Successfully leading change is possible when leaders put just as much effort into leading their people as they do in building processes. Leadership and change go hand in hand. For an organization to thrive in our fast-changing world, leaders need to navigate strategic change decisively and lead others through it.

Ask your search engine of choice how often change initiatives fail, and you’ll read about a 50%-70% failure rate. Digging into the underlying evidence reveals an equally alarming result: this statistic is frequently attributed to Michael Hammer and James Champy’s 1993 book Reengineering the Corporation. The only problem? They never said it.

When organizational change initiatives fail, some leaders are quick to point the finger at those standing on the rungs below them or else fall back on the (false) belief that they only had a 30-50% chance to succeed.

When a leader focuses on processes at the expense of people, failure often follows. Effective leaders with track records of successfully navigating change take a distinctly different, team-focused approach. Below are three change leadership principles successful leaders follow.

1. Listen to your team and be honest about how you’ll use their feedback

Change is uncomfortable, especially for those who fear it may impact them negatively. Among the most critical leadership and change management skills to develop are listening to people’s concerns and discomfort without judgment and responding with integrity.

While difficult conversations may be uncomfortable, leaders must be willing to listen to what their people are saying even when they raise concerns and disagreement. If your answer to any of the following questions is “no,” executive coaching may help you sharpen the leadership agility and active listening skills you need to lead change successfully:

  • Do you want to hear the concerns and even disagreements that might arise from initiating change? If people feel the only safe option available is to agree with you, they will. They may even agree with you loudly, enthusiastically, and repeatedly, and it’ll be the easiest lie they ever tell. Unless you’re announcing a generous new bonus program, a chorus of enthusiastic responses without detractors indicates deeper underlying problems in your organization.
  • Are you prepared to respond with respect and honesty to feedback that won’t lead to changes in your implementation plans? If employees believe their contributions will lead to action, they may become frustrated and foster resentment when this doesn’t happen.
  • Do you want to know if you’re wrong about the problem, process, or plan? Some change is non-negotiable, while many change initiatives are merely our best idea to achieve a result or solve a problem. Strong leaders never assume they have all the answers and view being wrong as an opportunity to regroup and try again until they get it right.

2. Don’t neglect the W’s: What, Why, and WIIFM (What’s in it for me (the team member)?

Your “what” is essential, and not the only thing you communicate if you hope to lead change successfully. Successful leaders share beyond “what” and include “why” and the often-overlooked “what’s in it for you?” In advertising, they say, “don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle.” In the world of leadership and organizational change, we say, “sell the desirable future.”

  • Why: Your teams need to understand the problem you’re trying to solve or the outcome you’re trying to achieve. Whether it’s connecting change to your company values or illustrating the effects a change will deliver, your “why” can be a decisive motivating factor for your team.
  • What’s in it for you: There are two “why’s” in every change initiative—yours and your team’s. If the change you wish to implement benefits you and creates new problems for your team, there’s a missing “why” in your equation. Loyalty is a two-way street, so before implementing change, ask how your team benefits from it and communicate how you’ll reward them for seeing it through.

3. Communicate, communicate, and communicate some more   

People need to hear the same message several times to understand and internalize it. Change communication, like everything else, must be reinforced before, during, and after the actual change event.

Communication needs to be clear, consistent, and complete. Don’t confuse “complete” with “complex,” however. Your communication goal is to eliminate ambiguity and reinforce your message. If your message is too complex, your audience will struggle to internalize it. If you leave gaps in it, though, people will fill the void.

Remember that 50-70% failure rate mentioned above? It’s a textbook example of what can happen to a message when minor changes in delivery add up, in this case over the course of a decades-long game of telephone (all emphasis ours):

“Our unscientific estimate is that as many as 50 percent to 70 percent of the organizations that undertake a reengineering effort do not achieve the dramatic results they intended.”

In 1995, Michael Hammer published The Reengineering Revolution and tried, in vain, to clarify the misinterpreted quote:

“In Reengineering the Corporation, we estimated that between 50 and 70 percent of reengineering efforts were not successful in achieving the desired breakthrough performance. Unfortunately, this simple descriptive observation has been widely misrepresented…There is no inherent success or failure rate for reengineering.

It was too late. To put it plainly, you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. Say what you mean, say it often, and correct misunderstandings as soon as they appear.


Successfully leading change is possible when leaders put just as much effort into leading their people as they do in building processes. In my work as a business coach at Leader’s Cut, I help entrepreneurs, executives, and small business owners develop their leadership agility and hone their emotional intelligence as they prepare to shepherd their teams through changes big and small.

If you’d like to learn more about how a business coach can help you develop stronger leadership and change management instincts, let’s schedule some time to talk. Contact Ken Kilday today to schedule a 15-minute coaching consultation and learn more about business coaching services from Leader’s Cut.


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