Skip to main content
leadership lab

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories here.

Thanks to erratic economies, digital disruption, demographic shifts and other forces, change and its challenges can blindside leaders every day.

Health care leaders are in the midst of mergers or other complex changes to support Canada's aging population, which is expected to increase from almost six million seniors today to more than 10 million in 20 years.

Fallout from these or comparable changes in other sectors threaten a leader's success, status or legacy.

How does a leader mitigate risks and adeptly steer their team through change? The answer lies in focusing on people. Engage your team, partners, clients and other stakeholders to foster dynamic dialogue and co-creation.

According to Dr. John Kotter, author and leadership professor emeritus, Harvard Business School, "70 per cent of all organizational change efforts fail, and one reason for this is executives simply don't get enough buy-in from enough people for their initiatives and ideas."

We may not have all the answers but when we engage, we bring stakeholders' questions, concerns and fears to the surface. As leaders, we need to listen to our stakeholders' authentic feedback, reframe it, help them understand our perspective on issues and explain how we plan to address them.

Without engaging, the vacuum fills with rumours that can rapidly spread through social networks and outspoken activists. We undo our team's good work, if we fail to engage.

Here are five proven ways leaders in multiple sectors can engage people during change:

1. Start internally to set a shared vision

A leader must consider each team's priorities and the culture they need to manage through the change.

Start by interconnecting your teams with common goals, shared quality indicators and a united vision. Regularly measure employee engagement, based on values, such as recognition, trust, communication and empowerment.

Health care has unique challenges. Today's patient care teams need to know how the change will impact the value of their work. To retain them, you must engage them with energizing work and the ability to co-develop a better way to deliver care.

You need to mesh as a team before you can integrate with others. The more cohesive you are, the more you can engage the strengths of each other and effectively realize your organization's new vision.

2. Involve frontline employees and others to shape change

Attain input from key employees, partners, vendors and others on the frontline.

Understand what each of those stakeholders does to deliver your mission, not for your organization's benefit but for the people you serve. Provide transparent communication and timely feedback opportunities that enable them to shape how and when processes change.

Coordinate changes through carefully prioritizing and sequencing work that respects interdependencies. Consider how each change affects people and seek solutions to maintain continuity.

3. Consult clients with a solutions-focus

Engage clients, customers or patients through a structured, solutions-focused approach.

Whether it's a focus group, an advisory forum or exhaustive site visits, like Cargill's "learning journeys," define a clear scope and guiding principles to facilitate the process. Engage this group in a way that uncovers valuable insights about what really matters to them.

Cancer Care Ontario developed a Patient and Family Advisory Council that our community care access centre (CCAC) modeled for its Share Care Council, with a mandate to provide input on programs or services. Feedback from our council informed a new approach to help patients transition from hospital to home, which reduced their readmission rate by 52 per cent.

4. Engage those with the highest stakes

Meet with those people most affected by change, such as employees, who will be re-located, or frail patients with new care providers.

Take a long-term view on how the change will impact their lives and what supports they need, even beyond your strategic plan's timeline. Thoughtfully interact with them in-person, explain your limitations and collaborate with them on long-term solutions.

In its Authentic Advocacy report, the Arthur W. Page Society recommends enterprises move beyond transactional stakeholder activities to "long-term agreements based on shared belief and commitments, marked by true listening."

5. Probe for tough feedback and follow through

Encourage feedback through broad-reaching formal tactics, such as surveys or an ombudsperson, even if it's hard to hear.

Use those tactics to ask questions or create opportunities to hear assumptions behind concerns. We can't assume all input is based on the best or most up-to-date information. Taking this important step can lead to critical clarity. It may also prompt dialogue that leads to better solutions.

Explain what is feasible, response plans and timelines; then, follow through.

Engaging is not difficult but it takes time for a leader to put people at the centre of change. That time is invaluable because in the end, it's those stakeholders' commitments that make a change successful.

Caroline Brereton is chief executive officer of the Mississauga Halton Community Care Access Centre (CCAC), as well as vice chair, Ontario Association of CCACs Board of Directors. She blogs at CarolineBreretonONCare.

Interact with The Globe