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The #1 reason CEOs get fired (hint: it's related to change management)

Despite what you may think, ethical violations, scandals or improper conduct are not amongst the top reasons why CEOs are fired or forced to step down.

According to a research study by Leadership IQ, the number one reason is mismanaging change.

For all CEOs, and especially those who oversee large and complex enterprises, the responsibility to prevent or minimize the human costs of change is daunting. It’s easy to point to an ousted CEO and identify their mistakes, but what I’d like to do instead is show you how you can dramatically raise the internal capability, efficiency and success rates of delivering strategic change in your organization as a top-level executive. 

Combat the fear of loss

One of the key learnings I’ve had in my career has been that people don’t fear change, they fear loss.

Fear triggers a fight-or-flight response in people, taxing a person’s productivity and consequently that of the organization. Typically, the loss that people fear falls into one or more of the following categories:

  1. Status (relative importance to others)

  2. Certainty (being able to predict the future)

  3. Autonomy (a sense of control over events)

  4. Relatedness (a sense of safety with others)

  5. Fairness (perception of fair exchanges between people)

Otherwise known as the SCARF model (Dr. David Rock, NeuroLeadership Institute), this is an important consideration as you lead and drive change. If you are transparent about how a change initiative will impact people in these categories, especially positively, you can gain significant momentum. Else, you will be faced with vulnerability and feelings of helplessness in the face of uninvited and unanticipated change by your workforce, and worse still, your organization will experience high rates of turnover, low job satisfaction, and morale. It won’t be long before these red flags capture the attention of your Board. 

Involve employees in the construction of change

Spencer Johnson said it best in his seminal change management book, “Who Moved My Cheese?”; a change imposed, is a change opposed.

It’s critical to give people a voice in how change is implemented. Involve them early and often in the process.

Human psychology tells us that people have a deep-seated need for a sense of control - lend ears to your employee's needs and concerns and you may get a fresh perspective. You can solicit ideas that may minimize the need for adverse changes. It’s also effective in breaking down silos, barriers, and hierarchy. After all, when people are truly invested in change, it is 30% more likely to stick. Why not tip the scales in your favour?

Proper engagement, communication, and empathy is needed

Lack of communication is the number one reason why change efforts fail.

In an absence of information and context, people tend to feel anxious and uneasy. They resist change because of the fear of the unknown.

Defuse fear by providing context - a compelling case for change and the key strategic drivers. Clear and frequent updates are always preferred over “radio silence”, even if they are “work-in-progress” updates. Partner with your change management and communications teams to build a disciplined and robust communications and engagement strategy to quickly gain buy-in for your change initiative. A single company-wide memo just won’t cut it.

Change is a process, not an event

Think of your change initiative like an epic road trip - you and your people have to fuel up and focus, otherwise, you’ll get nowhere fast.

Change can challenge a person’s felt competency, so equip people for change by mapping out resources and training.

Build a change advocacy network so your employees know someone they can trust and reach out to when they need help.

Answer the burning question, “what’s in it for me?” when you engage your employees.

Don’t relegate sponsorship and leadership of change - lead arm-in-arm with the change implementation team and make sure you attend all learning events. Make the change a priority, just as you would expect your employees to.

Sharpen your emotional and cultural intelligence

Large-scale change initiatives can also fail when a change is not in-sync with the culture on the ground.

What are your organization’s shared values, beliefs, and behaviours?

Be aware that organizations become “shadows of their leaders” and that cultural change must start at the top. Partner with your change management and HR teams to assess culture and readiness as you plan for change. Use this to inform your strategy and boost momentum. Lead with your culture in mind so that it doesn’t lead you.

Be a purpose-led leader

Research has shown that the strategy of “purpose-over-profits” increases employee engagement, agility, and resiliency.

Infuse purpose into all that you do. Lead with integrity and authenticity while pursuing a greater goal and you will drive up the desire for change amongst your workforce and inspire loyalty.

In today’s business world, people want to work with companies that walk-the-talk of their purpose. Purpose can help you break out of the vicious circle of complexity and rapid change, helping your business to survive and thrive. 

“An organization without purpose manages people and resources, while an organization with purpose mobilizes people and resources. Purpose is a key ingredient for a strong, sustainable, scalable organizational culture.” (Sherry Hakimi, Fast Company)


Don’t let mismanaging change become your leadership legacy. Drive organizational change with purpose, clarity, and empathy and stay relevant in today’s business world. 

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