What Good Executives Know About Selling Change

By Mindy Millward

Tuesday, May 23rd 2017

What Good Executives Know About Selling Change and Why It’s As Much About The Seller As It Is The Change

She was biting her nails while she sat at her desk reviewing the agenda for the offsite.

I was sitting with this senior executive building an implementation plan for a set of integrated changes that would (hopefully) impact the future of her organization. As she picked apart the agenda, she again wondered whether we had done enough to plan for the activities and events surrounding the roll-out.

Her focus continued to be on the “what” of the change as opposed to the how and who, and most importantly, the “who cares?” I reminded her that the details and content were successfully handled, and now it was time for her to shift focus to how she would personally influence and impact those around her with personal conviction and leadership to what’s next. She gave me the “deer in the headlights” look. Then she quickly said “okay fine, but can I see the t-shirt we are giving everyone that has the new values printed on it?”

Even with all of this focus on off-site agendas and t-shirts, change efforts still fail 70% of the time. So, what do we know about the leaders of the 30% that are successful?

When organizational change failures are discussed (as in the HBR article by Beer & Nohria in 2000 that calculates the 70% failure statistic), focus is often on the dichotomy of whether change is led from the top or encouraged from the bottom. We posit that it isn’t where leadership for change is coming from, but how leadership for change is asserted and exhibited by all leaders as they work to enlist and engage their organizations in a different story of the future. In other words, they know how to sell change, and more importantly, they understand that change is inextricably linked to the convictions of the seller.

In our research on newly appointed executives, we’ve discovered that fully 50-65% percent of them are doomed to fail within the first 18 months. When we think of many of the reasons a new executive is promoted in the first place, a significant amount of them have to do with organizational change being implemented and those promotions being part of a larger scale change effort. This makes them the centerpiece who is responsible for promoting and selling a vision of the future. One which they probably didn’t create, or have yet to find a way to totally embrace for any number of reasons. Does this sound like a familiar recipe for disaster?

So what about the 30% that lead successful change? The most successful leaders, proposing any kind of change for their organization, know that they aren’t selling themselves or their own agenda – they are selling a vision for the future. And it takes you being connected “within” (knowing yourself), and “between” to peers to make it a believable sell to the “among” (the greater organization). They are successful because they use their power to influence, persuade, and convince others that staying where we’ve been is not an option, the future offers better potential for our success, and the journey will be one of shared discovery, challenge, and triumph.

Power isn’t defined by span/scope of direct reports, size of P&L, or whether a leader has the ear of the CEO. Instead, we have found that successful leaders define and derive their power to convince from four sources:

Breadth – Leaders that have a comprehensive view of an organization, and its disparate and numerous parts, are more able to build and sell a vision that is inclusive and feels both connected to reality yet hopeful for a different future. They see hairy change problems as a set of systemically linked issues and solve for them without functional or personal bias. People in the organization see themselves as part of the vision for next steps because these leaders are gifted and linking across the many boundaries and silos that conspire to keep us apart – and they ultimately hold others accountable for working across these same organizational divides.

Connection – Executives that have deep personal connections across the business set themselves up for critical support during times of change. They are adept at redefining those relationships as the need arises, without those involved feeling used or faux. They are deep and genuine listeners and are able to turn what they hear into shared stories of desire and accountability for different. They intentionally monitor and use their personal impact both within relationships and across the broader organization as they work to drive change.

Context – Great change leaders know that the change is not about them – and that they cannot be the “savior" for the organization, no matter how big their role is. Instead, they go out of their way to establish deep fluency in the business, its drivers of performance, and how it relates to the external world. Selling change requires that this view of ourselves is deeply and transparently connected to our view of the world. Leaders with great context skills are hugely curious about what is happening beyond their walls and use that knowledge to connect their intimate change to the broader world of the future.

Choice – Finally, great leaders of change know that what they are selling is complex. There will never be a complete set of data that will be the truth for everyone. Instead these leaders are artful at combining instincts (well-honed from a variety of experiences) and analytics. They are thoughtful as they work to make the myriad of decisions which holds enterprise change together. They know when to declare, when to blend, and when to delegate.

If you find yourself biting your nails, stewing over the details of your change plan, remember that most of the decisions we make in life turn out to be right or wrong, not because we had the best plan, but because after we made a decision we were willing to stand up for it with conviction. And there is no t-shirt that will help you with that.


This field should be skipped by humans.
Comments subject to review.