How to lead organizational change successfully

“When you want to change things, you want to make sure there’s something that people can hold on to; something else that’s staying the same.” I was extremely pleased to host Lavinia Thanapathy on the “The World-Class Leaders Show” in the new Episode 011.  Lavinia is a change champion and a professional speaker on the people aspect of change. During the Coronavirus pandemic, Lavinia was named one of the leading LinkedIn voices for thought leadership on change and adaptability. She is the co-author of the bestselling book “Unleash Your Voice: Powerful Public Speaking for Every Woman”. Lavinia is also the founding chair for the “Inspiring Girls” organization in Singapore. How shall we deal with change in the organization? We often say that “change is inevitable,” but we generally don’t get taught how to deal with change We don’t build the skill into our children’s education, and we don’t effectively build it into the way we lead our teams. We give people processes; we give them the “how,” but we forget that the pieces in our lives are tied up with complicated strings.  Moving one piece will impact another and create all sorts of tangled webs. Only 54% of organizational changes are successful – that’s tossing a coin on your organization’s success rate.

Imposed Change versus Opportunistic Change

There are two kinds of changes that can happen: those that you look for and those that take place unexpectedly, which may be devastating. In companies, typically, people are not seeking the changes that take place. They don’t tend to come with a signpost and sometimes seem to happen overnight.  Often, leaders don’t realize what it feels like for the people who weren’t involved in creating that change. The personnel who must deal with the change may experience a “Fight or Flight” response before accepting the change that has been imposed unless there is careful, consistent, and effective communication from the top leadership.  We also tend to think, just by communicating, that it’s the same as engaging. While you need both, communication and engagement are not the same. People experience “change-fatigue” because of the rapid rate at which things change. This should be a sign to organizations to engage and communicate with their employees to create acceptance. “You need always to be very aware of an organization’s culture and the way things are done because people are emotionally attached to it.”

Psychological Safety Anchors

When organizations recognize the ‘human-ness” of the people who must enact that change, they are better positioned to tap the existing culture; to acknowledge it, and find the parts of that culture that are the most complementary to the change that’s being introduced. In that way, the current culture can act as an accelerant to the change. Not everything has to happen all at once.  Treating people like people, rather than interchangeable cogs in the machine will serve so much better in the long run. Giving them areas of stability that are not changing, can offer emotional safety anchors to help them adjust more quickly to those aspects that are most needed for the success of the change. “When you are asking people to make changes – you have to ask yourself how you can reward people for their efforts. People are motivated in different ways, and money is not always the most powerful tool.”

Five Keys for Success

1 – Find the Influencers Every organization has influencers who may not actually be part of the leadership. Identifying these resources early and making sure they are on board can make a massive difference to the initiative’s success. These ‘change agents’ can also be the same people who make change toxic for the organization.  So, the more you know about the individuals in your organization, the more you’re able to identify the pivot makers. How to find the right influencers:
  • Know your people – because leaders are not always the influencers
  • Understand the culture and values of the influencers 
  • Value your influencer – when there is contempt towards the leader it creates a toxic environment and can have an effect on the team.
“Whatever team you are leading, know that just by being the leader of that team, you are not the most influential person in that team.” 2 – Sustained, Consistent and Coherent Messaging It’s essential to be out among your personnel, continually sharing a coherent message at every level of leadership. This is not just for the launch; this is not a ‘one and done.’ Town Halls and Fireside Chats with leaders have taken off in recent years, and these offer repeated touchpoints for the audience.  Employees will buy into change once they have had a taste of the perception. Often, leaders may feel that their work is over once the change has been initiated – nothing could be further from the truth!  Leaders must recognize that their most effective role is to be visible, present, and perceptibly part of the change. 3 – Instill a Sense of Urgency It’s also important to build a sense of urgency for the change because if the vision is clear, it is also clear why the change is necessary. Storytelling can be a valuable tool in this regard. Consider building the change into the culture of your organization.  The story of the organization, in how we live our lives, can be very helpful. Honesty and transparency can assist the people to feel part of the change rationale; they will feel more engaged.  “Design a vision for change – do not remove your involvement as a leader. Create a sense of urgency because people will then take action towards the right direction” 4 – Talent Management and Motivation Be fast-paced in every aspect to create a rewarding environment. Organizations should remove the concept of doing more for less and respond just as fast as you take from your people. People always want to know: “What’s in it for me?” The number one thing people seek from their jobs generally isn’t money. Most people reach a tipping point for leaving an organization when they don’t feel acknowledged; that their contributions are not being valued.  A key question to ask is, “What can I offer to my people to increase motivation and engagement? What can they contribute?”  5 – Choose your Champions No matter how effective your communications may be, there will always be three categories: those people who are ready to embrace the change, a group of individuals who will resist change to the bitter end, and the middle group, who are undecided and maybe taking a ‘wait and see’ approach. This is where your influencers, identified earlier, can be extremely helpful.  Your first, gung-ho group is worth an investment of time because they can give you a multiplier effect. Your messaging around change should be designed and targeted primarily for the middle core group; they will carry the bulk of enacting the change. For the third group, it may be necessary to accept that a good percentage of them may not be retained.   Before we concluded the episode, I asked Lavinia to share her answers to my standard leadership questions. What’s the number one lesson that you’ve learned in your career? I learned that careers are not linear. You know, when I went to school, I thought I would be a partner in a law firm or something by the time I was 30. It doesn’t work like that. When you had your most brilliant professional performance, what were the conditions in place at the time that allowed you to get to that level? The team was always the most important part of pulling together anything big that I’ve ever been part of. I’ve had my greatest successes, and my greatest failures, depending on how well that team bounced off each other. What is one thing you would have done differently in your career? I think I would have done nothing differently, simply because everything that I am today is a sum of all the mistakes I’ve made. I do wish I had known things earlier, for example, about the influencers in organizations. I wish I’d known that careers would take all kinds of funny paths to success. And that success, once achieved, isn’t permanent – things take a dip, and then come back around. Who are your favourite leaders, either in society or in the corporate world? I really love what Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo, has done and how she’s led her organization. I see myself in her; a South Asian woman who’s led an organization. I’m really looking forward to reading her new book, “My Life in Full: Work, Family, and Our Future.” What is your favourite business leadership book? This one has to be “Good to Great” by Jim Collins. During the Coronavirus crisis, I was often invited to speak about change and adaptability and I spoke frequently about one of the ideas in the book, the Stockdale paradox. This refers to the ability to have absolute faith in the outcome, while at the same time being able to deal with the everyday reality of what is happening.   To connect with Lavinia Thanapathy, visit her website: You can also follow her on Twitter @linkedinlavinia, or on LinkedIn. If you’re currently facing a challenge or thinking of launching new change initiatives, feel free to connect with me either on LinkedIn or my website or by email at [email protected]. Listen to the podcast here 011: How to lead organizational change successfully with Lavinia Thanapathy – Andrea Petrone If you want to receive our weekly insights via email, subscribe today at:
Subscribe to the Newsletter


Insider strategies in your inbox every Thursday