Four tips for successful change management

The only thing that is constant… is change. That pithy line rings true for nearly every seasoned leader I have encountered. Sometimes change is forced on us. Other times, it is chosen. Regardless, few leaders find it easy to navigate. Studies of major corporate transformations show miserable success rates. Even the simplest changes can undo teams and shipwreck leaders. Of course, avoiding change is often even more painful. Look at the litany of businesses that failed to change as the internet disrupted their respective industries. So the question is not if as much as it is how to change. The universal nature of change and the challenges of handling it well have made “change management” a perennial favorite among business school’s executive education program offerings.

Kate Burke, CAO of AllianceBernstein (AB), has been part of the team overseeing a major change for the 52-year-old financial services firm. AB announced in 2018 that it was moving its corporate headquarters and many positions from New York to Nashville. The change was logical and well thought out. Simply put, it hinged on the benefits of cost reductions, lower tax rates, and a welcoming city on the rise. Nevertheless, the impact on employee teams and their lives is significant.

In a recent interview at Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management, Kate ticked off a four-point process for successful change:

Separate the emotion. Any time you are faced with change, emotions can run high. Change brings uncertainty, many initial questions, and decisions. You have to separate the emotional elements and accept what you don’t know. For AB, one of the catalysts for change was the need to reduce the cost of doing business. Cost reductions always create fears and emotion.

Ask questions. To address uncertainty, you need to step back and start asking questions. Working with your team to catalog those questions gives everyone a chance to surface the unknowns and begin the solution process.

Come up with alternatives and identify the best solution. With a list of questions in hand, it’s time for analysis. Brainstorm the alternatives. Analyze them. Quantify and rank them, so the best solutions can bubble to the surface and you can make a decision. Many factors were analyzed and considered in AB’s decision to relocate. Watch this short video to hear Kate describe those factors and AB’s process.

Then bring the emotion back. Human organizations are people with emotions. Decisions will evoke emotion, and that’s not bad. With a course of action before you, emotion will help carry the change through to completion.

To hear more from my interview with Kate Burke (CAO of Alliance Bernstein), watch the short video below. Kate discusses change management, her perspective on technology in financial services, active vs. passive asset management, and tips for successful careers in finance.

Leadership Notes is a blog and video series on leadership.  Through interviews with leaders from both the private and public sector, Johnson examines key leadership issues like empowerment, team development, and cultural dexterity.  The blog also addresses topics such as learning from failure, the importance of friendship, and the role leaders play in developing organizational culture.

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