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Leader’s Role in Driving Organizational Change

3 min read

Dave Greene

“If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, then the end is near.”

Most business leaders are familiar with this well-known quote by Jack Welch (General Electric CEO).  It is one of my favorites and really states the foundational reality about change in business.  There is no debating – if you are in business today, change is your reality.

But what is the leader’s role in change?  I’d like to share my thoughts.

Embrace change

The rate of change today has the ability to surpass many organizations.  The digital world is accelerating the speed at which we process and even think, and the risk of many businesses not keeping up is real.  The first thing a leader needs to do is accept this truth and embrace the fact that all businesses have to change at one point or another.

Commit to the things that shouldn’t change

I realize this statement can sound contrary to my first point, but there are a few core elements in an organization that should not change.  Those are around a company’s core values and foundational principals.  In my company we have four Cornerstone Core Values and 16 Behaviors to Live By.  Those guide our behaviors, are pillars for our company, and will not change.  (And, incidentally Behavior #12 is Be Open to Change!).

Understand the science of change

Change is hard – we all know that. Good people get set in their ways, develop a comfort in their jobs, and it is understandable that change causes fear by rocking that boat.  Change theories can help us understand this dynamic and assist us in moving people through the change process.  The Change Curve is a tool I have found most useful in navigating organizational change.

The Change Curve is a powerful model that identifies the stages of personal transition and organizational change.  Based on the Kubler-Ross Change Curve it helps leaders predict how employees will react to change.  With that information leaders can be better equipped to help their employees move through the personal transitions necessary for the business change.  The model outlines four stages of transition:

  • Stage 1 – Information (denial).
  • Stage 2 – Support (anger).
  • Stage 3 – Direction (exploring).
  • Stage 4 – Encouragement (acceptance).

In stages 1 and 2 people are looking to the past.  In stages 3 and 4 people have transitioned to looking to the future.  Everyone moves through the curve and some may stay in individual stages longer.

The leader is the chief architect

In order for change to successfully occur it has to authentically come from the top down.  There simply are no “ifs, ands, or buts” on this.  Change must be led by the top leader in an organization.

Using the Change Curve, leaders moving an organization through transition should:

  • Define premise – what the change is.
  • Explain the problems that require change.
  • Articulate the promise of how things will be when change occurs.

As your organization moves through the change be relentless in:

  • Communicating
  • Demonstrating your commitment.
  • Motivating and managing transition.
  • Providing inspiration (must proceed all stages of implementation).

Sometimes leaders forget that their every word and action is taken in by people in some way.  Everything you say will be construed in certain way.  So, be aware of that and measure carefully what you say and how you act.

Get in the trenches

As the chief architect of change you need to roll your sleeves up and get in the trenches.  You will not be able to empathize with your employees if you don’t understand what they are going through.  In the trenches, spending time with your employees, you will see if the change is happening at the speed you want and if there are course adjustments that need to be made.


Yes, the ultimate responsibility for change lies with the leader, but you accomplish that by assigning responsibilities and holding others accountable.  All employees have a role in the change and that should be made clear at the start.  Different employees will have different levels of accountability – your direct reports will have higher levels, but don’t miss the power of giving all employees a level of accountability.  And then hold all accountable to meet their deliverables.


Seek out and welcome feedback from your employees.  This is the point where I have been able to understand where employees are on the Change Curve – are they in denial, are they exploring, how many are in acceptance?  People transition through the model at different speeds.  Listening will allow you to be empathic to your employees, understand if you need to make a course adjustment, and ultimately help them move through the transitions.

Stay the course

Sometimes change takes you backwards.  As a leader you have to be resilient and stay the course.


I started with a Jack Welch quote and it is appropriate to finish with one:  “Change before you have to.”



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