It almost goes without saying that an organizational change initiative without proper levels of leadership support is doomed to fail. Perhaps the project will be paid lip service, but it will ultimately either be ignored into oblivion or cut short of its potential with one drop of the axe.
Not only do organizational leaders have the power to make or break your project on their own, but it is impossible to bypass them to change the organization below. Individuals experiencing change will look to those in power for confirmation that they are committed to the new way of doing things. It is under intense scrutiny that leaders are watched to see if their actions match their intentions. If not, the change initiative will be dismissed as “flavor of the month” and not taken seriously.
Amid all this doom and gloom, there is a bright side. You don’t have to settle for the level of leadership support you currently have. As fellow human beings, leaders are capable of being informed and influenced.
Take the following steps to determine how to best garner the support of the most influential people in your organization.
1) Identify “Leadership”
When we use the term “leadership,” it typically means the group of people whose titles reside at the top of the org chart. However, the list may be different for the transformation you are trying to achieve. Start by identifying all individuals who might have a strong impact on the success of your initiative, including decision makers and influential employees who do not have leadership titles.
The key is to decouple the nebulous term “Leadership” from the names of individuals who can impact your project. Since each leader has her own opinions, knowledge and motivations, it is important to treat leaders as individuals, and not as a faceless leadership group.
2) Assign Levels of Support
Before you can garner support for your initiative from your leadership list, consider that there are different levels of support. Buy-in is the minimum amount of support required to be called support at all. There are two other levels that rise beyond buy-in on the support continuum.
- Ownership: An initiative owner takes personal responsibility for the success or failure of the initiative. He plans, communicates and holds people accountable for task completion.
- Commitment: Leaders who are committed to your initiative demonstrate it by taking action in favor of it. They do not own the project per se, but they do their part to make it happen.
- Buy-in: In the game of poker, “buy-in” is the amount you pay just to join the game. When you have someone’s buy-in, it means she may agree with you, but may not act on it.
- Neutral: These are the people who don’t really care about your initiative either way. They either are not affected or are just along for the ride.
- Opposition: Unfortunately, there will be people who don’t agree with your initiative. There are different levels of opposition, from relatively benign disagreement to downright belligerent and argumentative.
Identify where on this support spectrum each leader is currently and where he needs to be in order for your initiative to succeed. Then prioritize which leaders have the most support to raise, and thus which leaders need the most attention from you.
3) Specify Requirements
Different levels of support require different roles from leaders. Determine what is required of individual leaders and in what ways each must change in order to demonstrate the support you need.
Each leader is in a unique position in the organization. They make decisions, talk to others, and influence followers. Your initiative would be more successful if they performed specific activities, exhibited certain behaviors, and conveyed and ideally held key attitudes. These facets reflect the desired level of support for each individual.
To further define support for each leader, identify what you need her to start doing differently. Also list what you want her to keep doing, and what you need her to stop doing. In this fashion, you will specify a gap between her current activities, behaviors and attitudes and the desired ones.
4) Diagnose The Gap
Based on the requirements you determine, identify what factors are standing in the way of the full support you need.
The reasons leaders do not show support generally fall into six categories.
- Information: The leader may lack knowledge of the details of the project, such as benefits. Also, he may not know what is expected of him.
- Skills: Some change initiatives require leaders to learn new skills and abilities.
- Motivation: The project or the necessary behaviors may not be aligned with what the leader considers to be her best interests, or to the interests of what is important to her.
- Power: When a leader is not allowed (real or perceived) to show the desired support there is a power gap. Culture and feared repercussions are examples of power factors to explore.
- Fear: Change involves an inherent risk. Leaders may experience a number of different fears related to your initiative, which they may or may not express directly to you.
- Resources: A frequent excuse or complaint is that leaders don’t have enough time or resources to take on or become involved in another project. While this may be true, lack of resources is an easy excuse that may also hide any of the above reasons.
5) Design Action Steps
The last step is to make an action plan by closing the gaps you identified in the fourth step.
Provide information and training where necessary. Develop incentives and work with leaders to understand how to reframe the project to fit with their personal motivation. Map power gaps to the source and develop interventions to close them. To reduce fear, reduce the real or perceived risk. By clarifying your requirements and expectations you will pinpoint the appropriate steps to raise leadership support for your change initiative.
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