6 Keys to Leading an Effective Organizational Change

by Patricia Shull, Organizational Change Management Expert, Group Facilitator and Executive Coach

What causes people to cling to outdated ways of thinking and resist taking new actions, even when it is obvious change would be beneficial? As an organizational change expert and professional coach, I have watched hundreds of professional’s transition through major changes each year. I see the core resistance to change stemming from an unspoken, yet operative hidden conversation that most adults experience unknowingly. ad prefer to avoid the risk of experiencing themselves as beginners in new situations. As adults, we like feeling competent. Our competence allows us to feel safe, capable, and powerful in life. Change most often requires we become beginners in new situations which threatens our since of identity. We might ask ourselves, “If I am not competent, what does that say about me as a person?”

Can the competency transition from competent to beginner to competent again, happen faster, with more ease? Yes, when we gain competence in the transition process itself. Very few leaders or individuals recognize the six specific stages that required making a successful change. This leaves us vulnerable to only partially succeeding or worse, giving up or failing all together. What if we came to recognize these stages and could anticipate them? What if we could predict the stage of greatest risk, and mitigate it with pro-active support? This article will allow you to do just that! In fact, understanding these six stages can often reduce your learning curve and those you support by as much as
20 to 50%. Understanding the competency acquisition process can also mean the difference between change success and failure. Multiply the time saving productivity percentages in an organizational setting and you quickly see why many corporations have hired full time change management experts.

This article will reveal the six key stages of acquiring any new competency for both the individual making the transition or for the leaders or coaches supporting these transitions. It applies to any size of transition as well. This article is based on the research of Dr. David McClelland, former professor emeritus at Harvard University who is considered to be the ‘father of human motivation’. Whether the change is happening by choice or imposed by an outside force, becoming competent with what is required for successful transitions will add to anyone’s effectiveness. By attending to and listening for these six stages of conversations, one can navigate competency transitions, as easily as using a GPS device. Conversations act as a map revealing where someone is in acquiring a new skill. The six stages below describe the conversations a person is present to while in that stage and what is required for success.

Stage One: Conversations of recognition and awareness that the change is real and here to stay

The individual stops negotiating for his preferences and instead recognizes he must make a change. At first, this stage may sound like a “BFO” (big flash of the obvious) to those observing the person in transition. Often work peers and family may ask, “What’s taking him so long to get it?” Very few people understand that inner and outer conversations are a biological function and, therefore, the body must change along with the mental thoughts and spoken words. For example, have you ever found yourself repeating an old telephone number after you have gotten a new one? Have you ever unconsciously driven to a former work site instead of a new one? Or, how about calling your new spouse your ex-wife’s name?

This phenomena occurs because conversations are literally held in muscle memory according to Humberto Maturana, Ph.D in his book, The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Even when someone recognizes that the change is inevitable, his conversations take longer to change than his knee-jerk reactions to habits he has formed in the past. For example, if a policeman is used to stopping unsafe behavior at a traffic light, he might find himself doing this when he is out of uniform because he has internalized this conversation, “It’s my job to protect people from harm.” He can forget he is out of uniform and off duty. Taking action when out of uniform might not make sense to others, but for him, taking action maintains his sense of dignity and identity in the world. He is also maintaining community standards for safety of which he has held himself responsible for over and over again.

How someone moves through this first stage of change varies from person to person. For some, they require repetitive exposure to external conversations from others before the awareness of the change is embodied. Some need a period of time to reflect upon the new situation, often weeks or months, before committing to making the change willingly. Others need intensity such as being asked to pack up their office by a given deadline to understand this change is something they cannot control.
Others require some combination of these three to become competent with the fact that they are indeed embarking on a major transition.

For those leading or coaching others in a career transition, it is important to speak clearly and factually about why the change is happening, what activities are specifically ending and by when, and what will stay the same. By including conversations about what will not be changing, the person impacted by the change can leverage some stability. For example, “You will no longer have your job, but your health and country club benefits will continue for 3-years. We would like you be available two days each month to consult with us on new projects.”

Stage Two: Conversations of Understanding

Once a person has recognized that the changes happening are not going away, he begins to understand what the changes mean on a practical basis. He begins to make “from/to” assessments about how his life will be altered in terms of his daily routines, commitments he made to others that won’t be fulfilled, how hundreds of monthly and yearly activities will be stopping, etc. This understanding brings up many losses of possibilities for his future. A future he had previously lived and dreamed into, talked about, and counted on.

The individual’s community also comes into play. Some in his world will accept the losses. Others may resist and hinder his progress in this stage, because they don’t like how the change may impact them. After thinking through the losses, he begins to think through the future and explore what new situations he may face. Again, recognizing the gap between what is ending and what is beginning, is the key to gaining competence here. This stage can take some time as understanding each loss of possibility must be understood in terms of what it means in all areas of life.

Entrepreneurs who have birthed a company, from vision to operational success, take much longer to move through this stage. Unlike their corporate counterparts, they are their organizations. Their identity is entirely coupled with their organization. They often can’t imagine how to operate in the world, without their organization. Patience is required during this stage of change, as the un-coupling process is occurring. This is the time of un-doing, that which has been habitually done for years.

Leaders facilitating this stage of change are wise to allow the person to speak their concerns and offer sources of support. Creating a transition plan with change benefits, timelines, lists of new activities and resources can also improve the process. Expect emotion like grief, anger, resistance and low morale. These are all predictable conversations during on this stage.

Stage Three: Conversations of Skill Assessments

Now that the losses of possibility are understood and the “from/to” gaps analyzed, the person begins to make assessments about how effective or ineffective he will be in the future situation. If the new situation is retirement, for example, he may wonder how competent he may be at creating new activities that are fulfilling. If the future is about a new career role, he may wonder how effective he will be in performing the new tasks, managing new relationships, and handling whatever might be asked of him.

In this stage, the person also embraces the unknown. He speculates what the new future will be and assesses what skills he can bring to each circumstance. He also begins to calculate the risks involved in making the change. Each risk is considered and the person asks, “What if….” Many conversations begin happening about how to mitigate the risks of change. Some people will need private time away from family, friends, and work to consider how to manage these risks. Others will want to broaden their perspectives by discussing their ideas with others.

Stage Four: Conversations and Actions of Experimentation

In this stage of competency acquisition, he begins to take new actions. Transitioning from being highly competent in the past role to a beginner in his new role is not easy. Most adults don’t assess themselves as beginners, nor do those sponsoring this type of change recognize this is the case. Not recognizing the shift that is happening, moving from being highly competent to a beginner in a new role, doesn’t make the facts go away. Stage four is the stage of newness. Often, new actions are taken slowly by people, in order for them to gage how effective they are in producing the new results. As with any new skill being acquired, beginners make mistakes, adjust their behaviors, take action again, and learn from experience. This is commonly referred to as “on-boarding” when a leader takes on a new role. On-boarding is a process of becoming acquainted with a new situation, learning what is required to meet the community’s expectations and one’s own.

During this stage, the more satisfying the experience is, the faster competence tends to be acquired. The less satisfying this experience is, the longer this stage lasts. Because of this, external support from peers, family, coaches, consultants, subject matter experts can be essential. Those supporting executives in transition will do well to talk about the rewards and benefits of change and offer as many sources of support as possible. This stage is a make or break stage. Some people will never gain the competence required to be successful in the new future and will begin flailing. Others will do whatever it takes to gain the skills required to succeed. Only time and experience experimenting with new skills in the new situation allow for competence to be gained. This stage cannot be rushed through; however, it can be shortened with effective learning support, recognition and rewards.

Stage Five: Conversations of Skill Practice and Small Wins

In this stage, the individual has enough experience in the new situation, and he can begin to practice what works. The previous stage of experimentation has allowed him to see what doesn’t work long enough to begin practicing the actions that do work and produce effective results. This is typically the point where an organization begins to receive value as productivity has begun. Value begins slowly at first and builds as time goes on. Individuals begin to feel confident for the first time and able to anticipate how to produce results. It is important to recognize that this stage will still have breakdowns in competence. Mistakes will be still be made, but corrected quickly.

Stage Six: Conversations of Competence

Having completed the previous five stages of learning and change, the individual can now perform consistently and effectively over time. We say a person is competent when they can produce the results required, even when faced with obstacles. At this stage, the person now has the time and competence to cycle back to stage one and attend to more subtle competencies to be even more productive in the new role. Others in the organization, for example, now can count on the individual to perform competently. If leaders, change agents and coaches had a key role in facilitating the transition process, they can now assess themselves as competent.


The effectiveness of anyone making a transition rests entirely on how he moves through these six stages of acquiring the required new set of competencies. Leaders sponsoring these changes either help or hinder this process. When people recognize the six stages involved in successful transitions, they can navigate each stage more effectively. Others around him can be a source of support to make the process easier, faster and more workable. In the end, the disruption of productivity is shortened, new possibilities open more quickly and better results are produced.

Patty Shull

Patty Shull is an organizational change consultant and talent manager who develops key competencies in others to achieve business results. She uses creative and leading edge approaches to mentor leaders in making effective transitions. Her extensive experience includes global Fortune 100, non-profit, entrepreneurial, and government organizations. She is known for designing programs to develop leadership talent, speed organizational changes, mitigate risks, and turn employee resistance to employee commitment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *