Leading People Through Change: An Essential for Success

By Jennifer Blenkle • September 21, 2016


Jennifer Blenkle
Jennifer Blenkle, Frameworks

Whether you need to adapt to a changing market, innovate your programs, engage new volunteers or develop new activities to advance your mission, your success requires changing the mindsets and behaviors of your team. Sounds simple enough, right? Is all you need to do  change the mindsets and habits of already successful people?


Bringing people along is where change gets complicated. Your vision for change might seem brilliant to you. But for the board member who has a full-time job and only conducts association business a few days a year, or the staff member who is planning a logistically intensive meeting, your perspective might not be clear, might not match their experience or may not even seem relevant.


For successful change to occur, you can’t force it on your team or expect it to happen organically. LilTweetablesSmall

People must be willing to set aside old ways to try new ideas. Lead their motivation. LilTweetablesSmall

The more people can weigh in about proposed changes, the more likely they’ll get on board. LilTweetablesSmall


Your knowledge of the organization and its members and goals is shaped by your role and your access. The same is true for each person on your team (volunteer or staff). They understand the organization from their perspective, shaped by their work, the information they have access to and their experiences.


So, how do you bring together the diverse perspectives that surround your organization and leverage them to successfully change?

Successful change is a continuous effort. After the initial excitement fades and challenges arise, people can slide back into old patterns and business-as-usual. Concentrate on keeping people engaged, apprised, and focused on the purpose and goals.”

Change leadership


Changing mindsets and behaviors is not a management outcome. You don’t simply make a declaration or introduce a new process and expect successful change. There is a time and place for change management, but you cannot manage people into changing their perspectives or habits. People must be willing to set aside their old ways and be motivated to try your new ideas. This requires leadership.


Change leadership is critical to helping people navigate change. Motivating people to change requires helping them to understand the proposed change and why it is necessary, providing an opportunity to discuss and explore the situation and allowing them to contribute to the effort.


There is not a prescribed process to lead change. However, there are four critical components that foster conditions to advance change:

  1. Be absolutely clear on the purpose and need for change.
  2. Actively engage people in exploring, developing and implementing the change.
  3. Develop a plan articulating what will change and how, and what won’t change.
  4. Communicate clearly and openly.


Clear purpose 


The first step is developing an extremely clear understanding of the purpose and need for change. If you want people to alter their behaviors, their work and overcome inertia of “the way it’s always been done,” you need a compelling purpose to guide them.


Clarity of purpose will help you foster the desired change. Deciding to innovate your programs because you saw a great session at a conference is not a clear or compelling need for change. Innovating your programs because professional standards are evolving in your market, because economic changes are decreasing demand for your member’s services or because other organizations are entering your market space, are needs that can be developed into compelling cases for change.


How you frame the situation influences how people respond. You must understand the purpose so thoroughly that you are able to explain it to your team in a manner that makes sense to them and helps them see “what’s in it for me.” This appreciation and understanding will motivate people to join you.


Questions to consider as you develop your purpose:

  • Why do you need to make the change?
  • How do you describe it for your team?
  • How might taking on this change make your organization stronger?


Active engagement


Successful change is a team effort. It requires a leader who champions, guides and engages people, AND a team who is on board and understands the purpose, goal and “what’s in it for me.” Don’t leave this momentum up to chance.


So much of association work is cyclical — associations are always in some state of conference planning, membership development or content publishing — it is easy to fall into a ‘get it done’ mentality. For change to succeed, you need to step back from doing and engage people in thinking, exploring and creating change together.


You may encounter friction. Resistance can stem from comfort with the status quo, lack of perceived value of the change, lack of information about the effort, tradition…there are a number of reasons to resist change. Actively engaging people to understand their resistance, to hear what is being said and not being said, will inform how you frame your effort and help people understand the value, engage in the effort and transition from their current mindset to a new view that supports the change.


Questions to consider as you foster your team engagement:

  • How might you create opportunities for people to share their perspective?
  • How might you better encourage your team to ask questions?
  • What concerns will individuals on your team raise?


Develop a plan


You need a plan. Not a 10-page document that sits on the shared drive never to be opened. You need a plan that lets people know what to expect — what will change and how, what won’t change, a proposed timeline and how you will monitor the process.


Engage people in co-creating a plan that identifies key steps to achieving the desired change. The more engaged people are in developing the change, the more bought in they are on making it succeed. Ask people what isn’t working, what might work and what they believe are the challenges. They have an opinion, and if you value their opinion and engage them in shaping the plan, they are more likely to support the effort.


Questions to consider as you develop your plan:

  • What might success look like?
  • What is the greatest challenge to making the change?
  • What assumptions must be true for your plan to be successful?




Communication must be clear, consistent and relevant. Staff and volunteers understand the organization from their perspective, not yours. Don’t expect them to make the leap to your understanding. Rather, build from their understanding. Use approachable language and examples that help people see the way forward, highlight how changes will impact their work, their team and the organization.


If your change effort is a priority issue, make it abundantly clear. There are always more emails, meetings and work to get to than there is time. Keep the effort top of mind by formally and informally keeping people apprised of the progress, successes and alterations to the plan.


Don’t forget, communication is a two-way street. Share information, ask questions and then stop talking and listen. The feedback, questions and suggestions people share provide insight to what they think, their concerns and where they are in coming along.


Questions to consider as you develop your communication:

  • What individuals/teams will be most impacted by the change effort?
  • What will be the most challenging/exciting point of the change?
  • What communication mode(s) are best for your people and the information you are sharing?


Sustainable, successful change


Successful change is a continuous effort. After the initial excitement fades and challenges arise, people can slide back into old patterns and business-as-usual. Concentrate on keeping people engaged, apprised and focused on the purpose and goals. Foster small daily habits that build comfort, understanding and momentum for the new efforts. Help people move forward.


As you develop and lead your change effort remember, no single activity will bring everyone along. Leading change requires employing different approaches to help people navigate change from their perspective.


Jennifer Blenkle founded Frameworks in 2013 to help nonprofit and association professionals bolster their organizations to realize their goals. To learn more, visit frameworksforinnov.com. This article originally appeared in the September/October 2016 issue of Association Leadership. It is a part of the Texas Society of Association Executives’ CEO Strategies series sponsored by the Fort Worth CVB.