Change Roles Should be at the Heart of How You Operate

Imagine for a moment that you are an experienced Hollywood actor and you’ve just been offered the lead in the latest blockbuster film. The movie’s title sounds great, and you know the name of the character you will be playing, but that’s it!  There is no detail on who the character really is, what they should say or do in the movie, or how they bring the story to life. Would you be excited to take on a role like this? While this might not really happen in Hollywood, this scenario reflects the reality for many employees during times of change. According to a 2019 North Highland survey, only 32 percent of middle managers believe their role during times of change is clearly defined. This is in stark contrast to the 83 percent of CEOs who believe managers’ roles were clearly defined. With such a difference in perception, it’s not surprising that managers and their employees have limited engagement in change. To improve capacity for change, organizations have an opportunity to more intentionally define change roles and integrate them in their learning programs.

In our experience leading change and transformation, clients who successfully implement and sustain change ensure that each team member, from the CEO through managers to line staff, understand their distinct role in times of change. Many of these same clients are working to strengthen change management maturity and capacity. This foundation relies on a solid operating model that incorporates clearly defined change-related roles which are integrated into employees’ expectations, reinforced in development programs, and practiced in their daily work. In this way, clear change roles help mobilize a change ecosystem that can respond proactively to multiple, rapid, successive changes.

While each organization has its differences in operating models and approach, there are three change-related roles that should be clearly defined to help instill lasting capability and capacity for change: Sponsor, Manager/Leader, and Practitioner. When developing your next change initiative or learning program, consider opportunities to intentionally define each of these roles at the outset:

SPONSOR: Despite the primary importance of this role, nearly half of the organizations in our research (48 percent) indicate that securing sponsorship for change is a challenge. Even then, when they can gain involvement, executives are unclear on what it means to be a sponsor. Defining this role and the expectations related to sponsoring change specifically will allow organizations to create advocates at the executive level who will drive successful change across the organization. 

MANAGER/LEADER: While sponsors may paint an overarching picture for change, leaders create the story around why change should be embraced at the individual level. Managers and leaders play a key role in guiding employees through the many changes they are facing and addressing the hurdles that get in their way to sustaining change.  Clearly defining the leader’s role in promoting an environment that embraces change opens the door for increased employee resiliency in the face of change. 

PRACTITIONER: Finally, without a clearly defined change manager role that follows a consistent change management methodology, the change experience for each project could be different. This inconsistency leads to confusion among impacted employees and less than effective engagement for the organization, ultimately impacting the overall success of the project. Defining the change practitioner’s role in managing individual change efforts helps create consistency in how change is executed. It also defines a central point to engage other roles throughout the change process.  

While clearly defining the roles involved in leading change is fundamental to embedding change capability, it will not, in and of itself, create the capacity for change. To amplify the organization’s capacity for change, these roles must be incorporated into learning programs. In particular, the manager’s/leader’s role in change is critical to include in ongoing leadership development programs as well as new leader onboarding programs. This allows organizations to set expectations from the start that each leader plays a critical role in promoting an environment that embraces change. For sponsors and practitioners, our experience is that developing additional, targeted programs aimed at these roles accelerates change maturity by allowing individuals to confidently play their role during times of change.

Let’s imagine instead of the movie described at the beginning, we have a movie with a well-rounded character who connected with others and was at the heart of an amazing story. This would be a blockbuster. To have a blockbuster change capability, organizations must have great sponsors, managers, and change practitioners who understand the role they each play in telling a story that inspires others to embrace change. With this inspiration, a community of practice develops that empowers people to take responsibility for leading change from wherever they are.

North Highland research references: In July 2019, we surveyed more than 300 cross-functional business leaders at U.S., U.K., and Europe-based organizations with annual revenues > $1B. Survey questions gauged how organizations approach change management today, the tactics used to facilitate change, their level of confidence in strategic change outcomes, and the extent to which design thinking is applied to change management initiatives.​