For subscribers only

Leading The Strategic Changes

Layne McDonald. Ph.D.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. - Maya Angelou

Implementing new strategies, directions, and aims introduces significant organizational change. As such, the implementation must be approached and managed similarly to when significant changes are being made. The changes must be planned, implemented as smoothly as possible, and then checked and evaluated for progress and performance against the desired outcomes and aims, which were the drivers of the change. The leader must ensure that all aspects of the changes, including the new strategic plan, are managed successfully.

The leader is the change strategist, whose role is to lead, champion the changes, promote the vision, keep the organization traveling in the chosen direction, and ensure that all those involved in implementing the changes, and the strategies, perform to the best of their ability. There is a range of leadership styles that could be drawn on. Some would argue that specific changes need an autocratic, aggressive leadership style. While there may be the need for an element of this approach to be used as a single style, it rarely results in a positive post-change environment. This is the flaw in this approach, for after the changes have been implemented and the strategies are in place, the managers, specialists, operational employees, and all contributing stakeholders must work together in a harmonious, positive manner to achieve the desired progress aims. Suppose the leadership style during the change has been harsh, unforgiving, and aggressive. In that case, it may take many months, even years, to re-establish a positive environment and a healthy, goals-focused, teamwork-driven culture. The only logical choice of leadership style in any significant change combines all the techniques but leans heavily toward those which focus on a team approach. The leader adopts a flexible, responsive style, a blend of consultative, participative, and democratic, leaving room for an occasional, sparing touch of the autocratic to be employed if necessary. This style will then be the foundation for the new, changed organization.

The leader must check performance at the strategic and corporate levels. Changing strategic direction, no matter how thorough the preparation and planning, entails taking the organization into uncharted territory. The leader is the guide, the expert, the most high-profile member of the team embarking on this journey, and as such, must be constantly aware of how much progress is being made and, when required, able to adjust the pace of progress and degree of activity to ensure that progress is satisfactory. To succeed, the leader must regularly monitor and evaluate activities, demanding prompt and correct information to make the assessment. In turn, the senior management team must show that they are successfully cascading this review and evaluation process down into the operational activity areas. The leader must set evidence of achievement of this task as one of the performance appraisal criteria for the senior managers. In turn, they must apply this approach to the operational managers and teams, as discussed below.

The senior managers are the change implementers at the corporate level. Their role in implementing and managing the strategies and ensuring that the aims are met is crucial. These managers will lead and manage the operational managers and specialists and check performance and progress. One of their roles will be to inform and drive active managers and to appraise their performance. In all these activities, the leader(s) must provide the senior managers with encouragement and the necessary support to conduct their work. They must also appraise their performance and demand improvements where necessary.

At the operational levels, the middle and functional managers must aid in making the changes and achieving the aims. This includes complex areas of activity such as achieving targets, goals, deadlines, outcomes, dreams, managing budgets, controlling costs, keeping quality standards, producing goods, or delivering services. It also includes effectively managing soft areas of activity such as communications, coaching, training, and development, managing resistance, and supplying support for those negatively affected by the changes. The leader cannot work at this level but should repeatedly ask for evidence from the senior managers that the strategic aims have been successfully translated into operational targets, deadlines, and goals and that operational performance is satisfactory.

The leader will have little contact with the operational employees in all but the minor organization. However, that does not mean that the leader should not be known to them or that the leader should not know their feelings. The role and style adopted by the leader should ensure that the operational employees are aware of the leader and of the kind of leadership being adopted. This is achieved partly through the communication of the mission, or vision, or simply the strategic direction being taken by the organization, partly through the cascading down of the strategic plans, becoming visible as operational aims, and partly by the visibility of the leader in channels such as newsletters, the corporate website, and local or national media. Visibility by physical presence, for example, in the leader visiting operational activity areas, could be helpful but is not always possible and must always be carefully managed. The only realistic way for the leader to communicate the strategic plan and direction is through the operational managers, themselves responding to the messages from their more senior managers. However, the importance of active employees in helping to achieve the strategic aims through their performance at the operational activity level cannot be overestimated. The leader must ensure they receive the support, training, resources, and management quality needed to achieve the operational aims. Without success at this level, the strategies will fail.

Most organizations have several critical external stakeholders. The leader must inform and consult with these, as they are essential to the success of the strategies. Shareholders must continue to support the changes and the leader; lenders will need constant reassurance that their funds are being used wisely and repayments are not under threat; business partners will need ease of positive progress being made; suppliers will need relief that they will be paid; local authorities and other agencies will be required to provide services; the media will want to report on positive progress but will also be watching for negative news to report; families of employees will need reassurance that their providers are not at risk, and customers will continue to demand that the products or services that they purchase will meet their needs. The leader must be aware of and respond to all these demands.

The leader is, without doubt, the most critical person in implementing a change of strategic direction. The analogy with the captain of a ship is an apt one. It is the responsibility of the captain (the leader) to ensure that the officers (the senior and middle managers), the engineers and mechanics (the specialists in finance, marketing, quality, etc.), and the crew (the operational employees), are all working to the best of their abilities in keeping all areas of the ship. With this under control, the leader can then focus on the primary role of maintaining the course that has been set, forecasting, and taking corrective action against threats that may lie ahead.

One aspect of managing change in implementing a new strategic plan, or direction, is celebrating success. Mechanisms should be in place at senior management, middle and operational management, and operational employee levels to visibly reward success. Success here could mean many things, including achieving important milestones or targets, overcoming resistance to change; removing barriers; settling conflict; taking opportunities; defending against threats; eliminating or reducing weaknesses; making unexpected improvements; raising quality standards, and improving the plan. Morale and motivation will be increased significantly if success is rewarded. The leader should ensure that reward for success is a high-profile aspect of managing change.

In leading the strategic activity needed to implement the strategic plan, to change the strategic direction of the organization, the leader in managing shows a significant change. Most change activities will, by necessity, be technically, operationally, and controlled by others. The leader must focus on ensuring that the organization is following the direction laid down in the strategic plan while at the same time driving those who are operationally implementing the plan. It is a dual role that requires great skill and an elevated level of effort and energy. Influential leaders will have prepared for this by equipping the organization with proper physical, financial, and human resources and providing themselves with the necessary knowledge and understanding of strategic change management. With these in place, the leader will successfully manage the change and achieve the strategic aims.

Subscriber content only

To access this content and all of our unlimited content subscribe now