15 May Leading Strategic Changes
Implementing new strategies, new directions, new objectives, is introducing change–major change–into the organisation. As such it is essential that the implementation is approached and managed in a similar fashion to that adopted when major changes are being made. The implementation of the changes must be planned, implemented as smoothly as possible, and then be monitored and evaluated for progress and performance against the desired outcomes and objectives that were the drivers of the change. The leader must ensure that all aspects of the changes in the new strategic plan are managed successfully.
The leader is the change strategist whose role is to lead, to champion the changes, to promote the vision, to keep the organisation travelling in the chosen direction, and to ensure that all those involved in implementing the changes and strategies perform to the best of their ability. There are a range of leadership styles that could be drawn on. Some would argue that certain changes need an autocratic, aggressive style of leadership, and, while there may be the need for an element of this approach, if used as a single style it rarely results in a positive post-change environment. This is the flaw in this approach: 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 make the desired progress and achieve the objectives. If the leadership style during the change has been harsh, unforgiving, and aggressive, 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 major change is one that combines all the styles, but leans heavily to those which focus on a team approach. The leader adopts a flexible, responsive style, that is a blend of the consultative, participative, and democratic, leaving room for an occasional, sparing touch of the autocratic to be employed if absolutely necessary. This style will then be the foundation on which the newly changed organisation is built.
Performance at the strategic, corporate level must be monitored by the leader. Changing strategic direction, no matter how thorough the preparation and planning, entails taking the organisation 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 be successful in this the leader must carry out monitoring and evaluation activity on a regular basis, demanding timely and accurate information with which 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, and they in turn must apply this approach to the operational managers and teams, as discussed below.
The senior managers are the change implementers at corporate level. Their role in implementing and managing the strategies and ensuring that the objectives are met is crucial. It is these managers that will be leading and managing the operational managers and specialists and monitoring performance and progress made. One of their roles will be to inform and manage the operational managers, and to appraise their performance. In all of these activities the leader(s) must provide the senior managers with encouragement and the necessary support to carry out their work, but must also appraise their performance and demand improvements where necessary.
At the operational levels the middle and functional managers must assist in making the changes and then achieving the objectives. This includes in hard areas of activity such as the achievement of targets, goals, deadlines, outcomes, objectives, in managing budgets, controlling costs, maintaining quality standards, producing goods or delivering services. It also includes the effective management of soft areas of activity such as in communications, coaching, training and development, managing resistance, and providing support for those negatively affected by the changes. The leader cannot manage at this level, but should regularly ask for evidence from the senior managers that the strategic objectives have been successfully translated into operational targets, deadlines, and goals, and that operational performance is satisfactory.
In all but the smallest organisation the leader will have little regular contact with the operational employees. However, that does not mean that the leader should not be known to them, or that their feelings should not be known by the leader. The role and style adopted by the leader should ensure that the operational employees are aware of the leader, and of the style 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 organisation, partly through the cascading down of the strategic plans, becoming visible as operational objectives, 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 handled. 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 the operational employees in helping to achieve the strategic objectives, through their performance at the operational activity level, cannot be overestimated. The leader must ensure that they receive the support, the training, the resources, the quality of management, that they need in order to achieve the operational objectives. Without success at this level, the strategies will fail.
Most organisations have a number of important external stakeholders. The leader must inform and liaise with these, as they are important 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 reassurance of positive progress being made; suppliers will need reassurance 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 important person in the process of 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 maintaining 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 and forecasting and taking corrective action against threats that may lie ahead.
One aspect of leading strategic changes, relevant here in implementing a new strategic plan or direction, is that of 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 opportunity; defending against threats; removing or reducing weaknesses; making unexpected improvements; raising quality standards; improving the plan. Morale and motivation will be raised significantly if success is rewarded. The leader should ensure that reward for success is a high profile aspect of the way in which change is managed.
In leading the strategic activity that is required to implement the strategic plan to change the strategic direction of the organisation, the leader is managing a major change. The majority of the change activity will by necessity be technically and operationally managed by others. With this in mind, the leader must focus on ensuring that the organisation is following the direction laid down in the strategic plan, while at the same time managing those who are operationally implementing the plan. It is a dual role that requires great skill and a high level of effort and energy. Effective leaders will have prepared for this by equipping the organisation with appropriate physical, financial, and human resources, and by equipping themselves with the necessary knowledge and understanding of strategic change management. With these in place, the leader will be successful in managing the change and the strategic objectives will be achieved.