If an organization is to grow, change is inevitable. Or to put it another way: if an organization refuses to change, death is inevitable! Here, Jason Webb, a Milwaukee-based pastor, public speaker, and entrepreneur, shares his experience on how to navigate change as a leader of an organization.
I have spent most of my career working with churches and nonprofits. We always had an inside joke that said, “What are the seven words of a dying organization?” Answer: We’ve always done it that way before.
That would be funny if it weren’t so true. I can tell you story after story of churches, nonprofits, and businesses who refused to change and the end result was ultimately death or irrelevancy. One need only look at Blockbuster to see that!
But here’s the problem as leaders: we know that we need to lead our organizations through change, it’s just hard. It’s scary. We know that the moment we introduce change we will be subject to criticism and scrutinization. While there is part of us who wants to lead through change, another part of us doesn’t want to deal with the pain of change.
Yet we must. So what are the keys to navigating change in an organization?
Always keep the end in mind.
Remember that what you are hoping for is far better than your current situation. While the process of change may be arduous, you must always keep the vision and goal of where you are going in front of you and those you lead. If you don’t, the pressure to go back to the way things were will overwhelm and paralyze you.
Here’s why: for many people change always equates to loss. Unlike you, they don’t immediately jump to what could be, they jump to what they will be losing. They think about the potential financial loss, or the loss of a program they loved, or the loss of the organization as it has always been. Above all, they feel the loss of the familiar. As a leader, your role is to show them the potential gains so they don’t fixate on the loss.
I remember when I was leading our church through a major merger and acquisition of another church. It was scary. We had never done this before. There was a lot of opposition to it and many questions. Yet one thing I always did in every meeting about the merger was begun by reminding people (and myself!) of why we were doing it. I would tell them that this was our best way to reach more people and that the area we were acquiring this new church in was desperate for a relevant, new type of church. I would remind them that this new church would help restore families and give people hope. I knew that if I didn’t do this, the obstacles they saw would seem insurmountable. I knew they would only think of loss. I kept the end always in mind.
Let people own the change.
Early on in my leadership, I assumed that as long as I had a great idea, and I spoke about it inspirationally that people would immediately follow. This was true, occasionally. But for the most part, it turns out that people don’t adapt to change because of one inspirational talk or some grand vision that a leader has.
Instead, they embrace change when you let them own it from the beginning. This means that the moment you decide you want to initiate change, get people involved in the process at every level. When I decided to lead our church through a merger this meant not only involving my staff, but my board, and volunteer leaders, and even sporadic attenders. I would hold continuous meetings with key constituents, telling them of the vision, but also getting their feedback and answering their questions. Not only did this allow them to own the vision, but it made the new change better because I would come away with good ideas to help tweak the vision. It takes longer to do this, but the momentum you will have is far greater than if you simply led it alone. This is what we saw. By the time we had to take a vote on the merger (churches are complicated organizations!), because the entire congregation had owned the initiative we had an over 96% approval vote and our first Sunday was standing room only at the new church!
Focus on the early adapters, not the critics.
In any change within an organization, you will encounter three different groups: 1) Early adapters; 2) Wait and seers; and 3) Critics. It is easy as you communicate about change to focus on the critics, hoping to win them over. But this is wasted leadership energy. More than likely, your efforts will be minimally successful at best. Instead, your best leadership energy would be to mobilize the early adapters so that you have a group of people, instead of just you, championing this change.
This is so vital, because the middle group of people, the “Wait and seers” can be pulled either way. If the voice is only given to the critics, they will soon start to doubt the change and become critics themselves. But if they see there are other people like them championing this change and believing in it, they will begin to believe in it as well!
Finally, as you lead change, know that there will be obstacles that seem impossible. At some point, you will want to throw in the towel. Keep going. Don’t worry about the next 10 steps, just take the next step, and then the step after that, and then the step after that.
Change isn’t easy, but it is necessary. So lead with wisdom and courage. If you do, you will see the change you have been longing for both in you and in your organization.
About Jason Webb
Jason Webb is a Milwaukee-based public speaker, movement leader, strategic thinker, and a results-driven executive with a proven track record in fundraising. He has helped start multiple churches and non-profit organizations, ran their multimillion-dollar campaigns, and oversaw a complex $12.5 million budget at his last organization. Mr. Webb is also a philanthropist, passionate about helping those in need on a global level.
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