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Many businesses drift along, hoping for change, but often never knowing how to initiate or implement it, and even fewer are aware of how to make it stick.

But is it ever really possible for a business to change direction? And if so, what is the best way to go about it?

I avidly believe that businesses of all sizes can be re-invented, with new divisions, and even a new overall direction. Here, I will examine what the key drivers of change are and what businesses need to be aware of if and when change is required.

Any type of change is complicated and from my experience, successful change management relies heavily on a business being really clear about the reasons for changing, and what it expects to achieve by changing.

With this in mind, the first critical step is to dedicate some time to planning and thinking about what you want to achieve. As my first ever boss told me, ‘Bridget, time spent planning and thinking is never wasted’. Work hard on this plan, and be clear about what is important. Working with pace can at times be very useful and while it can speed-up uncertainty, it will take an organisation through change as quickly as possible.

My experience has taught me planning and thinking are the foundations for any business looking to embark on a period of change, however, there are also many other areas to consider too…

A lot of change is about the people

Businesses that often succeed in change management have people at the very heart of what they do.

One of the biggest barriers to change that I have found is a serious lack of time and investment being spent on the right kind of employee development and communication, particularly through key periods of change.

The very nature of change means that you need to create a diverse team of people and then help them to be the best that they can be, using their skills and expertise. This means you will be much more able to meet the overall business development objectives and by paying attention to the ‘people challenge’ from the start you will help reduce the number of people resisting change. People need to be ‘won over’ and as a leader that was always my foremost concern. I always found that by communicating in a straight-forward and clear way (no corporate jargon), we gradually got the buy-in that was needed.

I’ve often found that choosing training and support that is appropriate to the individual, can make a huge difference. Businesses are made up of people and leaders and it is important that any development strategy put in place reflects this. For leader-specific training, this will be about developing and empowering leaders to implement change at all levels, mobilising and engaging individuals right from the start. Spending time listening and gaining buy-in from staff will also help accelerate change.

Developing a leader into a great leader is not an easy process. It requires learning new ways of working and competencies, all the while respecting each individual’s personality and work-style.

Gender-specific training can sometimes help too; varying learning styles really differ when it comes to leaders, and self-doubt in the corporate world is rife. By promoting individuality you can acknowledge these differences and empower people with the skills they want and need.

When businesses approach personal development, they shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that this is a ‘one off’ or stand alone initiative. One offs aren’t sustainable and this is often the difference between a desire to change and change that ‘sticks’. To circumvent this, businesses should spend more time and resources on an on going programme of development, tailored both to the needs of the staff and the business. Firstly, this ensures that you have a clear goal in place, and secondly it works to help all parties stay on track to meet the goal.

Create a positive and encouraging environment for change

Change is a risky business and sometimes it doesn’t always go exactly to plan. In these instances it can be easy to point the finger of blame, however this approach will only stifle creativity. Instead, businesses need to create an environment where it has the ability to manoeuvre and make adjustments to the plan along the way. This is critical.

It’s also important that time is put aside for creating a story, which explains the reasons for change. When I have used this technique before, I used to think I was really boring, repeating the story over and over again, but in reality it is important that the context and the plan are clear as change is implemented.

Start small

One way that you can look to energise staff and speed up change is by starting small and developing a separate 'business' within the existing company to get the ball rolling.

During my time at Norwich Union, in its transition to Aviva, I was tasked with heading up an area to bring in customer offerings that built on our core insurance proposition. This was something that hadn’t be done before, so we decided to set up an area of the business that could access the resources of the company but had the flexibility to experiment and move quickly.

During this period of change, I spent time with a successful entrepreneur and learnt about what he termed ‘baby steps’. As we grew the business alongside a wonderfully skilled and diverse team, the question we kept asking ourselves was: ‘what’s the next step?’ Having the opportunity to learn as we went along was much less daunting and enabled us to keep learning and moving forward.

Final thoughts

For any type of change, it’s obvious that a business should keep its vision clear, and be 'alive' to what is working and what isn't. Adapt and respond to things that aren’t delivering the results you need. Do not sit on your laurels and just expect change to happen.

Any type of change takes time, patience and hard work, but by putting people at the heart of it, success is always within your reach.

By Bridget McIntyre, former CEO of Royal Sun Alliance and founder of dream on