Dan Roberts
Contributing writer

5 CxOs on leading change

Jun 01, 202313 mins
Change ManagementDigital TransformationIT Leadership

To be the agents of change that businesses require today, IT leaders must embrace a flexible mindset, prep their orgs for change, and recognize that intention and purpose are vital to empowering transformation.

Businesswoman standing and leading business presentation. Female executive putting her ideas during presentation in conference room.
Credit: Jacob Lund / Shutterstock

For years leaders have been hammering home the point that the only constant is change. But you need only look back to the “good old days” of 2019 to realize that change is no longer constant; it’s accelerating, accumulating, and becoming more complex all at the same time.

With technology playing both an enabling and a driving role in nearly every aspect of modern business, CIOs are at the forefront of many of today’s transformation efforts. In an increasingly VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world, the speed and volume of change are only going to be more intense three or four years from now. To remain future-ready, technology leaders have to make sure not just our IT organizations but also our business partners and customers are able to understand the vision for change, navigate through the disruption, and get excited about the possibilities that lie ahead.

In a recent virtual roundtable, five transformational executives representing a variety of organizations and industries shared their leadership philosophies, experiences, and playbooks for leading change initiatives. Joining me were Irvin Bishop, Jr., executive vice president and CIO of Black & Veatch; Dan Bruno, COO of Duke Health Technology Solutions; Sankha Ghosh, executive vice president and CIO of AssuredPartners; Ashish Parmar, CIO of Tapestry; and Chuck Watson, CIO of Essentia Health; in addition to Susan Duff, senior facilitator of O&A’s Leading Change program.

The importance of a flexible leadership mindset

We’ve all seen what happens when change isn’t managed effectively. At an intellectual level, we know why it’s so critical to lead and drive change with purpose and intent. There are also a host of valid and useful change models to put formality behind the process. Yet many transformational efforts and change initiatives still fail to live up to their promise, a fact supported by BCG research highlighting that 70% of digital initiatives fail.

One of the reasons for that, Watson argues, is that there is no one-size-fits-all roadmap for change. Change itself requires a flexible mindset, and it starts with the leader.

Chuck Watson stylized

Chuck Watson, CIO, Essentia Health

Essentia Health

“Trying to conduct change the same way throughout my career would have been a colossal mistake and a failure,” he says. “You really need to read the audience, know the people who are going to be involved, and adjust the methodology. You have to look at yourself first and then adjust the way you lead through it.”

The leader’s entry point into the transformation journey can also vary, and that can require additional flexibility. Parmar notes that there are three distinct personas in situational leadership during transformation: catalyst, innovator, and orchestrator. The leader needs to know which persona they’re taking on.

Ashish Parmar stylized

Ashish Parmar, CIO, Tapestry


“Maybe you’re coming into a journey where someone has been a catalyst for change or has innovated but couldn’t bring the idea to life. So, as a leader, you’re required to be the orchestrator at that time. It’s an ‘aha moment’ along the path — and you have to have the humility and courage to know what role you’re playing and at what juncture of the journey you’re entering,” he says.

Preparing the organization for change

Beyond the leader’s own preparedness, there’s the issue of organizational readiness. A huge transformation initiative, or even a number of smaller, simultaneous projects, will have ripple effects that may not always have been taken into account on the front end, especially in terms of how much change the organization can actually absorb. After all, the company still has a business to run and customers to serve. With reports of burnout continuing to rise among managers and employees alike, the relentless pace and scale of change has to be carefully and strategically managed.

Ghosh says that, particularly when you’re going through a massive transformation, it’s critical to surface and address those questions around organizational readiness from the outset.

Sankha Ghosh stylized

Sankha Ghosh, EVP and CIO, AssuredPartners


“Can the organization absorb massive change? If not, can it be done in chunks? What about people? Is there a willingness and skillset? And if you have to hire skills, will those people gel with the team? Change is cultural and it’s people,” he emphasizes. “A lot has to be done before the change, and this is often overlooked.”

In other words, in addition to reading the audience, you have to read the culture, because when change saturation turns into change fatigue, initiatives lose momentum. To counter this, Bruno says you have to place an equal emphasis on building change resilience and eliminating noise.

Building the case for embracing change

It takes more than a good idea to inspire people to commit to change. And while you can put together a huge GANTT chart to monitor change projects and ensure you’re not hitting saturation, that doesn’t mean you’re automatically going to get buy-in and support from key stakeholders or a positive response from users after the change is implemented.

Many technology leaders who are working to push through cutting-edge technology initiatives to support strategic business goals are still running into cost barriers, says Bruno. “We’ve done a good job of getting that seat, but sometimes that gets lost when there’s a financial squeeze.”

Dan Bruno stylized

Dan Bruno, COO, Duke Health Technology Solutions

Duke Health Technology Solutions

To get buy-in at the top, IT has to continue to do the work to be viewed as business enablers rather than overhead, establishing the business imperative for the change and then painting a vision of the future.  All technology changes are helping to reach a business goal, whether that is reaching new market share, reducing costs by creating operational efficiencies, or meeting compliance mandated by the government. Technology is simply the enabler and core to the business.

While senior leaders need to initiate change, middle managers have almost an equal impact when it comes to sustaining change. Yet they’re the ones feeling both the pressure from senior management and the resistance from the front line. Duff says the IT leaders she works with in the Leading Change program often express frustration with how to engage their business partners.

“I remind IT professionals and IT leaders that part of a middle manager’s job is to lead their direct reports who are impacted by a change. IT should not take on the business managers’ role. It’s great if IT can provide them talking points for a staff meeting, or attend as a guest to answer questions, but the business case and the why of its importance need to come from the operational business leaders,” she says.

As the saying goes, the devil’s in the details, and that’s particularly true when it comes to implementation. There’s more capacity at the top because the top doesn’t have to deal with those details. When we fail to consider the capacity issue, resistance sets in and change efforts lose momentum and stall out.

“I call engaging my team in the transformation journey ‘enrollment’,” Parmar says. “We all show up to do the best we have the potential to do. You’ve created a change vision — a future that should be better for everyone, but in reality may not be — how do you keep them engaged? How do I enroll someone where they believe the agency is with them, they’re signing up for this, they are empowered? They may not be committed to it yet, but they made the choice to sign up for it.”

Managing resistance to change

Bishop highlights several pivotal areas to focus on in order to manage resistance and overcome some of the other potential change derailers. First is the issue of change saturation. The executive team needs to have clear visibility into all of the change going on in the organization to determine whether it has the capability to absorb something new.

Irvin Bishop Jr stylized

Irvin Bishop, Jr., EVP and CIO, Black & Veatch

Black & Veatch

He also emphasizes the importance of developing the case to help people understand the why behind the change and using a formal change methodology or model.

“And then you have to understand the culture piece, because what I’ve found is that people with have either a positive or a negative response to change,” he says.

The negative responses, Bishop adds, tend to fall into the categories of fight, flight, or freeze. When someone believes that the change conflicts with what they value or what their customers value, they will fight the change, actively arguing and resisting. If they don’t understand why there is a change or don’t see the value in it, they’ll “check out,” which is a way of fleeing.

“With freeze, the response is to kind of do nothing and ignore the change,” he says. “We always address the fight and the flight, but we don’t place a lot of attention on the freeze.”

Getting these people engaged and on board with the change may require number of strategies, including creating ambassadors, getting some quick wins that you can highlight, putting what Bishop calls “radiators” within the organization so that people can see the progress of change, and, critically, creating context for the change.

Confused minds don’t act, which is why taking time to provide context goes a long way toward gaining people’s commitment, not just compliance, to the change. When they understand the why for the change and they’re involved in it, they can see the value. Right thinking leads to right action.

“We hold mandatory weekly 30-minute town hall meetings with all IT employees, which reinforce the why behind the changes within the context of the health environment, their local environment and other changes going on,” Bruno says. “It’s a way of bringing clarity and getting people personally involved.”

That kind of forum also provides an opportunity for two-way communication and a chance for people to ask questions and engage more fully with the change. Whether it’s the executive team, middle managers, target users or other stakeholders, people need to be able to connect personally and emotionally with the change, which means IT leaders need to be able to clearly articulate how it will benefit them individually — addressing the What’s In It For Me (WIIFM) factor.

Bishop says things go much better when change is “done with and not to” people. To gain commitment rather than just compliance, he finds that adjusting the message for different levels and audiences within the organization is important.

As Ghosh says, “It’s never going to be about technology. It’s never going to be about processes and procedures. It’s about storytelling and helping them understand how the changes will improve their lives. And you have to have these separate discussions because these are the people who are going to make your change successful or not.”  

Communicating the change isn’t just IT’s job. Like many organizations, Ghosh’s company has created a cross-functional transformation office that is constantly telling the story and creating clarity and context around change. Whether part of a formal office or not, change champions and ambassadors can have a huge influence over others and the success of the initiative.

Changing for the future

As technology leaders know all too well, digital transformation isn’t for the faint of heart. Many CIOs can relate to the experience of dealing with sprawling, deeply entrenched systems that are highly customized and that people have built to perfection and operational excellence. Getting through all of that is a massive amount of change, and that doesn’t even take into account the giant leap you’re asking people to take when you move from, for example, a mainframe to a cloud-based solution.

When the pandemic hit, companies no longer had the choice of delaying their digital transformation efforts. For many, it was a wake-up call, one that propelled them into a new era of the way we do business and the way we work. While the fundamentals of effective change remain the same, we’ve also picked up some valuable new learnings in the whirlwind of the past few years.

“Telehealth has been talked about in our industry for over a decade. COVID took all the discussion out and forced the change immediately,” Watson notes. “People got excited because they want to see results and they saw the result of that really quick. It really inspired them to continue on. We now recruit with the idea that you will be involved in change. You won’t do the same things every day.”

In the face of rapid, complex change and a continuing talent crunch, technology leaders have to be more intentional and purposeful than ever about giving people context and clarity and empowering them to get on board. They have to galvanize their teams and engage them in the mission and purpose — the difference they’re making for the business, their colleagues and their customers. And just as important, they have to hold their business partners accountable by reminding them that technology is the business.

Because not changing is not an option.

As Bruno says, “You’ll either cease to exist or cease to matter.”

Dan Roberts
Contributing writer

Dan Roberts is the CEO of Ouellette & Associates Consulting, host of the Tech Whisperers podcast, and author of numerous books, including "Unleashing the Power of IT" and "Confessions of a Successful CIO."