Kirsi Keränen: How does senior management relate to change based on a recent study

We recently wrote about CCEAs thesis collaboration with Nikolaos Magalios, a student in the master’s program in Management and International Business at Aalto University. The topic of his thesis is “Comprehension and understanding of change among senior leaders”. The overlaying research question of the thesis is “How do senior managers in top-tier Finnish companies make sense and deal with planned changes in their organization?”. Welcome to a CHANGE webinar on March 16th, 2021 at 8:30–9:30 to hear more about the research and its results!

For us at CCEA the key takeaways of Niko’s thesis shed light on the top management’s crucial and versatile role in changes. Let us look at the research results!

Change as a planned event

An interesting and important small word in Niko’s research question from my point of view as a change expert is “planned”, which lays the basis for the thesis, and as such contradicts the word change which is traditionally often thought of as something that just happens and cannot be planned.

Change has become a constant part of business today, caused by both operating environments unexpectedly changing, and companies themselves through planning change in into strategy roadmaps and action plans. From a change executioner perspective, it is interesting, that the interviewed senior leaders think of change as an essential part of business continuity and survival when the research at the same time indicates that they realise that people retain an inherent aversion towards change. This seems like not an easy equation to solve, and still, changes are made all the time.

As part of his research Nikolaos wanted to find out how senior managers perceive their own role in balancing between the planned change and expected organizational adoption capability. The thesis suggests that in terms of both dealing with change and change sense making, there are a few central factors that count the most when you as a leader want your people to successfully adopt change. These can be crystallized into three “hats” top managers must wear: sense making, enabling change, and ensuring success.

Top management as sense makers

It is cleverly pointed out in the research that it is in fact top management’s primary role to continuously improve the efficiency of their companies, which in essence is making the right changes at the right moment with the means available in their organizations. The interviewed leaders also recognized the essence of business as change.

My own experience is nevertheless that some leaders do not make this connection, often leading to attempts of executing changes without planning and with poor results. The top management must be the ones to give sense to changes and help the rest of the organization understand why it is needed. Identifying different audiences and using storytelling, incentives, and clarity to motivate people were examples of concrete actions given in the thesis.

From change expert perspective, treating change as a plannable event and top management showing clear leadership throughout a change process are central to successful execution.

Top management as change enablers

According to the thesis successful change adoption begins with practical issues such as making decisions, designing, planning, and allocating adequate resources for a successful implementation, and we could not agree more at CCEA.

This type of top management participation and ownership of a change process can significantly enhance the rate of acceptance and adoption but needs to be kept to inspiring and enabling just like the thesis points out. Senior leaders micromanaging and inspecting will do the opposite. Leadership is central from several perspectives when thinking of enablement. The research points out that a culture based on transparent leadership builds organization’s change capabilities. So do empowerment, engagement, giving control, and creating ownership for change receivers.

Senior leaders are the ones to inspire and build momentum, which will according to the thesis lead to involvement, co-creation and eventually ownership of the change process, all of which are well known building blocks of successful change adoption for CCEA. Without adoption the expected benefits will not be reached.

Top management as success controllers/guarantors

Measuring not only the end results, but also during a change process can prevent possible failures as misconceptions and miscalculations can occur at any point. It is according to the thesis the senior leaders’ task to ensure perceptions are measured, identify where the process possibly lagged and assume corrective actions.

I have seen several cases where opinions have been collected, but there has been no reaction on the results from leadership. In these cases, people will quickly stop giving their opinions. If this happens, the change must be navigated to its’ destination in the dark, leading to suboptimal results every time.

Nikolaos points out in the thesis that implicitly the interviewed leaders hold themselves responsible for creating readiness and for building change capacity in their organisation. I wonder how successful changes we would see if the topic became an explicitly and frequently visited topic in management team meetings. How do senior leaders in your organization relate to change?