Executing Change 1, 2, 3


Now that the hard work of launching the change has occurred, the execution must begin.

The execution phase is the longest and most challenging. It is filled not only with hard work but also with resistance. The main work of the execution phase involves performance management, motivation, and teamwork. Each of these areas has its own special needs. Below are our suggestions for handling each.

Performance Management

Two of the core challenges of executing change are that employees don’t know what to do next or don’t want to do what they know they need to do next. Good performance management addresses both challenges.

Clarify Their Roles

Employees need to know what will be expected of them in the new environment. While this may seem obvious, we rarely see it done well. Much can be accomplished without spending a lot of time creating complicated job descriptions. There are four key questions to discuss:

*What will employees be doing?

*What will employees not be doing?

*Whom will employees be working with to get the job done?

*How will employees be measured?

In the “what employees will be doing” part of the conversation, discuss the main categories of work. This helps employees focus on their key priorities, which could be their involvement in a new project or an overview of their new roles. It does not need to include the detailed minutia of everyday responsibilities but rather can offer a broad overview. Often the details have not been worked out, and you can not wait for those to be worked out to discuss the role. In the meantime, plow ahead, accepting the ambiguity of the situation.

The “what employees will not be doing” discussion includes old responsibilities that no longer need to be done and anything that they will be passing off to a new person to handle. This part of the conversation prevents unnecessary work and conflicts. We have seen new computer systems rolled out but employees continued to produce and submit old reports for months because no one told them to stop! Also, with a change of structure or leadership, who does what may change. This can cause conflict between two people who both believe they are responsible for a task. Clarifying responsibilities upfront will go a long way to prevent conflict and lost time.

Within this role definition discussion you need to clarify “who they will be working with to get the job done”. This may be simple if they know and like their colleagues. It becomes more challenging when they don’t like their new team mates or they are working with new people. Part of the challenge is the time it will take to get up to speed – they need to build new relationships in short order. Also, you need to help them break away from old relationship patterns while recognizing that these old relationships are invaluable. This can all be accomplished through communication and coaching. Just don’t underestimate the amount of time or energy it may take.

The final part of the discussion is about how employees will be measured. It is critical that these measures reinforce the goals of the change. Much of the anxiety about change revolves around not knowing how people will be viewed in the new world. Measures are a communication tool. They communicate to employees what is important. You can have the best one-minute change message explaining the what and why of change. However, if your measures are not consistent with that message, you are chasing your tail.

How will the new leader really notice employees’ contributions to the team? Will their contributions in this new project be included in their annual reviews? Taking the time to explain this will relieve employees of the anxiety of the unknown, eliminate contradictions and enabling them to focus on their jobs. Additionally, you must make sure that their bonus system is in line with these measures. For example, we had a customer who was assigned the change of leading a new project that would take a significant amount of her time. However, her bonus was not adjusted accordingly. She was being paid on all her work except this project. It was no surprise she was apathetic and resentful toward the new project.

Articulate Short-Term Goals

With all that said in item #1, the next problem that exists is that often things are in such a state of flux even the leaders don’t know the full plan and are unsure what to do first. Often they will wait, and wait, and wait, hoping that things get clearer or the need for the change passes. This, of course, is a recipe for stalled change.

Leaders need to set short-term goals. These goals may be daily, weekly, or monthly, but they help keep employees moving forward. As discussed earlier, mired in the confusion and emotion of the change, employees and leaders would just as soon put the work off. Setting simple daily or weekly goals makes the change manageable and keeps momentum going forward.

Creating Agreements

You will notice that in point #1 about clarifying roles, we frequently used the word discuss. The reason is simple. Telling people to do something is one thing. Getting them to agree to do it and be committed to doing it is quite another.

It is critical to get employee buy-in to the roles and goals. In the simplest case with a positive, functioning employee, this can done by simply asking, “What do you think about these (goals/roles)?” Then listen to and respond to the comments. End the conversation by saying something like, “This is a team effort. I need your commitment that you will make these happen. I commit to you that I will support you. Can you give me your commitment?” For employees who are more resistant and have other issues, this may be a much longer discussion. See the motivation section on page xx for more assistance.

Responding to Mistakes/Fault Tolerance

With change comes learning. With learning come mistakes. Antoine’s first boss was famous for saying, “Only those who don’t work don’t make mistakes!” This is especially true during change. We have to be willing to learn new skills, try new approaches, and so on. That doesn’t happen without a certain level of risk-taking. Companies and leaders who are willing to acknowledge, rather than punish, employees who make mistakes while trying something new tend to do better with change. Nothing does more to discourage change than blaming people for mistakes and finding scapegoats for whatever goes wrong.

Before talking to someone who has made a mistake, think about the impact your statement will have on that employee’s willingness to take risks in the future.

Celebrating Success

Leaders in our Executing Change classes often struggle with how much positive reinforcement to give to their teams. They say, “Aren’t people paid to do their job–why do I have to tell them they are doing it right?” “If they have been doing well for a long time, won’t positive reinforcement seem patronizing?” “Don’t we want to keep them trying to do even better?”

During high-stress situations, such as implementing change, when the pressure is on and results are critical, people need to know that they are on the right track and that their leaders are on their sides.

Find small things that are going right and tell your employees. And be specific. It will go a long way to support their success during the stress of executing change. Don’t worry about being too positive. We have never worked for or consulted with an organization where people have said, “We get too much positive reinforcement around here!”


Executing change successfully requires teamwork between leaders and employees and between employees. Change is easier to accomplish and less stressful when everyone is working together.

Getting Input from Team Members

During change, leaders often get stuck between wanting to involve employees and needing to make quick decisions. We have seen instances of under-involvement and over-involvement–each has its risks. When considering how much input to get for a new idea, process, or procedure, consider these questions:

*Do you have the technical knowledge to make a good decision? The less you know, the more you need to involve employees.

*How important is it that employees be committed to the solution? The more important this is, the more employee involvement is needed.

*What is the time line? The answers to the first two questions have to be tempered by the reality of the time line.

Communicating Common Goals and Shared Rewards

Organizations can’t achieve change goals without leaders creating and explaining the specific team goals and team rewards accordingly. Employees need help translating change goals such “we want to become the market leader” into specific goals for their department, whether it is information technology or accounting. The CEO of a pharmaceutical company set a goal to “breaking down silos,” but he never had the discipline to get his team (the function heads) together to share their goals and discuss overlaps and interdependencies. As a result, this goal was never achieved.

Resolving Conflicts

Hidden conflict is toxic during change. There are always real operational barriers to change. These barriers often overlap between people and responsibilities. It is critical to get these issues identified and discussed. The team leaders who encourage identification and discussion are the most successful. It can make a big difference to ask such simple questions as: “What do you think can sink this change?” “What do we have to change so that this change will work?”

The questions seem easy, but unless there is an environment of trust people will not share their observations and concerns. There is often fear of retribution for bringing up politically charged topics. But these are the most important topics to be addressed!

Cultivating Trust

All change comes with risk. You may be doing things for the first time and need help. Only in an environment where you can feel safe to be open and vulnerable will you seek out support. This ability to be vulnerable with colleagues is built on trust. Leaders foster this trust by:

*Doing what they say they are going to do
*Not criticizing employees in public
*Recognizing employees who take initiative and
*Thanking their teams for their contributions

This was first published in our book Perfect Phrases for Communicating Change (McGraw-Hill)


Increase Your Team's Swing: Learn How >