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Change Management Learning Center - managing change library


A Thirst for Change Leadership - the debate begins

Debated by Jeff Hiatt, Tim Creasey, Melissa Dutmers, Dr. James Johnson and Adrienne Boyd

Read the introduction to the debate to learn more about this panel and their background.

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Jeff Hiatt

Tim Creasey

Melissa Dutmers

Dr. James Johnson

Adrienne Boyd

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Round 1 - The Role of Executives and CEOs in managing change

In this first debate, the panel will discuss the role of executives and CEOs in managing change. Jeff Hiatt will introduce the opposing viewpoint and moderate the panel.


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Jeff Hiatt

Mid-level managers often look upward thinking that the nirvana for change management rests with the CEO or head of the organization. Executives express concern that the excessive expectations placed on them are in fact nothing more than excuses for a lack of leadership and management skills within the management ranks.

"Don't come to our company and tell me how to manage change," a senior VP and COO told me just two weeks ago as I was preparing to talk with their leadership team. "Provide resources to help my managers lead change. I need them to be able to get on board and take action without me being involved in every activity and every meeting."

How many senior executives feel the pressure for being the critical lynchpin for the success of a major change? Why can't organizations implement major change without having active sponsorship of an executive or CEO each step of the way?


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Dr. James Johnson (JJ)

I was teaching a Change Management class to a group of 50 middle and upper managers of a Fortune 100 company in June. I knew right away they were skeptical of buying into my charge that they and the Change Management team would have to coach the president on a formal communication plan for the company. The plan would have to contain what he should say, when he would say it, how he would deliver it and to whom. Later on in the afternoon, the president made an appearance at the training session, apologizing for not being able to attend the session. He was in-between planes and wanted to stop in and say "Hi".

The president had just been at an important meeting where a partnership was being negotiated and he wanted to fill them in on how it was going. After the president talked for about 10 minutes, he announced he was off to another meeting. With this, the most senior manager at the meeting grabbed the microphone and said "This guy says we have to coach you on how to communicate the change" (he was pointing to me). Their whole group went silent for what seemed like 10 minutes. The president looked at the senior manager and replied "Good! I'm going to need all the help I can get on this one. Listen to what he says."

In my corporate career, I have found that executives who are passionate about a change want to do all they can to promote and support the change. Many times they don't know how or just don't have the time to craft a plan to communicate the change. They would be eternally grateful for some individual or team to give them advice! They know how important it is for them to show their support for a change project.


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Adrienne Boyd

I am hearing two conflicting messages. Jeff says, senior executives want nothing to do with the change and are extremely bothered by the notion that their people are not competent to lead the change on their own. JJ says, senior executives honestly want to be involved and participate in the change but their duties and schedule limit them.

But, I think possibly these two messages, which seem on the surface to be conflicting, really go hand in hand. I see it as the senior executive's comfort and ability levels that are in question and not their potential roles in a change. The first senior executive may not be comfortable enough to admit he needs help with the change so he reacts viciously by attacking and blaming (instead of leading). He shifts his inability and discomfort to his managing teams by attacking their competency and ability. The second executive (in JJ's case study) has reached a place of understanding where he recognizes he needs help and is willing to accept it and be grateful for it.

Still that leaves a huge question in my mind. How do I really know what kind of senior executive I am dealing with; how do I go about getting their support and participation and in the manner that best accommodates their styles? And is their support really that important??? Are they worth the trouble?


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Melissa Dutmers

I interpreted Jeff's comments and JJ's comments differently. Jeff's discussion with the senior VP did not equate to senior executives not wanting anything to do with change. Nor did J.J's experience during the change management course equate to managers wanting to be involved in change, but not having time. On the contrary. The primary role of any leader is working through others. This means coaching people, empowering people so they can "get on board and take action" without the senior VP being involved in every activity and every meeting. In Jeff's example, the senior VP's desire was for his/her managers to learn to lead change without him/her being involved in every step of the way. My response to that is, coach them on how to do that. Inspire them to get involved to achieve business results. Make it okay for your people at all levels to lead change. Expect people to lead change for improved business results.

Organizations have to be agile and move quickly to respond to competition, to meet market requirements, to respond to changing economic and global conditions. The role that senior management plays in change projects is the advocate role and the reviewer role. Notice I did not say the implementer or the champion - these roles require significant time and investment in the details. Senior management's role is to enable and empower their change agents - so the people implementing the change can move quickly. Leaders don't own all the work, they own showing visible support for the change and they do this via hallway conversations, communication updates, and in meetings. These are things they are already doing and do not require extra time - this is how they work through others. Don't confuse senior management's active sponsorship role in change with owning the implementation of the change and managing the details of the change. Is it absolutely necessary for senior management to show visible support for major changes? Absolutely. If they don't understand that, they are not leading, they are not empowering their people to move quickly. It is in senior management's best interest to work effectively and efficiently through others and to do that, visible support is a must.


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Tim Creasey

The question is not whether executives must be involved in change management. Their participation is critical to success. Last year I led a best practices study with 288 organizations to find out what is needed for change management to be successful. When asked, "what was the greatest contributor to your change management success?" participants responded overwhelmingly, effective executive sponsorship.

I think the question on the table is -- what comprises effective sponsorship of a senior business leader? The COO Jeff spoke with was right, executive sponsorship does not mean being responsible for each and every piece of the change management effort. That is the responsibility of the change management team, managers and supervisors. Our study results showed that effective sponsors:

  1. show active and visible support, both privately and professionally
  2. ensure that the change remains a priority demonstrate their commitment as a role model of change
  3. provide compelling justification for why the change is happening
  4. communicate a clear understanding of the goals and objectives of the change
  5. provide sufficient resources for the team and project to be successful

While executives are feeling the pressure of many different initiatives, it is irresponsible to not support change management efforts. My logic for this goes like this: 1) executives are responsible for improving financial and strategic performance, 2) change management is the most important factor for financial and strategic projects to be successful, therefore 3) to promote improvement within the organization, an executive must effectively support change initiatives.

Our research shows that the biggest mistakes executives can make are not visibly supporting the change throughout the entire process and abdicating responsibility. The executive is a vital part of the change management efforts, but it is the responsibility of the change management teams to figure out how to make use of this sponsorship. Whether it is a short speech to a group of effected employees or directly dealing with a resistant manager, teams should use the tools of executive sponsorship to make their own efforts and the change successful.


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Jeff Hiatt

To make headway here, we need to address the core issue. CEOs and senior business leaders are not all created equal. Some will naturally lead change and be an effective sponsor. If this is your executive, then you are home free. Other executives may express the desire to sponsor the change, but simply lack the knowledge and skills to do it effectively. JJ was right when he said that many executives need direct support and coaching to be effective sponsors of change. This is still a good situation for the project team.

But let's not dodge the bullet. Some executives do not fall into either of these camps. In working with many CEOs and senior business leaders, I have found that if they do not match one of the two types just described, they fall into one of the remaining categories:

  • Scenario 1 - They are uncomfortable performing the activities necessary to sponsor the change and would rather delegate these duties to someone else.
  • Scenario 2 - They do not believe that their involvement is necessary for the change to be a success and do not see why their involvement is important.
  • Scenario 3  - They want to distance themselves from any negative fall-out that may occur from the change (especially when job changes or layoffs may occur).

The challenge for many teams is what to do with senior business leaders and CEOs who fall into one of these latter categories, and I am not hearing any clear direction about this core issue.


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Adrienne Boyd

Hearing Tim's research about the importance of executive sponsorship, I feel it is important to do all you can to get executive sponsorship. However, I agree that some senior executives may not get on board no matter what the change management team tries or does. If that's the case, the team must find the next best thing. Is it possible for someone else to substitute in this sponsor role? Is there a point in time when a team decides not to move forward with a change if sufficient sponsorship is not present? Should the change itself be changed to fit the sponsorship? Are these even options?


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Tim Creasey

Adrienne is right - the change management team must do something to improve sponsorship in these types of scenarios. One approach is to use change management techniques to "create effective executives sponsors of change." Since this is a change with individuals, an individual change management model like ADKAR provides the foundation for how to manage this change (see tutorial The ADKAR Model of Change Management).

Using ADKAR, this change would look like:

  1. Awareness - does the executive understand their role as a sponsor of change?
  2. Desire - does the executive understand the importance sponsorship plays in making a change successful and have the desire to act in this role?
  3. Knowledge - does the executive know what steps and actions are required to support the change as an executive sponsor?
  4. Ability - can the executive actually perform these steps? Can the team provide the necessary guidance to ensure this ability?
  5. Reinforcement - what is being done to ensure that the executive maintains the role of "active and visible" sponsor throughout the change?

In Scenario 1 where the executive may be uncomfortable in this role, the team must begin by building awareness of the need for the executive's sponsorship and strengthen the executives desire to act in this role. The biggest task, however, will be to develop the right knowledge and skills so that the executive is prepared and able to do this correctly and professionally, and feel comfortable that they are doing the right thing. The Change Management Toolkit and the Best Practices report both outline an executive roadmap of actions (broken down by audience and timing in the project) that can be used by sponsors. The project team should also actively coach the executive and help prepare key messages.

For scenario 2, the sponsor is simply resistant to this active sponsorship role. They most likely do not appreciate or believe the business risks that face an organizational when implementing change without the required sponsorship. Don't give up. The team must be clear in its communications with the executive regarding these business risks. Provide examples and case studies from resources like the Change Management Best practices research. Use other influential executives (their peers) to help with this awareness building process.

In scenario 3, the executive wants to insulate themselves from the change. In these cases, the executive may even be willing to endure additional business risks so long as they are not closely associated with the process.  Is this truly a sponsor of change?


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Melissa Dutmers

The reason Jeff is not hearing any "clear direction" on how to gain sponsorship from senior business leaders and CEO's who want to distance themselves from any negative fall out or do not believe their involvement is necessary in change is because this is not a black and white issue. This is not an engineering bug fix. I agree with Tim. Do not give up. For change agents that are struggling to gain sponsorship from their senior business leaders, you have an uphill battle, however not impossible. Some additional suggestions are:

  • Find out what your senior business leaders care about. What are they losing sleep over? What concerns them about the competition? What are they excited about in the company? I would bet that they care about business results.
  • Show them how their involvement in the change is going to help get business results. Show them how their lack of involvement will hinder the change implementation.
  • Be explicit and let them know specifically what you need from them. If you must, craft the message for the senior leader, review it with them and then help them with the delivery process.

All too often, company wide initiatives are taking place without a word from the CEO or senior leaders on why the initiative is important. Shame on them - senior leaders are responsible and accountable for ensuring that their people, their most valuable resources, are working on the right things, at the right times to achieve business results.


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Dr. James Johnson (JJ) - the last word for Round 1

Wow! I believe there is NO "one size fits all" when it comes to change management. Senior managers are people, too. They are all different - depending on their personalities, history, experience, compensation plans, and a host of other variables.

If Change Management is really the "people side of change", then senior managers must be included - especially in large-scale transformational changes. How they initially choose to be involved is not always what change managers want. Here's what I hear from debaters that I think sums up the topic:

  • Senior managers span the continuum from wanting active involvement to keeping an arm's length in Change Management initiatives.
  • Senior managers have different comfort levels, time constraints, and abilities when it comes to Change Management.
  • Research shows that executive involvement is the greatest contributor to change management success. These are very compelling findings.
  • Senior managers' roles include leading, coaching, empowering, and support. Sometimes these roles can cause conflicting interpretations from change managers.
  • Sometimes senior managers must distance themselves from a particular project for reasons that are not fully understood by the change management team (politics, PR, economic outlook, stock price, etc.). This could be the "good guy - bad guy" approach where the Change Management team has to take the heat.
  • Some senior managers may not be exactly "passionate" about the change initiative. There has to be a WIIFM - What's In It For Me - for them, too. Some won't be on the train when it pulls out of the first station. You need to get them on board as soon as possible.
  • There are tools and methodologies that the team can use which can make Change Management work and build executive sponsorship. Take advantage of these tools. Many concrete steps were provided by Tim and Melissa.

I think that the Change Management team has the responsibility to try to enlist senior management's support. If senior management is not supportive, then the team must not view managing change as an event. Continue working with your executive team, understand that they are real people, and work patiently to build their competency in managing change as executive sponsors.


Share your input or personal experience on the role of executives in change management.

Reader's responses

This debate address issues that I have seen first hand in the role of change agent. I also believe that the change agent has to have a distinct approach or even a change model to present to executives that helps them see the direction the change is going and how their input will help gain momentum and full implementation. Without executive support, most change initiatives fail - that is a fact. I also agree that the executive has to see what the value is of the change and has to believe that it is the right thing to do, otherwise support would be superficial and meaningless. Finally, there should be financial or business consequences which can be measurable and trackable so that the executive's support does not stop throughout the change and full scale implementation. Measurability has been somewhat illusive but that is changing. More and more organizations are finding ways to measure change when they have a change model and methods of tracking progress of change.


It is true that executives are people too. (I think there is some scientific evidence that executives are human despite thought to the contrary). When working with executives I try to keep in mind that I, as change agent, can walk away. The executive puts much more on the line to take a stance and support a change position. There has to be a valid and critical reason for them to take that stance and support the change. Change agents and groups promoting internal organizational change should keep that in mind when encouraging an executive to promote and support a major change.


As there is no one model of success , so there can be no one ideal model of a CEO. It is the responsibility of the HR professionals within a company to understand , advise and positively influence the CEO so that her personality, the business paradigms, and organizational priorities all create a culture which should enthuse the human resource towards purposeful growth of the organization.


Most CEOs who know what is in there for their business goals will support change initiatives. Being visible during the change process is a 'hard nut' but not a challenge that cannot be handled.


Major issue is some CEOs want positive results of change without wanting to be associated with the short-term consequences of change e.g. exit of staff (initiated by company or staff!).


The role of the executive is to be the sponsor. Conner [Daryl Conner’s book, Managing at the Speed of Change] defines sponsor as a person who can legitimize the change and differentiates a sponsor from an advocate, who is a person who supports the change but has no way to legitimize it. So I would disagree with Melissa that the role of senior management is the advocate or reviewer role. I would however agree with Tim on his comments about effective sponsorship. I would add to his comments that the sponsor has to maintain that sponsorship throughout the three phases of change, initiating, implementing, and institutionalizing. I believe the reason the research indicates so strongly the need for executive sponsorship is because without sustained sponsorship, the change merely becomes one more “change of the month” which never gets institutionalized.

I would also agree that sponsorship can be achieved in more than one way, as long as he walks the talk and the whole organization knows that he is fully committed to the change. I would add that he should not micro manage and I, for one, favor empowerment as the most effective means of sponsorship. Unfortunately many executives do not understand empowerment.

Adrienne raises several significant questions, which it appears, go mostly unanswered. Hence I will take a shot at answering.

“Is it possible for someone else to substitute for the sponsor role?”

If the sponsor has been correctly identified, then the answer is no.

“Is there a point in time when a team decides not to move forward with a change if sufficient sponsorship is not present?”

Unless you want to become another forgotten “change of the month” the answer is yes.

“Should the change itself be changed to fit the sponsorship?”

This is the most important question asked and the answer is yes. The reason is the whole concept of aligning proposed changes with the strategy of the corporation (and hopefully its executives). We should not be undertaking a change initiative unless it supports the goals and strategies of the corporation. Hence it is not a case of us trying to shape and train the executive to fit the change, it is our job, as change agents, to examine the corporation’s goals and objectives and make a business case as to why our change initiative fits and supports one or more of those goals and objectives. While the ADKAR model may help in getting this alignment, I get the impression that in the first and second step we are trying to get the executive in synch with us when I believe our role is just the opposite. Our role is to figure out what are the “hot buttons” of the executive and develop a plan that aligns as closely with his goals and objectives as possible. While we have not yet talked about the difference between a major and minor change we should be aware that if this is a major change there may not initially be good alignment with the company goals. Here we, as change agents, need to be innovative and see if there is something presently going on in the company that might support our change initiative in whole or part. This fits nicely in what many Quality experts recommend when introducing Quality into an organization; find something that most closely resembles what you are trying to introduce and introduce the Quality changes incrementally until the culture begins to change. Unfortunately this introduces another subject, changing the culture, which will take much longer to discuss. But if it is a major change we may have to consider introducing it incrementally or changing the culture before we proceed.

In summary, I believe the role of the executive is sponsorship, without it the change will fail. In addition I believe it is the role of the change agent to find some means of aligning the proposed change with either the corporate goals (hence the executive’s) or with some facet of the corporate culture which will allow the change to be introduced incrementally.


I agree with the Melissa's views on executive sponsorship. Human being always have resisted change initially. Such a resistance cannot be taken to be final statement from the executives' side. As a matter of fact, there is the need to educate the executive on the necessity of change. A good leader is one who is able to convert a 'no' to 'yes'. It calls for leadership capabilities of the executive. When the executive himself is convinced about the necessity of change,he can convince the employees as well. But it does take time. Coaching and inspiring the people on the crucial issues of change would require tremendous patience on the part of executives. At the same time one cannot make the change take place without any time framework as there would always be the fear of change itself being made redundant. Thus change under the able guidance of the senior management is the one desirable to revolutionize the management processes.


There are a number of reasons why CEO's need to be fully involved in change

CEO's need to be fully involved to: 1. Articulate the change that they want to happen in the company 2. Make decisions on the changes required at key points of the change 3. Provide the necessary 'Leverage' to overcome change resistance when it occurs

Notice I say 'involved' they obviously do not need to 'manage' the change but they need to put together a team that that provide the necessary information for the progress to be monitored and the decisions made. This team must have full and regular CEO contact for the following reasons:

1. The CEO's direction and vision needs to be interpreted correctly including the inner thoughts concerns and issues, (ensuring articulation & orders are clear) 2. The key to change is very often speed, if the CEO door is not open, the long lingering lack of decisions is a major inhibitor to change 3. Major change requires alterations to policy and direction. Usually such changes require decisions from the very top. 4. People do not usually want the change and very often the most affected parties are senior and middle management, the only way to effect change at this level is to exercise executive authority 5. Most people have to balance 'business as usual' with implementing changes. If the CEO cannot demonstrate the right priorities how is the rest of the organization going to behave? Time is not an excuse

Having said that the CEO needs a team, this team must be behind the CEO not in front of him.

The CEO is obviously under pressure at a time of change, but if they just 'fire-and-forget' the change it will probably achieve the same result - a lot of destruction and a big hole in the company!


I think that top executives need to be involved at the very least in two ways.

#1 Goal setting for the change. What do we want to have happen in the end. If middle management sets the goal and senior management is not on board, you're sunk. Not only does senior management set the goal but they have to tie that goal to an improvement in the organizations performance. Basically, why is this our goal and what will we gain from the change.

#2 Senior executives need to champion the change initiative publicly and privately. I think you have already said this in one form or another.

I feel that if the senior executive(s) can at least do these two things half the battle is won.



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Debate Topics

Over the next 12 weeks on a bi-weekly basis, this tutorial series will cover the following topics:

Debate 1: The roles of executives in change management: In this tutorial, we will examine the roles and responsibilities of senior business leaders.

Debate 2: Why manage change: In this tutorial, we will examine benchmarking results and the many different impacts of poorly managed change. Tell us what you think about debate 2.

Debate 3: Guiding principles and reactive vs. proactive change management: We will look at the principles that every manager or leader involved in managing change should know. Tell us what you think about debate 3.

Debate 4: The most effective change management strategies - options and methods for managing change. 
Tell us what you think about debate 4.

Debate 5: Organizational change management process: This tutorial examines the organizational change management process and how to use tools throughout your organization to plan for, manage and reinforce change. Tell us what you think about debate 5.

Debate 6: Connecting individual and organizational change: In this tutorial, we talk about the link between individual change management (how each employee experiences change) and organizational change management (the tools and processes you can use to help your employees go through change). Tell us what you think about debate 6.

Debate 7: Building change competency: Change competency is making change "business as usual." Organizations that will lead in the new economy must embrace change and be ready to adapt every day. This tutorial examines what change competency means, and how you can begin to build it in your organization. Tell us what you think about debate 7.


Resource guide

The resources in the table below will be the source of the upcoming tutorial series. For leaders and team members involved in managing a change project, these resources will provide an immediate understanding and tools.

Change Management Toolkit: a comprehensive change management process, includes specific sections on sizing your change management effort, communication planning, training development, sponsor roadmaps, and reinforcing change. Change leaders, consultants and change management team members - get templates, assessments, guidelines, examples and worksheets that help you implement organizational change management
Best Practices in Change Management: 426 companies share experiences in managing change and lessons on how to build great executive sponsorship. The report makes it easy to learn change management best practices and discover the mistakes to avoid leading change. Change leaders, consultants and change management team members - learn what is working for others, what is not, and what mistakes to avoid - includes team and sponsor activity lists. Includes success factors, methodology, role of top management, communications, team structure and more.
Change Management: the People Side of Change: introductory guide to change management -  an excellent primer and catalyst for change leadership with best practices from Prosci's latest research and case studies. Change leaders, executives and managers - learn the 'why,' 'how,' and 'what' of change management. "Change Management is like a driving school for change agents."  This 'quick read' includes the ADKAR model and the Prosci change management process.
Change Management Guide for Managers and Supervisors: complete with team and individual coaching activities, best practices findings and frequently asked questions. Managers and supervisors - a guide specifically designed for managers and supervisors dealing with change. This tool is ideal for managers who are directly dealing with employees facing change. Use with the Employee's Survival Guide to Change and the Change Management Toolkit.
Employee's Survival Guide to Change: a handbook to help employees survive and thrive during change. Employees facing change - answers frequently asked questions and empowers employees to be effective change agents with the ADKAR model.


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