change leadership

Why strategic communications are essential to any change leadership programme

Across the sectors where AMBITIOUS PR works, we’re seeing a number of key trends. A common thread is rapid and complex change, underpinning everything from the great resignation to tight budgets due to the rising cost of living and increasing digitalisation.

These external factors are also leading senior executives to consider organizational change programmes and new processes to support and help future-proof their companies.

All in all, this means a greater focus on how to deliver change projects that support broader strategic objectives and do not damage employee morale.

At their heart, successful change initiatives must be underpinned by strategic communications. But how can businesses with smaller budgets get started, and what are the key elements that successful change leaders share?

Change leadership is not just for large multinationals

One of the first things you discover when searching online for information on successful change leadership and change management is that there is a huge body of academic and theoretical literature on the subject.

The second is that most of the literature relates to very large organisations, often benefiting from the support of management consultants specialised in managing change.

This can leave smaller companies feeling shut out: what tactics can be applied to smaller businesses? This is where a strategic communications strategy is so important. Changes such as acquisitions, new leadership, facilities changes or rebranding exercises can all take place in companies of any size, so they require a clear plan to ensure the organization’s success.

But what’s the difference between change leadership and change management?

First, it’s helpful to understand the definitions of these terms. According to John Kotter, an academic and change expert, change management relates to a basic set of tools used to keep a change effort “under control”. Change leadership relates to the “driving forces, visions and processes that fuel large-scale transformation”.

Clearly, strategic communication is crucial for both. As the research shows, effective communication is needed at both the top level (What is the change? Why does it matter?) and the tactical level (How will the change affect my job? When will it take place?).

Why success matters

There are a huge number of potential pitfalls to avoid when implementing a change initiative. The repercussions of a failed change leadership programme can also be substantial. From a PR perspective, your company’s reputation could be damaged by a change programme that goes awry.

Imagine the scenario: your management team has invested significant time and budget into a corporate rebrand, collaborating with a design agency, bringing in key stakeholders throughout the process to develop your refreshed look and feel, and producing new collateral and materials.

However, there were gaps in how this was communicated across the organisation and the big picture plan didn’t reach one team, who are responsible for engaging with one particular group of stakeholders.

The confusing messages that this group received now have the potential to undermine the objectives of the entire project, creating the impression of a poorly-managed project and causing the stakeholder to question the entire relationship with your company.

And the evidence backs this up…

Given all this, it is shocking to learn that 70% of change programmes fail to achieve their goals, according to McKinsey research.

Research into the factors that can derail a change programme also highlights the risks of ‘change fatigue’. According to research and advisory firm Gartner, 73% of employees affected by change experience moderate to high levels of stress. If change is not successful or has to be repeated, it’s easy to see how this percentage could increase even further.

The business-critical implications of this are evident: stressed employees do not perform as well, and from a PR perspective, you may lose the buy-in of your most powerful group of advocates: your team.

Now that we’ve examined the repercussions of failing to effectively manage change, we’ll take a look at how to ensure your change management approach is successful.

What does a successful change leader look like?

In the past, change leadership was considered the remit of management or senior leadership teams only. However, with organizational structures becoming flatter, and millennials and Gen-Z increasingly pushing for changes, for example around sustainability, change leaders now come from many levels.

Who can be a change leader?

According to the academic literature on change leadership, there are a number of roles and figures who can support a successful approach. Primary sponsors are those with the authority to implement the change and the overarching responsibility for it.

Research shows that a change project can be undermined by an ineffective Primary sponsor, especially if they fail to communicate effectively. The next ‘role’ is for People Managers. According to the ADKAR model, there are five change management tools, focused on communication, sponsor roadmap, training, resistance management and coaching. Within a change management programme, each of these tools can be attributed to a People Manager.

Who is made responsible for each of these tools will depend on the nature of the change and the organization, however, communication skills underpin each one.

Why you need a compelling story as well as change leadership skills

In the theory of change management and change leadership, there are a number of core skills defined as the keys to success. They include the ability to lead and influence others, hold a team and colleagues together, build trust, anticipate and respond to change and set a clear vision and bring others on board.

As communications specialists, when we read these skills and talk about change leadership, we think about the importance of having a good story to tell.

Your story will inevitably flow from the overarching vision, but it needs to be thoroughly thought out. Again, a change leadership programme could be undermined if the leaders think that their vision is compelling and so don’t spend any time considering the ‘story’, which will resonate more concretely with the project teams and employees.

A guide to setting out and communicating your change story:

  1. Start with the vision – why did you embark on this change programme in the first place? Where will it take your business, why will it help you to get there?

  2. Identify your stakeholders and map the messages they should receive regarding the change. This should cover internal and external stakeholders.

  3. Pre-empt any challenges or conflicts that may arise: will there be disruption to working patterns?

  4. Set out why it needs to be now: think of this as the story’s climax.

  5. Articulate the desired outcome in detail, for everyone involved, and explain why the change management process will help you get there.

  6. Identify your change leaders; whether that’s according to the theories outlined above, or, as is likely in smaller organisations and change management programmes, a result of their job function and engagement with the project.

  7. Equip them with the tools and messages they need to share the story and vision at the highest level, as well as communicate the project timelines and impacts.

Where PR professionals can help

As we’ve seen, many of the success factors in change leadership come down to strategic planning and communications. And we’re not just saying that because it’s our business!

If your business is planning a change programme, outsourced PR support can help in a number of ways. We are experts at horizon scanning, stakeholder mapping and developing messages to suit audiences.

It can also be challenging to develop an effective change management plan when you are bound up in the day to day work of running your business. With a small team, you may lack the headspace to take a step back and examine what the real impacts of a planned change will be on your people, partners and product.

At AMBITIOUS, we have experience supporting team leaders to deliver successful change in a range of sectors.

Get in touch to discuss how we can support your change management initiative: [email protected] or call us on 0117 905 1177.