Why and how to Leadership-Proof Your Change Project

In my work as a leadership coach, I often encounter clients who lead long-term change projects, like creating a more team-based, collaborative workplace environment, streamlining a state agency, overhauling a non-profit or leading a campaign to reduce the incidence of sexual harassment/assault in an organization. These clients are often challenged by the fact that upper leadership who champion these change projects initially will likely to be replaced before the change project has been completed, endangering the project’s continuation.

This unfortunate but predictable dynamic occurs with the arrival of new leaders because they tend to eliminate projects promoted by their predecessors and often the personnel associated with them. New leaders don’t do this for organizationally sound reasons. Instead, they do this simply because the projects, regardless of their merits, promise and resources already expended, are not their projects. If you need an example, consider the transition to our current president.

Fortunately, there are several time-tested strategies for leadership-proofing change projects. The specific nature of a change project doesn’t really matter because most them aim at improving organization climate, the most palpable and surface aspect of organization culture. The longer efforts to change organizational climate continue, the greater the likelihood that the organizational culture will shift in the desired direction as well. The extended time frame required for successfully changing organizational climate and culture is why leadership-proofing is so critical. Here are some effective strategies, made even more effective if used in unison:

Make sure that the change project is initiated based on solid assessments regarding the behaviors of concern and these assessments are repeated on a regular cycle. Data is key to making the case for change and demonstrating progress over time. Collecting the data at regular intervals, such as every two or three years, also serves as an important motivator that keeps the change project top of mind for key players, since the impact of their efforts (or lack thereof) will be soon assessed and publicized again. In this way, reassessment at regular intervals becomes a form of accountability for those who play key roles in the change project. Periodic internal and external publicity of the assessment data also keeps the project top of mind for leadership and underscores their need to keep moving forward on the change project’s goals.

Identify possible partners, collaborators and sponsors external to your organization that would agree to support your change effort. The support might be advisory, financial or provide other helpful resources. There are many possibilities: legislators and legislative groups, corporate and institutional boards and trustees, non-profit and governmental organizations, regulatory organizations, advocacy organizations, community organizations, industry associations, industry partners. Likewise, don’t overlook supporting passage of possible legislation that would encourage or require efforts like your change project. Develop a written agreement between these external partners and your organization that underscores their support for the change effort, and financial commitments and their role in project governance.

Have a discussion early on with your leadership about their need to support the change project in both word and deed while also proactively leadership-proofing the change effort. The easiest way to sell leadership-proofing is that it will simultaneously protect the effort from interference from successive leaders while enhancing the legacy of the current leadership that launched the change effort. Introduce the leadership to external partners, collaborators and sponsors who will support the change effort. Make sure to have media coverage of the launch of the change project, its partners and of periodic updates regarding project progress.

Work with leadership and any partners to ensure that any future leadership will selected in part for their ability to successfully continue the change project. For example, any statements of organizational priorities and plans need to include commitment to the change project. Make sure that any statement of qualifications for future leadership includes a commitment to the change project and that job advertisements and job descriptions also reflect this responsibility for continuing the change project. Taking these steps will dramatically change who applies, who are finalists and who is finally chosen for top leadership roles.

Find ways to arrange for multi-year and multi-source funding of the change project to insulate its operation from short-term budget changes. Agreements to match funds from external partners are a powerful way to influence an organization’s internal budget allocations. Better yet are mutual agreements between your organization and external funders/partners regarding multi-year support. Finding a nationally-known external funder can be especially advantageous, since the continuation of your change project and publicity about it can easily become the funder’s priority as well.

If and when new leadership arrives, be prepared to engage them. Be sure that you and the project partners meet with new leadership early on and make it clear that the change project are a solid part of the landscape. Explain the multi-year commitments of partners, financial commitments made by them, and how they play a role in project governance. Don’t resist an effort of the new leadership to rename the project or make other minor changes, provided that the fundamental goals, commitments and structures remain the same. Remember, NAFTA is now called USCMA but many of the basic trade agreements remain the same but now incorporate important improvements to the original NAFTA.

And finally, even when resurveys indicate that the desired improvement in organizational climate has been achieved, keep doing periodic assessments at regular intervals.  Over time, the more positive behaviors created by the change effort can decay and periodic resurveys will indicate when the organizational climate is starting to move back in a negative direction or if other negative behaviors are emerging. Think of it as proactively monitoring the health of your organization’s climate and culture.