Preparing Leaders to Lead Change. Are You Ready?

In change leadership we talk about “organizational readiness” to prepare employees to embrace change. Rarely do we speak of “leadership readiness.” Yet Prosci, a leading change research firm, reports year after year that lack of sponsorship is the number one cause of change failing to meet its objectives. It’s time to talk about “leadership readiness.”

There are three primary barriers to leadership readiness:

  1. Leaders don’t fully understand their role
  2. Cross-functional dysfunction erupts due to lack of alignment on approach, intent or outcomes
  3. Leaders don’t solicit enough feedback to engage employees

Each of these result in changes that do not live up to their potential. When leaders recognize these barriers and take corrective action, the probability of success increases significantly.

The leader’s role

Three things successful leaders do regularly:

  1. Provide active and visible support for change
  2. Understand the behavior impact caused by change
  3. Repeatedly communicate the need for change

Provide active and visible support

Effective sponsors should gain commitment from the team and engage every day and attend leadership meetings to provide direction, clarity, and accountability. They should be actively mitigating risks and resolving issues, meeting regularly with front-line employees to talk about the change and its impacts, and soliciting and incorporating feedback into the change process.

Understand the behavior impact

Almost any change requires altering behavior in order to change. Here are some examples of behavior change drivers:

  1. The organization changes one or more of its business processes, causing the people who use them to interact differently.
  2. The organization restructures, causing former relationships to give way to new partnerships. Employees must now build new working relationships.
  3. One company acquires another often causing two different cultures to come together. Employees must understand the behaviors and norms of their new colleagues and adjust their own to work together effectively.

Effective sponsors understand the need for behavior changes early and determines how behaviors must be altered, models the new behaviors to the organization, and speaks openly about the changes.

Repeatedly communicate

Communications experts say that employees need to hear a message seven to ten times to fully comprehend. Sponsors and their leadership teams must regularly emphasize the why, what, and how of the change.

  1. Why: Discuss the business drivers causing the change. Define the value to the business. Describe how it fits into the overall organizational strategy. Communicate the downside effect if the organization doesn’t change.
  2. What: Define the impact to the organization. Describe how jobs will change. Define how roles will interact differently. Estimate job increases or decreases. Describe how things will be different.
  3. How: Explain how the change will impact individual roles. Specify support mechanisms available during and after the change. Identify new metrics and how they’ll be measured.

Avoid cross-functional dysfunction

The most effective teams don’t wait for the “boss” to resolve conflicts, they do it themselves. They are not afraid to call out behavior that doesn’t align with the direction of the team, and actively acknowledge when team members make progress. 

“The most effective teams don’t wait for the “boss” to resolve conflicts, they do it themselves. They are not afraid to call out behavior that doesn’t align with the direction of the team, and actively acknowledge when team members make progress.”

As a sponsor, ensure the leadership team is aligned with the expected outcomes of the change. A few questions to consider:

  1. Are the outcomes clearly explained? Is leadership team feedback solicited to shape the purpose and outcomes?
  2. Does the leadership team trust one another? Do they speak candidly about activities in their organizations, and in their personal lives as appropriate?
  3. Do they engage in healthy dissent? Do they challenge each other’s ideas without fear of reprisal?
  4. Do they seek commitment across the team to follow through on actions? Do they agree on a single owner and delivery date?
  5. Are they holding one another accountable? Do they follow up to ask about progress? Are they delivering?

Engage the organization through feedback

Leaders are busy. Board meetings; Stakeholder meetings; Analyst meetings; There is so much to do. To top it off, there is a large transformational change underway. The leader effectively advocates for the change. Frequent discussion occurs about the Why, What, and How of the transformation. Don’t underestimate the power of this – employees want to hear from their leader during times of change. They also want to have input.

Engage employees so they become the ultimate owners and drivers of the change. Consider a few of the following ideas, and in all cases, incorporate feedback as appropriate into the program.

  1. Develop a change agent network. This is a group of employees who advocate the change at lower levels of the organization. Meet with them regularly to exchange information about progress and obtain feedback.
  2. Hold town hall meetings. Develop regular employee forums where they can interface directly with the leader, ask questions about the change, and receive feedback about progress.
  3. Hold focused meetings or lunches with a few employees at a time. Learn about concerns, dispel rumors, and ask for input.
  4. Conduct surveys. Conduct readiness assessments to obtain confidential feedback about the program. Use these opportunities to share the message.


These are the methods I’ve seen leaders use most frequently to help employees embrace change and drive it to greater success. The underlying principles are to speak candidly, advocate the purpose and outcomes, genuinely seek and apply feedback, and engage employees to help design, implement and institutionalize the change.

About the Author

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Steve Salisbury

Steve Salisbury is an organization change, leadership, and culture consultant who has helped dozens of executives lead change and grow their businesses. Steve’s unique approach is to understand and adjust organizational culture and then execute strategy quickly, effectively, and with the highest return possible. Steve evaluates interpersonal, organizational, and process elements to eliminate cross-functional dysfunction and builds teams to create a leadership culture to drive exponential growth. Steve has worked with the world’s most recognizable and global organizations to drive growth by creating capacity, galvanizing leaders, and driving accountability. In 2020, Steve published his first book, Activate: 15 Steps to Profitable Strategy Execution. The book explains how to drive greater profitability faster. Steve also serves as a volunteer mentor for SCORE, an organization that provides small business advice to help companies start, grow, and operate efficiently.