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“As leaders, it’s our job to manage change all the time,” says Gail Severini, Canada co-lead with the Change Management Institute (CMI). “We are called upon to do the job of executing change and to coach others to adopt that change too.” (Flamingo Images/Shutterstock)

Canada | Trends

Supportive leadership is key to staff buy-in when looking to transform your organization

Change is becoming part of our day-to-day operations in the age of disruption

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In the age of disruption, change management has changed too. 

Speed, scope and execution have all been impacted with the soaring expectations placed on businesses to adapt and compete as the global market narrows. (Check out CPA Canada's guide on How to manage change in a turbulent time for tips on how to do business in an era of disruption.) 

Once team and project specific, the change management process, regardless of its goal, now requires buy-in and action from all levels across an enterprise at the same time, impacting several factors including: organizational structure, resource management and team dynamics. It also must consider core capabilities including human resources, IT infrastructure and risk assessment. 

“Change isn’t anything new, but it certainly comes at us more frequently than ever before, and regardless of its increase in frequency, our push back to it remains intact,” says Kathy Thom, managing director, Insights Toronto, a global learning and development company that helps organizations transform with a focus on people first. “It’s an ongoing issue companies face today, as they struggle to adapt to the dips and dives in their respective industries, while keeping their employee base on track.”  

This means that leadership support and employee buy-in are more important than ever. Not only do they work in tandem, but you need the former to achieve the latter. Global management consulting firm, McKinsey&Company, predicts that 70 per cent of change programs fail to meet their goals mainly due to employee resistance and lack of management support. When people are truly invested in the change, it’s 30 per cent more likely to stick, the firm adds.  

Furthermore, a 2013 survey by Towers Watson—which included feedback from 276 large and mid-size organizations from North America, Europe and Asia—indicated that a more prominent role taken by managers could improve a company’s ability to manage change.  

“As leaders, it’s our job to manage change all the time,” says Gail Severini, Canada co-lead with the Change Management Institute (CMI). “We are called upon to do the job of executing change and to coach others to adopt that change too.”   

Managers are not only able to quell negativity and address concerns, but they also have more influence over their employees’ motivation than any other in the organization, as change management firm, Prosci, points out. Ironically, Prosci adds, managers often need to be persuaded that change is needed and can be a source of resistance, despite being a vital source of support for the change management and executive teams.  

To turn resistance into support, training and education must come from the top of the chain of command. Leaders—meaning the executive team—must not only walk the talk and be present and engaged throughout the entire process, but also communicate from the get-go to managers and staff why the change is happening and to what purpose.  

“The way you get to [tangible] measurements is by making sure that the vision—what the change is supposed to accomplish—has been expressed so that it can be later identified by the people that are affected,” explains Cindy Smith, also a Canada co-lead with CMI. 

“Sometimes leaders assume that if they tell their people about the strategy and tell them what to change, then it will just happen—that employees will comply because they must,” adds Severini. “This intellectual approach neglects much of what we know about how humans are biologically programmed to respond to change.”   

So how do you ensure managers and their employees stay on board, particularly when, according to that same Towers Watson survey, only 25 per cent of initiatives prove successful over the long term, and only 55 per cent of employers feel the initiatives met the initial objectives? 

Engaging employees is key. This can be done in a number of ways including: requesting suggestions and feedback into how the change program is going; allowing them to help shape the overall process; being transparent about how their respective team and roles will be impacted by the transformation; and keeping them up-to-date on the vision and any course changes along the way.  

“When employees lose the thread…or lose confidence in their ability to be successful, then progress often slows down [increasing costs],” says Severini. “This can appear to be ‘resistance’ but it’s really poor change leadership. Only when employees fully understand the plan and still believe that it cannot be successful is that true resistance.”  

Which means what appears to be push back from staff is likely fixable. Finding out what the barriers are, acknowledging them and finding ways to break them down as quickly as possible is key. Leaving them unaddressed presents avoidable risks such as staff permeation or, even worse, turnover.  

“Organizations hire really smart people who are specialists in their line of work and then sometimes micromanage them,” says Diane Marshall, communications lead for CMI. “Instead of micromanaging, try engaging in a two-way dialogue by asking them ‘how can I help you to become more successful?’ You may be surprised at their insightful answers that can really impact productivity and help deepen the manager-employee relationship.” 

Ultimately, any change management process requires ongoing commitment from an organization at large, regardless of the bumps and grinds, adjustments and course corrections made along the way. In an age of change, change management is inevitable and becoming more and more a part of our day-to-day operations. With the right leadership and a clear vision, preparing staff to accept “change as the norm” can be the direction forward.   

“[It’s about] teaching people to become adaptable and appreciate change because it isn’t going to stop. It’s just going to get faster,” reminds Thom. “It’s an opportunity to get the knowledge and insights into how to become resilient and deal with stress. So, they [staff] know what the early signals are and are able to skip along like a stone on a lake.”  


Look to CPA Canada’s Leading organizations from a people perspective for tips on how to integrate more self-reflective, strategic leadership; find out how to guide your organization through change from a finance perspective via CPA Canada’s Finance professionals leading change event; and look towards a more seamless tomorrow with CPA Canada’s Drivers of change: Navigating the future downloadable report.