Gain Buy-in to Change

Nov 21st, 2017

“Leaders are Dealers in Hope”

Napoléon Bonaparte


How do you create and maintain a high-level of energy and engagement when introducing change initiatives when your people are already overstretched? I have recently been working with a CEO who is keenly aware that changes he needs to make in the business may be, in his words, ‘too much too soon’ following a major initiative launched eight months ago. His people are already working at their maximum, yet the business imperative gives him no choice.


The latest McKinsey Global Transformation Survey identifies 24 key actions which combine together to drive successful change efforts – communicating effectively, leading actively, empowering employees and creating an environment of continuous improvement. My CEO client is fully aware of these imperatives and the need to spend time to get his team and people on board. Yet, given the business urgency, there are moments when he needs his people to ‘simply get on with it’.


As explained in the Kubler-Ross model Human Response to Change and Transition, there is a level of personal emotional chaos that even the highest of performers can experience at times of change, before logic is restored and the change embraced. Only a few weeks ago, a senior director confided in me after a rallying speech from his CEO that he was secretly struggling to engage in the latest change but felt unable to express this.


The concept of Level 5 Leadership is helpful when it comes to the need to gain commitment rather than compliance. According to Jim Collins, author of ‘Good to Great’, the most effective leaders combine personal humility with intense professional will. ‘Intense will’ provides the leader’s enthusiasm; ‘humility’ allows the leader to listen, acknowledge people’s concerns, and understand.


When time is of the essence, when pressure is mounting; when you need commitment not compliance and action not procrastination, here are five points I advise building into your approach:



  1. Why do you want the change?

Be crystal clear why you want the change. How does it fit the vision?  If you are not authentically passionate about the change and its impact, how can you expect others to follow? Paula Nickolds, Managing Director of John Lewis has been very clear about the need for change at the British institution with a purpose to ‘reinvent the department store. “John Lewis has to up its game by tempting shoppers back to the high street with the kind of experiences they cannot find online,” she has explained. “Our shops must be a place where customers come and experience our brand – the physical manifestation of what we stand for.” Why is the first step to motivation.


  1. Predict rather than defend

Know people’s concerns and verbalise them. As Stephen Covey said in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply.” My CEO client held team and 1-1 meetings in which he asked questions, was genuinely curious and found out what people were thinking. He then referred to these concerns openly: ‘Some of you may be thinking how you are going to find the time to do this with your already busy roles…’ Far from weakening the message, it allowed him to engage people in the thought process, head off doubters and help guide people through the required stages.


  1. Draw upon previous change

When has your organisation succeeded in change before? It is very easy for people to forget the pain of previous change and the benefits that change has since brought. Remind your people they have done this before, give them concrete examples and let them know they can do this again.


  1. Communicate benefits and engage multiple champions

Think about how you communicate the transformation.  Firstly, focus on the positive impact it will have on people – not ‘This is a new IT system’, but rather ‘This system will enable you to communicate with your clients regularly with reduced time input’.  Secondly, make your communication human. Share stories to which people can relate – involving clients and customers. And thirdly, create champions – different personalities in different functions who can talk to others. Recognise that you need to get your champions ‘across the line’ before they talk to other people, otherwise they won’t be able to handle the resistance themselves. “I had reservations initially but now I’m excited because…” is an authentic message to hear from a trusted colleague.


  1. Continually acknowledge, continually update

The McKinsey Global Survey shows that company change efforts are over 12 times more likely to be successful when senior managers communicate continually in creative ways that stimulate dialogue. Regular transparent updates, personal stories of success and progress parties celebrating key milestones can help a foundation for real conversations between senior leaders and the front line. And keep listening. Listen, understand, address.


As Napoleon said, “Leaders are Dealers in Hope”. Give people the hope that their extra efforts will be rewarded by the outcome of the change – and you will gain the commitment.


Oona Collins works with leaders and their teams who want to achieve great things. If you are looking to create exceptional levels of engagement and performance in your leadership team, contact Oona to begin a conversation at


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