As business leaders worldwide face growing instability and change – that is likely not going to ease any time soon – they must remember that the management of change can mean the difference between the life and death of a business.
Even under the best conditions, change is hard. Change management is the method and manner in which an organisation, through its people, implements change both internally and externally, regardless of whether the shift is positive or negative. Earlier this year, a report on hiring trends was published showing that change management was one of the most highly sought after skillsets in South Africa – particularly in light of COVID-19.
From mergers to the implementation of new tech or the dreaded retrenchment process, change is unavoidable. In times of flux, such as a global health crisis, correctly managing it is essential to its growth, and sometimes its very survival.
When change is handled poorly, the consequences can be devastating. Businesses experience plunges in productivity, loss of valued employees, investment losses, reputational damage, excessive costs, and the list goes on.
As a change management agency, we work with partners in various countries and sectors, and we have noted a common thread. Leadership within many companies are typically not trained in the ‘people side’ of change. Often there is an assumption that managing people and their expectations is a responsibility that should sit squarely within the Human Resources sphere. While HR can play an important role in helping understand human behaviour within an organisation, change management is the responsibility of all leaders within a business.
South African business leaders are as savvy as any other. We just have too few of them. They often struggle to build the sustained capabilities required to manage change – usually because they are saddled with too many other responsibilities. They tend to be overloaded and suffering under what we call “change saturation”, which is the point where an individual struggles to deal with a future process or change simply because they’re already dealing with so much in the present. Prosci (the world’s largest Change Management Framework) has conducted research into Change Saturation and shown it as an endemic issue worldwide, but the situation is exacerbated in South Africa by a critical skills deficit and overall shortage of managers. As can be seen in this report by the Department of Higher Education and Training, many of the most in-demand occupations are those in management and leadership positions.
For the leaders we do have, when they are in the midst of managing change, they often become too focused on the technical side, while they should be focusing on the people side of change.
Making decisions is not necessarily taking action, which is vital to the latter. As a leader, they should make individuals within an organisation aware of the need for change, and understand why it is happening – because each individual needs to support and adopt the change.
Leaders must be the engine by which change is driven, primarily through their actions and behaviour – effectively becoming the exemplar for the people they are guiding.
Shifting attitudes requires great effort, and when you have 200 people working with you (sometimes from different cultural and language backgrounds), communicating and behaving in the right way can become incredibly complex, even overwhelming.
What sets some businesses apart is a focus on clarifying and achieving their purpose as an organisation – and most importantly, the ability to retain their talent in the toughest of times.
Of course, we are not suggesting the C-suite do all the work, but they should lead the charge and start building the capabilities of the leaders that surround them. The top leadership should actively explain the bigger picture and the strategic reasoning for the change. However, the leaders at a first and second level, and then beyond, can help delve deeper into how a given change will affect people across the entity, and assist others in adjusting to these new developments. It is about developing a community of change leaders within the organisation, who are skilled and resourced to clearly articulate and support people in the process of change.
Ultimately, during these trying times, upskilling our leaders can help us navigate the inevitable changes our organisations will face. By becoming experts on the people side of change, leaders can make it a smoother journey not only for themselves but for all of those around them to effectively manage change.
Tom Marsicano is CEO of ‘and Change’ a global advisory and change management consultancy.