A company’s ability to innovate, compete and evolve depends to a large extent on its people’s ability to accept and activate change. That’s why organizations with the good fortune to have effective change managers are at a distinct advantage.

What makes a great change manager? It’s not a job for the shy or faint of heart. It requires being actively involved with key influencers and the people affected by the change.

Natural change managers aren’t wired to sit behind their desks, developing change management plans, sending emails to leaders and employees, and reading up on the latest change management theory (even though they do this too!). They need to connect with people. This requires strong relationship and coaching skills. It also requires what we at Point B call “being a culture detective”—or what Tom Peters might call “change management by walking around.” 

Point B’s Perspective

We work with organizations of all stripes to address the human side of change. Below are a few examples of how a visible, engaged change manager can make a difference. Keep in mind that these tips apply to anyone involved in leading a change: change agents, project teams, executives, managers and supervisors.

Build relationships across your organization.

In order to build trust and credibility with sponsors, leaders, and employees, it’s important for the change manager to establish a relationship with them. An effective change manager connects personally with others in meetings, takes them out to lunch or coffee, or stops by their desk when wandering around the office to say hello. At one of our clients, a change manager established the practice of having coffee with a different leader or employee every day. She soon had a broad network of people that she could count on for candid input when it was time to implement a change management activity.

Get to know the culture.

Part of a change manager’s role is to build out communications and engagement methods that are in sync with the organization’s culture. Every organization has its own communication style. Some are more formal and may hold a series of cascading meetings to get the word out. At others, communication is more casual—everyone gathers to hear the leader speaking from the stairwell.  We’ve worked with an athletic retail client who prefers slides with sports images and few words, an insurance client who prefers slides with lots of charts and graphs, and a public school client who prefers storytelling over slides. Culture shapes communication style, and every culture is unique. The better you know it, the more closely you can connect with people and gain their understanding and support.

How do you get to know your organization’s culture? Get away from your desk. Attend meetings in various parts of the organization affected by change. Be a culture detective. Be curious. Notice what people are talking about—and not talking about. Ask people, “What’s taboo around here?” and “What’s rewarded around here?” Ask what it looks like to see their organization’s values in action. You’ll learn a lot that will help you craft meaningful messages and deploy future change.

Help leaders on their own change journey.

Many leaders learn about an upcoming change before employees do. Since all change first happens on an individual level, it’s important for leaders to have the space and time to process the change themselves before they talk with employees. A change manager can support leaders, helping them understand and prepare themselves for the change. And the change manager can also provide valuable counsel to leaders about guiding their people through change.

This is especially the case when it comes to painful change such as layoffs. At a large technology client that was reducing its workforce, the change manager coached the executive sponsor to talk with the leadership team prior to the layoff decisions, to explain the importance of the change and establish decision criteria as a group. The sponsor then met one-on-one with leaders to help them process their concerns and feelings about the layoffs. Finally, the change manager helped the leaders walk through the conversations they would be having—both with employees who were going to be laid off and with those staying on. As a result, when the layoffs were announced, the leaders were ready to deliver messages that were authentic, supportive and direct, and employees felt the layoffs were done in a respectful manner.

Interact daily with employees affected by change.

At various points during a change, you’ll want to know how things are going so you can intervene and make adjustments as needed.

Be present for key milestones. For example, if you don’t attend the first set of training sessions, you may not become aware of critical gaps in the training content or employees’ reactions to the training until it’s too late to remedy them.

As you do periodic pulse checks, don’t rely on electronic surveys alone; they can only tell you so much. Instead, have live focus groups with employees and get their honest opinion about how things are going. Talk with people over lunch. Ask leaders what type of feedback they’re getting from employees.

The Bottom Line

Great change managers are actively and visibly engaged with sponsors, leaders and employees on every level. If you have the opportunity to be a force for change in your organization, get up, get out there, and make change happen. Focus on interacting with people. Build relationships across your organization. Know the culture. Support change sponsors. Help leaders go through their own change journeys. And interact directly with employees affected by change. You’ll be respected for it.