How Successful Change Works

Your people won’t sign on to your grand ideas if they feel left out. Think of change as a negotiation, experts and association pros say, and it’s more likely to succeed.

The most important part of being a change agent isn’t the brilliant ideas you have. It’s about your ability to get others to get on board with them.

That’s one thing that became clear as I spoke with two association leaders for a recent Associations Now Deep Dive article on change management. Natasha L. Rankin, MBA, CAE, joined the Irrigation Association as CEO with a lot of big-picture ideas about what she wanted to accomplish quickly. (She shared a spreadsheet with me. It’s thorough, smart, and ambitious.) But the urgent challenge wasn’t a matter of big strategic goals; it was about getting staffers, who felt they had to be “on” 24/7, less stressed around communication. 

“I want people to be able to bring their best selves to their role,” she told me. “And that means giving them opportunities to disconnect.”

Some recent research backs up the idea that supporting your people in small ways can be substantially rewarding in terms of trust. A 2023 report from the Boston Consulting Group notes that aversion to change increases if people feel like they don’t have agency in the changes being made. According to the BCG report, employees were 54 percent more like to support a change when they’re told their role in it.

The more preparation we can do for supervisors, the better off the organization is going to be.

Rhea M. Steele, School Nutrition Association

“Agency is built through recognition of the value one brings, and when leaders articulate that value to employees at the earliest stages of a change program, they establish a foundation that increases the likelihood of a success,” the report says.

Establishing that kind of clarity at an individual level, in simple ways, helped Rankin develop more ambitious changes at her association. Communication was also at the core of the School Nutrition Association’s recent reorganization. The development plan included a strategy for how information about changes would be shared, with a special emphasis on how middle managers would be involved. As SNA chief of staff and VP of strategy and governance Rhea M. Steele, ODCP, FASAE, CAE, said, “I’m a believer that the more preparation we can do for supervisors, the better off the organization is going to be, because that’s where the staff are going to go when they have a question.”

The BCG report characterizes change management as a negotiation between two parties—the leadership that’s implementing the change, and the people who are being asked to participate in it. Some changes are necessary, and may not have much wiggle room. But it’s still important to have the conversation, if only to surface the challenges you’ll face after the change is made. “Leaders of change initiatives should consider: What did your employees tell you was important to them?” the report advises. “What were your employees happy with or dissatisfied with?”

Not everybody is going to be on board with change, which can be synonymous with discomfort. But communicating that there’s a rationale for the shift can ease the tension, and help you develop a plan that makes people comfortable, perhaps even excited to take part.

How have you successfully implemented changes at your association? Share your experiences in the comments. 

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