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CEO as the Change Management Leader

CEO as the Change Management Leader

By: Ciopages Staff Writer

Updated on: Aug 13, 2022

The CEO must become the Chief Change Management Leader for companies that are in the middle of a massive enterprise-wide transformation.  Today, change is coming from every direction – economic, social, cultural, technological, ecological, and demographics. Hence, change management no longer is an item one can check off in a project plan. Change must be a top agenda item on the CEO scorecard.

Of course, while the CEO’s support and championship and spearheading the change initiative are paramount, it does not mean the rest of the C–Suite and the rank and file can wash their hands off the change management process.

Even if the change management team understand the theories of change management, and follows a change management framework, and defines a change management plan, the effort will be suboptimal if the CEO is not the change management leader.

Future shock is the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time. 
– Alvin Toffler

What does CEO as the change management leader entail?

The Change Visionary: CEOs can play a critical role in articulating a higher purpose and positioning change in the right context.  The CEO can do this by rallying the rank and file around a north star that is aspirational and centered around shared values.  Visioning is a paramount task of the CEO as the change management leader.  A CEO who can frame change and transformation an existential concern, “Competitors are eating us alive and we have no option but to change,” into a customer value proposition, “We are responsible for the retirement security of millions of people and hence we will need to change to support this noble mission,”  will have a better chance of initiating and implementing change.

The Cheerleader: Transformations are tough, particularly when they are constant and the pressure is intense.  CEO as the change management leader can don some pom-poms and cheer the team en route to success. It may mean recognizing small wins. Celebrating significant milestones.   The key is not to wait for some big bang as that is too little and too late. A quick email. A brief announcement on the corporate intranet. A pop-in to a meeting to praise the progress of the transformation effort. There are several meaningful and easy ways to cheerlead the change management efforts.

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” – Attributed to Charles Darwin

The Change Enforcer: In every company, there are always skeptics, doubting Thomases, and those who are afflicted with the typical FUD factors (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt).  Besides, there will be different cliques and alliances that may not agree with the rationale for change, the approach to change, and the results of the chance, and hence they fail to fall in line with the program. In such instances, the CEO as the change leader must become an enforcer. It is not about yelling and screaming but applying subtle pressure, resorting to offering both a stick and a carrot, as necessary. Sometimes, the resistance to change can result in leadership and organizational structural changes.

The Team Builder: The CEO as the change management leader is not a lone ranger. She/he needs the assistance of a solid team. The type of individuals the CEO nominates to lead the change, and the commitment they show to the cause sets the right example.  The right team should be a team of A players, not some corporate discards who need something to do. Who is on the change team determines the fate of the transformation endeavor.

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The Change Arbiter: Change impacts different business units, geographies, and individual roles differently. The divergence of effects also will result in varied motivations and misaligned incentives.  For example, a strategic change to deliver goods to consumers in 24-hours may have a disproportionate impact on delivery operations.  Or a division may not feel the need for a new generation robotics platform, and hence the first mover disadvantage may fall onto the pioneering segment. Another standard case is the reluctance to take on upstream changes to reduce the magnitude of change in downstream activities and business units. In each of the cases, the CEO must be an objective referee coming across as fair and a keeper of the overall flame.

“If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.”- 

The Change Foot Soldier: The CEO may reign and rule from the corner office. But the CEO as a change management leader should not be an ivory tower observer and a deliverer of executive fiats. She/he must be a foot soldier and lead the cavalry in pursuit of change.  This can mean many things from modeling the behaviors that are being pursued to participating in a specific task force to get things done.  If the rank and file were to feel that the leadership is distant and aloof, and are engaging in behaviors that are contrary to the change vision, it will not just demotivate the teams on the ground, but derail the entire program.

As we all know, change is difficult, particular transformational change.  The CEO as the singular leader is in a unique position to influence change.

Are you a leader pursuing a massive enterprise transformation? What has been your experience in leading change? What other role archetypes can the CEO play as the change leader?

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