7 Key Insights on Change Leadership
When I was hired as the Executive Director for CMHA (Canadian Mental Health Association) Vancouver-Burnaby, I was charged with accomplishing a few key priorities, including working better with other local CMHA branches.
Formal collaboration had been discussed but was mostly stuck in the research and contemplation phase. An opportunity to bring the three local branches together presented itself through a growing fundraising event called Ride Don’t Hide. I used the event as a way to demonstrate that the local Branches could work together more closely. The Executive Directors had to meet regularly and negotiate an agreement on the often difficult subject of money. My hope was that if the branches could reach agreement on a topic as sensitive as money, they would learn how and if they could work together while building trust. The fundraiser also provided opportunities to build relationships between the boards.
In September 2014, three regional branches of the Canadian Mental Health Association – Vancouver-Burnaby, Fraser and Delta – began formally amalgamating into one branch. Once this decision was formalized, we initiated a process of change management and training with the staff teams of the founding branches.
I would advise other organizations undertaking significant change initiatives to be mindful to:
1. Know the Why. Knowing and being explicitly about why you are amalgamating is necessary. Your common mission and desire to better serve your clients and communities are strong drivers of amalgamations that can help maintain motivation through the sometimes intense workload. Saving money is unlikely; reaching higher levels of efficiency (doing more with the same resources) is often realistic, but if this is the primary reason, it is unlikely to maintain motivation and focus through the process.
2. Find a framework to equip people with de-personalized language to describe their experience. In this case, William Bridges’ model worked well as it was familiar to me, but also simple and memorable enough to be quickly picked up by a large group of people. A common language and common understanding of how people react to change makes sense for large groups.
3. Separate the technical from the adaptive pieces. It was incredibly important for us to have a very detailed operational plan and be onside with labour laws, accounting practices, and the CRA, for example. We created a master checklist, followed a plan and made sure we were on track. Tackling the technical in this way allowed greater energy and focus to be placed on the adaptive pieces of organizational culture, human relationships, and identity (Heifetz & Linsky, 2002).
4. Consider your timing carefully. Amalgamations should be time-bound. Nine to twelve months is likely more reasonable than the 5 months the CMHA branches gave ourselves. I would also advise against timing amalgamations to align with things like the fiscal year end or any other ‘perfect’ time. Be ready to run when the timing is right. If you wait until everything is perfect, it never will be. Be ready to take advantage of opportunities when they arise.
5. Leadership is required at both governance and staff level. What’s more, both levels of leadership need to work together. Either level could undermine the process and create unintended challenges. Working together, it’s more likely that joint solutions will emerge.
6. Separate governance decisions from operational decisions. Clarity on what the board does and does not need to decide can free their focus and ensure there is space to tackle the right questions with thoughtfulness and confidence. Building this clarity with the board before formal conversations related to amalgamation or mergers begin is very helpful as to demystify the process and reduce anxiety.
7. Leaders should embrace their strengths and find others to compensate for their weaknesses.
I found that it was important for the staff leading their change initiative to know their strengths and identify what pieces might be better handled by outside experts. CMHA had limited budget to engage consultants, so a lawyer was engaged to do legal work pro-bono, and a consultant was brought on to provide options on re-organizing the leadership team. I had significant experience in leading staff transition and leveraged that strength by facilitating staff meetings, and introducing Bridges’ model.