Role do Leaders Take in Change Management?

Leaders matter a great deal when it comes to an organizations’ need for change — whether that change is long-planned or forced by a serious of unforeseen events. The research used for this paper (Watkins’ “Strategy for the critical first 90 days of leadership”; Kanter’s “The Enduring Skills of Change Leaders”; and Kotter’s “Successful Change and the Forces that Drive It”) includes strategies from well-known business theorists and authors.

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Main Ideas for John Kotter’s Article

Kotter breaks his strategy for successful change management into eight convenient steps, and these steps have become well-known and admired in the business management field. Step one, create a sense of urgency means a leader takes the pulse of the company and instills a sense of urgency if there isn’t already one. Step two is getting others behind the change and step three is having a “vision” for what change will bring. Step four relates to the communication needed to get everyone on board; step five (empowering people) and step six (“generating short-term wins“) are based on firing up the staff. Step seven (“Don’t Let Up!”) and step eight (“Make it Stick”) are follow-ups to keep the pressure on the company’s personnel to make the changes truly work, and not become token moves to appear progressive.

Kotter’s Article

What is the role of a leader? There is a good reason why Kotter is considered the “guru” of change management. He has shown the role of a leader through his steps, and his vision. His theories have been based on his own considerable experience and knowledge, and for a manager anticipating change within his organization, the eight steps that Kotter presents are easy to grasp and practical as well. The first step, establishing a sense of urgency, is perhaps easy to misunderstand because it doesn’t entail running around waving one’s arms and getting people excited. It is, rather, the ability of the leader to “aim for the heart” and connect to the “deepest values of their people and inspire them to greatness” (Kotter). Actually, to add to that, urgency is something that alert, committed employees should sense every day they are at work, Kotter adds. Step two means finding the right people (a coalition of people) with the right motivation to carry through, follow through with the preparations for the change. If a “low credibility committee” is chosen to drive the change, it will stall, or things “will limp along until the initiative falls apart” (Kotter).

But when done the correct way, a “coalition” will place “key players on board” to assure any slackers can’t “block progress”; the coalition group should have enough “proven leaders” and enough “credibility” to “drive the change process” (Kotter). Without a vision for change, the plan will go nowhere, Kotter asserts. The vision can’t be vague or mundane, because it needs to consolidate “hundreds or thousands” of tiny details and coordinate / motivate people to get the changes done. A vision (Step 3) has to be feasible, desirable, flexible, able to be imagined and able to be communicated well. On the subject of communication, Step 4 is about giving others the effective communication about the change so they “buy-in” to the process and the goal. In order for the communication to be easily passed and understood it must be “simple, vivid, repeatable and invitational” (Kotter).

Barriers to progress must be removed (Step 5) and people must be “empowered” for the change to be effective. One of those barriers might turn out to be “troublesome supervisors,” Kotter explains; troublesome supervisors may have adopted styles of management that “inhibits change” and while they don’t necessarily actively work to block or undermine the plan, they perhaps aren’t “wired” to participate in the process (they may be stuck in yesterday).

The sixth step (“Generating Short-term wins“) is a vitally important part of making change work for the employees, because when there are changes put in place and for months nothing happens to show progress, workers can get discouraged. Between six and eight months into the change flow little wins “provide evidence that the sacrifices that people are making are paying off” (Kotter). The little wins also serve “to reward the change agents by providing positive feedback that boosts morale and motivation,” and they also help to “fine tune the vision and the strategies” that the planners for this change had envisioned.

Step seven is an obvious one, but many people need to be reminded to not “let up.” When a football teams scores a couple touchdowns, they don’t just let up and think they’ve won. They continue to play hard, smart football, putting pressure on the opponent. In business change situations, “the consequences of letting up can be very dangerous,” Kotter explains. Losing “critical momentum” by backing off, failing to keep the pressure on, letting up, is a mistake. And Step eight is really more about not letting up and that is “Make it Stick”; you have to “prove that the new way is superior to the old”; and “reinforce new norms and values with incentives and rewards” to those who worked hard on the changes.

Main Ideas for Kanter’s Article

Rosabeth Moss Kanter emphasizes that there are no issues in recent years that have caused more “concern” for managers than organizational change; also, hundreds of books offer myriad insights into how changes should occur in organizations. Things that really bring change the right way are “not bold strokes but long marches,” and they require that people have to “adjust their behaviors,” not just carry on as they did before. There are a number of important skills that managers and executives must have — and Kanter lists them in specific detail — and must learn to pass along to underlings as the changes are implemented. Learning to “persevere” is an important part of the process, along with communicating well the ideas and visions.

Kanter’s Article

First of all, without “passion, conviction and confidence” there can be no effective change in any organization, and hence a leader can’t lead, according to Kanter (p. 3). There are three “key attributes” that leaders must adopt: a) “the imagination to innovate” (this has to be a creative person not stuck in the past); b) the “professionalism to perform” (flawless execution is vital); and c) “the openness to collaborate” (this matches Kotter’s “coalition” concept). Kanter notes that when change is required due to a “crisis” it can be seen as a “threat” which is why the plan should not be implemented with that kind of time-based pressure.

Kanter talks about “mastering deep change” and makes it clear that leaders need to be “idea scouts” who are alert to any indication of “discontinuity, disruption, threat, or opportunity in the marketplace and the community” (Kanter, p. 2). The “Classic Skills for Leaders” section of her scholarly piece may be the most pertinent recommendations that she offers. She says she had been working with leaders for 20 years at that time (1999), so if she is still working with leaders today, that means she has 32 years of experience advising leaders on change management. The six steps she offers are somewhat similar to Kotter’s albeit they have a slightly different style and approach.

The first skill (“tuning in to the environment”) is fairly obvious: leaders can’t know every detail and every aspect inside or outside of a company, but the leader can create a “network of listening posts” that allow him or her to stay clued in. Pay attention especially to what “doesn’t fit” (like customer complaints, and what competitors are doing), Kanter advises. The second skill Kanter offers is another important idea, an idea that should a constant in any progressive organization — “Challenging the prevailing organizational wisdom” — because going along with the status quo and losing sight of innovative options leads to failure. Kanter calls this “kaleidoscope thinking” (building fragments from existing data). Number three is very clear and obvious: you can’t sell change to an organization “without genuine conviction.” Number four (“building coalitions”) is a mirror of Kotter’s point on coalitions. Five is very much like Kotter’s step 5 (empowering people); and six is an apt idea for any company at any time but in particular during change (“learning to preserve”).

The last two bullet points in Kanter’s piece have to do with “how to get unstuck” during “sticky moments” — and as sure as the sun comes up in the east, there will be sticky moments. First, when “forecasts fall short” and when “momentum slows” and “roads curve” there must be a plan must be in place to creatively change the overall plan; expect the unexpected, in other words. When the coalition is in place, there will be critics and those who feel threatened, but be prepared to respond in kind, Kanter writes (p. 7).

Main Ideas for Watkins’ Article

The role of the leader is presented ably by Watkins, who insists that failure of a change within an organization is rarely specifically the fault of the new leader, but rather failure tends to be about a misreading of the demands of the new situation or a lack of skill and flexibility on the part of the actors. Watkins offers a number of suggestions for making the change work in an organization, some similar to the other two reviewed in this paper, some original. He reveals the four kinds of transitions, and points to the challenges that each transition presents and he also offers ten “key transition challenges” in the event there needs to be a “90-day acceleration plan” to get things moving quickly.

Watkins’ Article

In saying that in an organizational change (or when a person is starting a new job) there need to be “some early wins,” Watkins is emphasizing what Kotter said. Watkins’ whole push is to help companies “accelerate transitions” — and he knows that the way to do it, which is to be sure to “methodically diagnose the situation” and only then assemble the talent needed to get the transition completed the right way. His four types of transitions are: a) start-up (working from scratch, getting people energized); b) Turnaround (“reenergizing demoralized employees and other stakeholders” when all realize there is no other choice but to turn things around); c) realignment (restructuring the top team; “refocusing the organization”); and d) sustaining success (playing “good defense” by warding off problems before they fester; motivating people).

Watkins presents ten challenges to the 90-day acceleration plan, and the most important among those “promote yourself” is vitally important: don’t assume that what made you a success before is relevant in the transition. Also, building the team, creating coalitions, securing early wins and “accelerating your learning” are pivotal to success.

A Summary of the Articles

There are a myriad of good ideas in hundreds of articles and books about how to prepare for an organizational change in today’s global business environment. Not all of them apply to every business, of course. But the suggestions and specific steps that are presented in the three articles assigned for this paper are really all an alert, gifted manager / leader would need to succeed in any transition. From Kotter, the most powerful and key points are, don’t let up, build a coalition and make the positive changes stick. From Kanter, the idea of challenging the prevailing organizational wisdom is absolutely essential (even after the transition, everything should be constantly challenged); and from Watkins, it should be remembered if the skills aren’t there or can’t be quickly taught, the plan is in trouble before it is launched.

Works Cited

Kanter, Rosabeth Moss. (1999). The Enduring Skills of Change Leaders. Leader to Leader, No.

13, 1-8.

Kotter, John. (1990). Preventing Common Mistakes in Change Processes. A Force for Change:

How Leadership Differs from Management. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Watkins, Michael. (2004). Strategy for the crucial first 90 days of leadership. Strategy & Leadership, 32(1), 15-20.