Example #2

Another example was a distribution company that decided to implement a supply chain optimization system. Before the change a group of entry level employees, called Business Analysts, handled much of the manual marketing and logistics work. After the change some of these Business Analysts would have to focus exclusively on marketing tasks, and others on logistics tasks, using the new system.

There was some general training and announcement communications, and that was it. No role analysis, job design, nothing. Business Analysts went home Friday, and the following Monday came in and were expected to perform their recently split up functions using the new system.

The VP of Supply Chain was very confident that his sharp and eager employees could figure these details out by themselves. If they got stuck, their managers and he himself would just tell them to figure it out.

You can probably guess how this story ends.

Two weeks later the system was unplugged and the original manual processes brought back into operation. Two weeks after that it was announced that the VP of Supply Chain left to pursue other opportunities. Enrolling in change management courses, perhaps.

I am sure you yourself can provide some interesting but tragic stories of this type. It’s the unfortunate tale of a manager who is thrust into a change leadership role that they are just not suited for.

What to Do if You Have a Lost Cause manager as Sponsor

If you face this type of manager, you can try to change their perspective. I have had success on rare occasions but in general results have been mixed.

If you do end up with a Lost Cause manager in charge of a change initiative, you’ll just have to prepare yourself for a very frustrating ride, punctuated with a poorly implemented project. If at all possible, your best option really is to cut your losses.

Not every change project is worth taking on. If you can’t realistically get the sponsor to change their mind, and they refuse to see the implications of the actions, it may better for you to just walk away. You are unlikely to be effective no matter how hard you work. Sometimes it’s better to save your energy for a project that you can have a real impact on.


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