Achieving Business Excellence with John Spence

How To Manage Up For Change

It is always challenging when you’re trying to convince someone in upper management to change the way they do things. Senior leaders, especially owners of private businesses, are often emotionally tied to the organization and feel that a request to look at things differently is a personal attack on their leadership abilities. I’ve had to deal with this challenge multiple times in my career and from my experience, there is a continuum of “aggressiveness” that one needs to move through to convince upper management to change their ways.

Here is the continuum from least aggressive to most aggressive:

Level I: if you have a good relationship with the senior leader then simply go visit with them and share your ideas. Make sure that you are extremely well-prepared, understand the full ramifications of what you are proposing and come with solutions, not problems.

Level II: if you personally do not have a great relationship with the senior leader, gather a small group of employees that the leader respects, talk to them about your proposal for change, gain their buy-in, and then go as a small team to speak with the senior leader. Again, be extremely well-prepared and come with solutions, not problems.

Level III: find a sponsor on the senior management team who believes in your ideas and is willing to take them to the CEO or owner. Let them use their credibility, experience, and relationship to support your ideas and encourage the top leader to embrace your proposed changes.

*** At this point you move from trying to convince a single leader, to attempting to change the thinking of the entire senior leadership team. This gives your idea more leverage against the leader who does not agree with your proposed changes.

Level IV: this is the one I use most often; overwhelm them with data. Do surveys, focus groups, research – whatever you can to build a solid case for your proposed changes. In the change process we call this creating an “irresistible case for change,” a scenario so irrefutable that it is nearly impossible to ignore the facts of the situation. Unfortunately, many people will choose to ignore them nonetheless.

Level V: find some excellent articles or blogs, on a topic your senior leadership team strongly supports, and then send those articles to everyone in the organization (if it is a small company), or to selected leaders. The first few articles should be about a topic that the leaders will enjoy reading about because they believe in it. After sending several articles that that support their ideology, start to drop in articles on the change you want to make the organization. This is a way to begin the conversation in an innocuous way, by introducing your ideas slowly, mixed in with articles and blogs on ideas they are in favor of. The goal here is to change the conversation across the organization, or at least within the senior leadership team, in hopes that they will see that they need to make changes within the business.

Level VI: gather together a group of key employees, gain their 100% commitment to the change, and then go as a group and demand change from the senior leadership team. This is different from my suggestion at level II because now you are being dramatically more aggressive and basically threatening the senior leaders that if they do not change, there is a possibility they will lose good employees.

Level VII: tender your letter of resignation. Explain fully why you are leaving, that you think the change you are championing is necessary but that the senior leadership team, or senior leader, refuses to make the necessary changes, therefore you are going to go to a new company that is more in alignment with your ideas about business success.

I have given this list to hundreds of people and typically they never have to reach level VII. At some stage along the way the senior leaders or leader eventually come around and either embrace the change or give a solid and thoughtful answer as to why the organization has chosen not to go in the direction you are proposing.

I hope you found this helpful – John

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