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Do your change leaders have their eye on the ball?

In business, we often talk about change leadership as though its the responsibility of a single executive and reinforce this using the title program sponsor. However, in complex organisations, most strategic change spans multiple departments and works across many different reporting lines. This means we need to think about change leadership differently, treating it as team- rather than a solo-sport.

I recently presented at a conference and as part of my session, I asked two questions.

Firstly, I asked members of the audience to put up their hand if most of the strategic change they experienced, was contained within their department or functional unit. In other words, did the beginning, middle and end of a change fall within the remit/ control of a single Executive Team member.

Not one person in the audience put up their hand.

In my second question, I asked people to indicate if most of the strategic change required coordination across more than one department. Everyone in the auditorium put up their hand.

I’ve run this poll several times across multiple industries and the result is always the same. Few, if any, organisational changes, fall within the ‘control’ of a single function or executive. However, when it comes to change leadership, we often treat it as though success and failure is solely determined by the capability of one individual (ie. the sponsor).

If change is to be successful, every leader, in every area affected by the change, has a leadership responsibility. It’s a bit like a game of football. If your team is going to score a goal, every team member needs to play their part. While they may play different positions on the field, all are contributing to the ultimate aim of the game.

Get the ball in the right goal.

Let's take a different perspective. Imagine if everyone on a football team decided that scoring the goal was the sole responsibility of the person who had the ball at the start of play. And, what if the other team members just stood around talking about what a poor job their team mate was doing, or worse, sticking their foot out to trip him or her up.

It sounds ridiculous at first, but how often does this happen during major strategic change? The sponsor is seen as being the one who’s holding the ball and their executive colleagues pretty much leave them to it. Sure, leaders might turn up to steering committee meetings, having flicked-through the paper work, but their heart's not really in it. Worse, leaders can stand in the way or introduce a new ball (ie. a change that fits better with their individual agenda) and use it to distract attention from the main game.

How about your organisation? Is most of the strategic change contained within a single department, or does it spread across many different areas? If it’s the latter, do the leaders within each function take responsibility for collaboratively leading that change, regardless of whether they are the sponsor? Do they help the ball to get into the goal, or do they stand around talking about how they would have done it differently?

Change leadership is a team sport and it all starts with the right leaders, adopting the right mindset and playing the right game.


Thanks for reading and I'll look forward to hearing your thoughts. Please remember to share this article with others who would value its insights.

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Kate Christiansen has spent over two decades adapting complex organisations to strategic change and she is the author of the award-winning book "The Thrive Cycle: Unlock the Adaptive Organisation Within". Kate is a mentor, facilitator, director and advisor who helps leaders tackle the change-related challenges that stand between them and strategic success. Kate's "Leading at the Speed of Change" Executive Mastery program increases an Executive Team's ability to individually, and collaboratively, lead change and successfully deliver its strategy.


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