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Change Management: The Challenges Involved and How to Approach it

By Fara Palumbo, SVP & Chief People Officer, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina

Fara Palumbo, SVP & Chief People Officer, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina

1. What are the current market trends you see shaping the change management space?

The biggest market trend shaping change management is change leadership. Be it organizational, industrial, or new systems, the focus today is on supporting leaders in helping their people through the change curve. As leaders, we must inform, engage, inspire and activate our teams as we deal with changes. For the change to be successful, senior leaders must be clear on how the change aligns with the “big picture” strategic direction. Leaders must put in systems and processes to ensure that people understand the changes that are happening, the timeline of its occurrence, the potential impacts, and the steps to be taken. Having a foundation of trust in your organization – and maintaining that trust during change – is critical.  To do this, leaders must communicate as transparently as possible with their teams as the change unfolds. 

2. No amount of planning, prep work, and impact assessments will guarantee an effective result of 100 percent all the time. Having a contingency plan keeps you prepared for unforeseen events. What are your views on this?

It’s critical when embarking on a significant organizational change that we take stock of the impacts expected, how the stakeholders will be affected, and the timeframe. However, it’s equally vital that you anticipate the fact that you can’t know every possible outcome. Ask questions to make sure you’ve covered all the bases, and consider the necessary external stakeholders to formulate a plan for contingencies and a timeline for executing it. Many people approach a significant change by starting with an idea, but they do not take into consideration that something could go awry. Something unanticipated will definitely come up, and you should be ready for it.

"The bottom line is that we have to recognize that change management starts with people first"

3. Please elaborate on the challenges that organizations will need to address related to the change management space.

The workforce is the primary audience that has to understand change and be supported through it with frequent and authentic communications, resources and tools. It’s very important that leadership has the skills to handle change, provide support, strategically align the change to other initiatives, and communicate clearly how this change supports where the organization is headed. Making the environment – the culture of the organization – suitable for the change to thrive is a significant challenge. Are you able to deal with any adversity that occurs when the changes come up and prepare the workforce to anticipate what could be coming? How are you investing in building the change capability in your organization? Do you have management training, tools and resources to support leaders? Are people able to be vulnerable and openly share how they are feeling in an emotionally safe space? We have had unexpected turns, but since we have taken the time to build change capability and awareness in our organization, it has created an environment where people can effectively move and be supported through the change curve more effectively.

4. What are the major tasks for organizational CHROs at this point? Is there any unmet need in terms of the change management space that is yet to be leveraged by the vendors?

When you’re embarking on a significant change in an organization, often, it’s not as simple as calling a vendor. You have to build a process, a culture, and a structure that is prepared to withstand the challenging times that you’ll address. Having tools and processes is essential, but creating the change agenda for your organization is most important. From a vendor’s point of view, we’ve experimented in one area: Social Network Analysis. Whether it’s a vendor, a person, or an organization trying to create capability and support to help organizations, it is essential to know how you use the influencers in your organization. How do you look at the social networks in your company and understand where influencers exist? How do you arm them with the information they need to continue driving change in the company? There are people—positive and negative—who will influence how the change is accepted. Also, knowing where those influencers exist in the organization is potentially an untapped capability that I think could use some additional effort.

5. What is your advice for budding technologists in the change management space? How do you see the evolution a few years from now with regard to disruptions and transformations within the change management space?

Change has always been part of organizations everywhere, but the rapidness of change continues to increase exponentially. People need skills and capability to deal with changes at a faster rate than before. Are there tools that allow people to communicate transparently in an engaging and real-time fashion? You need to recognize that social media is as critical for internal purposes as it is externally. We can listen to our customers through social media platforms, and we must do the same internally with our employees. Using Yammer has been helpful for us to not only share timely updates but also to get feedback from our employees. They’re able to ask questions that our leaders can address quickly, and it also helps us get a pulse on how employees are feeling in real time. Yammer has increased our productivity to support employees and leaders through change by eliminating the need to spend time on focus groups.

6. What do you suggest as a solution for organizations to overcome incongruity in the workspace, especially among leadership, to help in a smoother transition?

It’s imperative that after understanding the changes anticipated, CHROs must help senior leadership prepare for it. I think it’s very naive to expect that senior leaders, simply because of their level in the company, are capable of hearing about a change, accepting it, and leading others. It is essential that they have time to process that change as well. Creating an environment that allows people to contemplate the changes, where they can have candid discussions, and experience the change curve themselves is vital.  They must be fully prepared because regardless of our leadership role, we can’t assume our employees can be conditioned to follow us along.  It’s imperative we are personally prepared to inspire and motivate others to join us on the change journey. From there, be very intentional about this at every level of the organization.  The bottom line is that we have to recognize that change management starts with people first. Spend time and effort to drive and support change in the organization.

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