Sitting in Jack’s office, I feel the tension in my shoulders ease and my jaw relax. My mind quiets as he smiles and reflects back to me what he hears as my challenge. It’s my third month as a project manager on an energy sector transformation project for the government of Afghanistan. I’ve hit resistance – and started to panic.

Jack, with his clear, steady manner and a laugh, reassures me that I am not alone and shares stories of other hurdles we are facing and overcoming. Seeing me start to calm down, he clarifies details of the politics we must consider, highlights the progress I’ve made and offers a few pathways forward.

That 45-minute meeting transformed my experience of the project. I knew what I had to do to help it succeed, and it later served as the stepping stone to a more strategic role for me. Each of Jack’s projects, though they encountered challenges, moved the sector’s process forward. How did he lead so well in times of change?

A Harvard Business Review study found that nearly 70 percent of all business transformation efforts fail, and a McKinsey report stated that enterprise transformation efforts succeed less than 40 percent of the time. These discouraging statistics have permeated the workforce for years, resulting in a widely accepted failure narrative about change initiatives. While recent research shows these statistics have been somewhat misinterpreted and that “failure” varies from study to study, this narrative is so well-known that it may actually be impacting the success of change initiatives today.

There is good news. Plenty of organizations are not only succeeding, but thriving, during their change efforts. These organizations are leveraging the same approaches that Jack deftly employed. They are shifting the perspective away from the negative narrative and embracing strategic soft skills like communication to engage others in problem-solving, creativity and a shared sense of purpose.

Where Most Organizations Fall Short

“Change is inevitable in organizations, and when it happens, leadership often underestimates the impact those changes have on employees,” says David W. Ballard, Psy.D., MBA, head of APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence.

For any organization looking to transform and innovate, this oversight is a mistake. According to APA’s 2017 Work and Well-Being Survey, employees in the U.S. who had experienced recent or current change at work were twice as likely to report chronic stress and three times as likely to distrust their employer and feel cynical about the change. The unpredictability and instability that transformation brings can impact employee productivity, turnover and engagement, leading to devastating effects on your bottom line and likelihood of success.

These findings suggest that the real test of a leader comes when he or she needs to adapt, flex and invent solutions to the unexpected while providing a sense of stability to ensure that people aren’t left to endure stress in isolation.

 

How can your organization defeat the odds and successfully navigate change initiatives? It starts with your leaders and their ability to engage your teams, build trust and inspire action. Gone are the days when technical expertise alone led to a winning, sustainable business. In order to survive in today’s ever-evolving, interconnected business environment, organizations must shift their priorities and focus on communication skills.

Jack helped everyone around him adapt on a daily basis – reaching out to us, our Afghan partners and our international stakeholders to seek input, foster collaboration and tackle difficult conversations. Even in the face of such complex turbulence, everyone who worked with him felt reassured by his ability to hear them, create context and keep people moving together.

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