Supporting executives through change initiatives can make any transition
easier. Christopher Paterson looks at how HR can do this effectively

IN 1996 John Kotter from Harvard Business
School famously stated that 70% of change
programs fail. Twelve years later, in 2008,
McKinsey surveyed 3,199 executives and
showed that nothing had changed, with the
fail rate holding at an obstinate 70%. More
recently, in 2013, Willis Towers Watson
reported that despite the sophisticated change
management advice available, only 25% of
transformation projects were successful.
The reasons identified for such dominant
fail rates ranged from failing to ‘prepare
managers as effective change leaders’ and
‘management behaviour not supporting
change’ to ‘neglecting the remaining staff ’
and managers ‘completing the change
process too early’. Regardless of the study, the
causality is centred around the people side of
To the career coaches at ALCHEMY,
this link between organisational success
and the human factor is not a surprise, yet
we are consistently surprised by the lack of
resources deployed to manage the people
side of change, despite the evidence clearly
showing that businesses are healthier when
we get this right.
HR professionals are ideally placed to
facilitate success by leading the people side
of change.
Supporting executives through change initiatives can make any transition
easier. Christopher Paterson looks at how HR can do this effectively
Engagement formula
A range of success variables are highlighted
in change management research; however,
there is agreement that strong cultures keep
good people (retention) and that those people
are effective (productivity). Furthermore, staff
engagement is consistently correlated with
both higher retention rates and productivity.
This simple formula can be used to manage
the people side of change and to measure the
effectiveness of HR’s initiatives:
Staff engagement has also been correlated
with higher discretionary effort, more profit,
higher customer loyalty, greater creativity
and innovation, so we can be confident in the
central role this plays in facilitating a strong
business and a healthy balance sheet.
Managing the executive
At ALCHEMY we work with a spectrum of HR
professionals, from those who play a pivotal
and demonstrable role in guiding the executive
and the organisation through change, to their
colleagues who find themselves in a passenger
role with limited influence. Interestingly,
this variance is not always defined by age
and experience, and some experienced
HR practitioners still play a support role
rather than a leadership role while their less
experienced counterparts demonstrate the
ability to advise and influence.
We also observe first-hand the impact
that strong HR leadership has on staff
and managers internally as well as on the
brand perception in the external market
(ie customers, suppliers and the media).
I have highlighted below four elements
that differentiate effective HR leaders when
managing their executives through change.
1 Know your role
Effective HR leaders understand that
when it comes to the people side of change,
they are the authority. They own the people side of change in an uncompromising way HR CHECKLIST
and take responsibility for the decisions
that sit within this remit. This often involves
defining this remit with the executive up
front so decision-making authority is clear
and unambiguous.
As a guide, anything that infl uences the
change formula (engagement, retention or
productivity) is in the remit of the HR leader.
Further, e ective HR leaders also advise
on all issues relating to people, and call out
poor decisions or those lacking emotional
intelligence. While people factors can be grey
and subjective, there are three values that are
consistent. As long as people are treated with
professionalism, respect and dignity, it’s very
di cult to make fundamental mistakes.
Strong HR leaders also play the role of
adviser, not counsellor. They empathise and
actively listen while providing specialist
coaching or counselling support where
required. This ensures that roles are kept clear
and that every member of the executive team
has the support they need.
2 There is not always a happy
As HR professionals we are wired to facilitate
positive outcomes. Whether it’s recruiting the
best people, developing high-potentials or
solving workplace issues, we want to e ect a
positive outcome.
However, effective change leaders
understand that most change is inherently
di cult, particularly a restructure, merger
or downsize. No matter how well this is
managed, it still going to be challenging for
all and a negative experience for some.
Acknowledging this up front allows the
HR leader and the executive to recalibrate
their expectations and deploy their resources
to facilitate the smoothest and most e ective
change possible.
The change formula can be used to set
realistic objectives. While engagement,
wanted retention and productivity are likely
to be impacted, the change plan focuses
on what the business can sustain and what
needs to be done in a practical way to manage
and measure these variables.
3 Building your team
Managing the people side of change is
a complex enterprise, and there are a unique
set of circumstances each time. You cannot
be expected to be an expert in all aspects
of human behaviour; however, it takes a
confi dent professional to ask for help.
Effective HR leaders have a team of
advisers that they call on in their network.
Some are engaged formally, most informally.
The HR leader provides in-depth knowledge
of the personalities, the culture and the history
of what has worked and what has failed.
They are then the conduit of expertise to the
executive team.
Typical members of this adviser
panel include an employment lawyer, an
executive coach, a business psychologist, a
communications expert, a career transition
partner and, increasingly, a wellness adviser.
By pooling the combined wisdom and
experience of this group you are best placed
to advise your executive team with rigour
and confidence. You also acquire valuable
knowledge in the process, which builds on
your own HR and change management assets.
4 The neurology of wellness
All change adds a level of stress to the
human brain and body. However, advances
in our understanding of brain function at
work and its impact on wellness has added
a powerful and practical weapon to the
HR arsenal.
We know that for successful change to
be achieved, the executive team need to
operate at their best; however, they are also
the group most at risk. Using the available
empirical research as our guide, we know
that executive teams who make good
decisions regarding their wellness have lower
stress levels, greater mental alertness, more
energy, higher self-esteem, better memory,
greater focus and concentration, and higher
overall levels of happiness, and they manage
high workloads more e ectively.
The business case is clear. If we are going
to support our executive team through
change, we need to make sure that their
cognitive, emotional and behavioural
wellness is supported. As a starting point,
you can use the 6 cylinders of wellness®
( as a resource
for you and your team.
A recent global study showed that
organisations who focus on staff wellness
experience 2.6 times more productivity, 79
times higher engagement, and four times
higher retention.
So change will always be difficult;
however, by learning from what effective
HR leaders do, we can manage our executive
teams with confi dence and achieve stronger
people as well as commercial outcomes.



Managing your executive team through change?
Try these six tips:
De ne your role and decision-making
Treat people with professionalism,
dignity and respect.
Be an adviser, not a counsellor.
Set realistic expectations for outcomes
such as engagement, retention and
Build your own team of advisers.
Have an executive wellness plan to
ensure that you and the team are at
your best.
side of change in an uncompromising way