The kiss of death: a change-resistant business culture

The key to your success, especially in today’s Covid-disrupted world, is how well your business is able to instigate and embrace change, says Campbell Macpherson

If your organisation is not able to change swiftly and easily, it will struggle to adapt. It will struggle to survive.

Which comes down to your culture; your people. The year 2020 has reminded us that all businesses are people businesses.

Covid-19, our governments’ reactions to Covid-19 and the media’s constant catastrophising on the subject, have sent anxiety levels through the roof.

Your people’s mental health and well-being have been seriously affected. They are worried about their health, the health of their parents, their children’s future and their own financial security. Not only is this anxiety disastrous for their own mental health and well-being; it is disastrous for your business as well. No-one performs when they are anxious. People perform at their best when they are well, confident and motivated.

As leaders, it is vital that we give our people the skills and tools they need to thrive in this uncertain world.  As we will discuss below, the gift they need is the ability to embrace change.

Creating an environment in which people can thrive in a world full of uncertainty

I have never known such a prolonged period of uncertainty – with heavy doses of volatility, complexity and ambiguity thrown in for good measure. We are living in a world about as volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous as you can get – and that is before 2021 adds the myriad consequences of Brexit into the mix. Our success as leaders depends upon our ability to help our people navigate through a world of unknowns; through a world of constant change.

Here is my five-step process to navigate all this uncertainty and create a change-ready culture:

Step 1: Regain your strategic clarity

The first step to success in this volatile and uncertain world is to regain your clarity; ensure you, your leadership team and your people are crystal clear about who your business exists to serve and why. Your company’s purpose has never been more important. It is your North Star; the anchor that keeps everybody calm when the seas are stormy. Now is also the perfect time to revisit what makes your business special; what gives you the ‘right to win’ in this new world.

Step 2: Create an extraordinary leadership team

With strategic clarity reinforced, the next step is to turn to the most important team in the business: the leadership team. Times of upheaval and change shine bright spotlights on leadership teams and any cracks and weaknesses become glaringly apparent. In times such as these, CEOs and departmental leaders throughout an organisation need to be brutal when it comes to the composition and behaviour of their leadership teams.

Your business cannot afford weak links around the board table or a dysfunctional collection of individuals at the helm of any part of the business. Your business demands a strong, unified, genuinely collaborative leadership team based on mutual respect and trust, cabinet responsibility and delivering shared objectives together. If you don’t have that – make it so. This team must also consist of ‘leaders of leaders’; leaders who are confident enough to empower their people and create leaders throughout the organisation.

It is also the leadership team’s responsibility to define the culture that the business needs and how to transform it from where it is today. And then deliver that change. For culture starts at the top.

Step 3: Ensure your leaders are skilled at leading change

The ability to lead change is now the key leadership skill – for leaders at all levels. For if we are not leading change, we are not leading anything: we are just managing the status quo. Pre-pandemic, managing the status quo was akin to going backwards. Not anymore. Managing the status quo is no longer an option. It no longer exists.

And no-one changes simply because they are told to; they only change if they want to. As leaders, it is our job to help our people to want to change. Which is why I run Leading change workshops and webinars for Henley Business School and clients worldwide.

Step 4: Ensure your people are able to embrace change

If your people aren’t ready, willing and able to embrace change – your business will not succeed. They must be equipped with the skills, mindset and approach they need to embrace change and look for the opportunities. Your people need help to realise that:

  • All change is emotional. The powerful emotions we feel when confronted by major change are not only OK, they are normal. In the ‘Embracing Change’ workshops I run for employees, the reaction of one lady sticks in my mind. She was wiping away tears throughout much of the first session and came up to me in the break to thank me. Her father had died recently, and she had no idea that the rollercoaster of negative emotions she was feeling were normal. Her relief was palpable.
  • We all erect natural barriers to change, which we can also overcome. We can learn to detach from our negative thoughts, observe our emotions, reframe the way we look at life’s challenges, confront our fears, voice our doubts, find good tribes – and change.
  • They can be their own change catalyst. Not only is it ultimately up to them to change, but the power to change lies within them. The person best placed to enable them to change – is themselves. Life is so much more rewarding when we take responsibility and make the changes we know we need to make.

Step 5: Don’t let the bureaucracy get in the way

Make sure your HR policies, management processes, incentives, financial rules and communications are all re-designed to get out of people’s way, encourage informed risk-taking and innovation, learn from failure, fail fast and celebrate successful change. Especially incentives: incentives drive behaviours and behaviours drive everything. The way your people behave and deliver dictates your customer experience and affects every single part of your business. Set your people up for success.

Your people can learn to harness change and make it work for them – for their own benefit and for the future success of the business.

One of the greatest gifts you can give your people is the power to change.

Campbell Macpherson is an international change expert and the author of The Power to Change: How to harness change and make it work for youpublished worldwide by Kogan Page.

He is an international business adviser on leadership, strategy and change via his consultancy Change & Strategy International (

Campbell is a keynote speaker, Executive Fellow of Henley Business School and author. His first book, The Change Catalyst (Wiley, 2017), was the 2018 Business Book of the Year. It was about leading change. The Power to Change (Kogan Page, 2020) is about embracing personal change and making it work for you.

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