Leading Change

an article by Barb McEwen

Many organizational leaders are at a loss as to why their people are not grasping and holding on to the need for change even after they have painstakingly exhibited their reasons and explained with urgency the need for doing things differently. The frustrating part is that even after all this effort, within a few weeks things often return to the status quo.

In his latest book, The Heart of Change, Harvard University change experts, John Kotter and Dan Cohen, ask us to rethink our approach to change.

They talk about how most managers in attempting to lead a change effort tend to use their heads, but forget about the hearts of their listeners. Since the push for change generally stems from an analysis of organizational shortcomings, lots of stark and boring facts are exhibited in order to make the case for change. Management agrees that change is difficult at the best of times, so why would they want to bring in the emotional dimension? Wouldn't this potentially make the whole change issue even more messy?

Kotter challenges that thinking by suggesting that it is not only a wise idea to appeal to the heart, but a savvy move on the part of management. After all he says, "People change what they do, not because they are given an analysis that somehow shifts their thinking, but because they are shown a truth that influences feelings."

Prof. Kotter's 1996 book, Leading Change, has become a guidebook for many. It sets out an eight-step approach for change. Now, after a Deloitte team conducted extensive interviews with more than 200 people in 90 organizations, he has expanded upon it. They found that the key to success was speaking to people's feelings. This was true even in organizations that were very focused on analysis and quantitative measurement.

In my experience as an executive coach, Prof. Kotter’s research is right on target. People begin to make change when there is a significant emotional reason for doing so. It is the "reason behind the goal or objective" that makes all the difference for people. They personalize it, they can see how their contributions will make a difference, and they are willing to follow a leader who is committed to the cause.

Let’s take someone who has decided to quit smoking and has made it their goal to be accomplished over the next several months. If they haven’t bought into the "reason behind" quitting — improving their health, then the likelihood of success is extremely unlikely.

The same is true for any organizational goal. And, it is the leader who is responsible for not only making his or her goal for the future crystal clear but also making it emotionally appealing. If not, the change effort will eventually dissolve into another long list of incompatible projects with no rhyme or reason behind them. Employees will look at their list and not relate its contents to the vision for the organization. Employees want to understand the reasons for management’s priorities.

If every staff member cannot communicate your company’s vision in a couple of sentences, then management has work to do in clarifying its needs.

To communicate its vision to staff, one company put this statement on every employee’s screen saver: "We will be #1 in the U.K. market by 2001." At a minimum, every job description and every performance appraisal should highlight the organization’s key short-term goals.

It is important to tell the employees why change is happening. Tell them what is required of them to help the company turn the corner. Tell them what you don’t want to happen! Help them understand how certain behaviors will influence the progress of the company. Let them see that what do will have a direct impact on the success of the organization and ultimately their on own success.

An executive coach is a significant resource for an organization in transition. In particular a coach can help implement change by showing people how new behaviors, skill sets and approaches can improve their performance. To arrange for a free consultation to discuss where you are heading, e-mail me at:


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Barb McEwen is a Master Executive Coach and Organizational Strategist who works with corporations and individuals worldwide. As founder of 20/20 Executive Coaching and 20/20 Executive Women she has spent the past twelve years working with high potential individuals to help them hone their leadership and management skills. Contact Barb at