How To Be A Highly Effective Change Manager

Become a top performing leader.


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Last updated: January 4th, 2024

Managing change

Last updated: January 4th, 2024

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The status quo just isn’t working for you anymore. At your company, that is. You have some big ideas about how to make things better. Better still, you wouldn’t mind leading the change.

You just need the leaders above you to buy into it. To cut some red tape around you. To give you some money for it. To let you shake things up a little.

You can see so clearly what needs to happen. What isn’t so clear is how.

(Related: Complete Guide To Setting Career Goals).

You’re Not Alone.

Change management has been a discipline since the 70’s.

The variety of approaches reaches into the realm of double digits. There are over 80,000 books available on Amazon alone. And yet, according to McKinsey, 60-70% of all corporate change efforts fail.


Malcolm Gladwell’s book on success, Outliers, offers one explanation: the 10,000 hours principle.

It’s based on the research of Swedish psychologist Anders Ericcson, who asserts that most people who gain mastery in any field have practiced it for at least 10,000 hours.

  • The Beatles played 1,200 live shows in Hamburg before breaking in on the hit parade.
  • The best pro hockey players started skating as children.
  • Bill Gates was already writing software at age 13.

(Related: How To Deal With A Toxic Boss).

Just A Quick Reality Check.

Unless you’re very experienced in leading change, don’t expect to be a rock star out of the gate. Before you willingly put your neck on the line, pause and consider:

1. Your Company’s History With Change.

The changes you’re envisioning could be transformational. Is your company ready for it?

Do your research first.

If you’re new to the company, don’t be that person who walks around saying “At my last company, we did it this way…” That’s a surefire way to alienate.

2. Your Reputation As A Leader.

Do people trust you to lead a significant change? Are you taken seriously? Have you been paying attention to the brand story you’re telling?

During times of change, your brand matters more than ever. Not everyone will be behind 100% of what you’re proposing. Establishing yourself as a trusted change agent will be instrumental to your success.

3. The Winners And The Losers.

Sure, your changes will be better. But for whom? Look out for an unexpected, troublesome stakeholder.

Their concerns may be legitimate.

Don’t get caught off guard. Think beyond what’s best for your inner circle. Now for the make-or-break question…

How Much Do You Want It?

Leading change is not for the faint of heart. Make sure you are 1000% behind what you’re proposing to lead.

Regardless of your company’s appetite for change, whether you’re at a multinational corporation or a startup, it’s going to take a lot of courage.

The courage to keep going when:

  • People don’t like where you’re headed.
  • People who once liked you stop.
  • Your job security feels shaky.

Still up for it? Let’s do this thing.

Step 1: Identify All Stakeholders.

The trick here will be to identify your entire community—not just the obvious ones. Is it all employees? Just leaders? What about your customers?

Creating a community map can be a useful exercise. Not to mention, a powerful visual tool for telling your change story with all its interdependencies.

Step 2: Involve Them In Creating The Story.

Now that you know who your audience is, ask their help in writing your change story. Involve them early and often. How to begin?

Use your own story to elicit their participation. But remember, the most persuasive narratives aren’t always logical. Screenwriter Robert McKee in HBR’s “Storytelling That Moves People” says:

“Trying to convince people with logic is tough for two reasons. One is they are arguing with you in their heads while you are making your argument….
“Second, if you do succeed in persuading them, you’ve done so only on an intellectual basis. That’s not good enough, because people are not inspired to act by reason alone.”

Give your stakeholders a reason to believe they should co-create with you.

Step 3: Communicate Human To Human.

What’s the best way to communicate your story out to your stakeholders? Think back to Step 2, and the need to blend emotion into your strategy.

Because, hello…in most company settings, expressing emotion isn’t exactly in vogue. And if you’re hoping to use an in-house communications team to build and circulate your messages, beware.


Corporate communications teams are built to create sanitised party lines that strip the humanity from any potentially volatile situation.

Don’t expect an all-employee email from your CEO to sell your case for change. Chances are it’ll come off like one more corporate initiative that no one on the ground had any say in.

Which means … bye-bye stakeholder trust.

Instead, look for grass roots ways to spread the word and start conversations. Internal social media channels such as Yammer are great for this purpose. So is your company intranet.

Whatever communications vehicle you decide on, low budget is best. The last thing you want is for people to think you’re wasting company on fancy videos, special websites or costly brochures.

Get scrappy. Be creative. But keep it on point.

Step 4: Embrace Resistance.

And I’m not talking about anti-Trump marches in America. I’m talking about the courage to face what’s coming in your change efforts.

Expect resistance. It’s healthy.

People with negative comments will be the first to speak up when things heat up. But if you’ve involved the right stakeholders early and often in the story, have the courage to let it roll.

Why? When Sam Palmisano became CEO at IBM, he embarked on a head-to-toe assessment of their structure and strategy. Six months into it, he led the entire company through a values discussion on their company intranet. He coined it “Values Jam.”

Sure enough, the negative comments flooded in first:

  • The only values around here are our stock price”
  • Company values, yeah right!”

Some of the execs wanted to shut the whole conversation down. But Sam wouldn’t hear of it.

Soon, the positive comments began flowing in. The tenor of the Jam shifted to a constructive dialogue. In the end, the transcript became the narrative for IBM’s new values.


Think of it this way: If everyone agreed with you, or kept their mouth shut and complied, there’d be no need for change. Resistance is energy. Use it to your advantage. Don’t let it bring—or take—you down.

Step 5: Network Like Crazy.

Compare notes with as many other leaders as possible. Not just in your company, but in similar – and opposite organisations.

For example, if you work for a government agency, talk to others at startups AND other regulated businesses. This is especially important if you’ve never led a major change initiative before, or if you’re relatively new to your company or industry.

That LinkedIn network we’re always talking about? Yet another reason why it’s so precious.

Step 6: Avoid The “Just Another Reorg” Syndrome.

One of my clients was looking to leave a company that was addicted to reorganising.

Literally, every six to eight months, they were shuffling the deck chairs for reasons no one clearly understood. But this particular time, my client had to lay off his team.

And his office was right next to a leader from another group. A leader who had been with the company much longer. So he sought some solace from someone he thought was a comrade.

Imagine his shock when, during an elevator ride, he said to the more tenured leader:

“Whew, it’s been a rough week. My whole team was made redundant.”

And the leader shrugged and said:

“Eh, just another reorg.”

Peter Cappelli, director of HR at Wharton, quipped that persistent reorganisations are like doctors treating patients with antibiotics. Consume too many and you grow immune.

Bottom-line? Focus on changing the “how” before the “who”.

Final Words On Becoming An Effective Change Manager.

So, maybe you don’t have 10,000 hours of practice at leading change. And right about now, maybe you’re feeling like this is all a bit more than you bargained for.

The best quote I’ve read on courage lately isn’t attributed to anyone. It’s anonymous which, strangely, feels more appropriate right now than words from some famous corporate sage:

Courage is looking fear right in the eye and saying “Get the hell out of my way”. I’ve got things to do.


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