Leading Transformational Change: How to Build and Sustain Momentum

By: Adam Kling

While working with the CEO and senior team for an aerospace company, I learned that a rocket includes a first-stage and second-stage booster, each with its own unique propellant to send the payload into space. Interestingly, the majority of the weight in the rocket is the propellant, not the satellite or cargo. This means it takes a significant amount of energy (e.g., fuel), used just at the right time, to get the payload to the specific destination.

Similarly, leading an organization through a significant transformation requires multiple “fuel sources.” If, for example, an organization is looking to strategically reposition itself or move into an adjacent market, the CEO and top team must be the initial fuel source. Much like the first stage of a rocket, the CEO and top team must do the initial heavy lifting to define the destination and create a roadmap to the future in order to get the organization focused in a new direction. Once this is accomplished, many senior teams feel a great sense of relief because they have a strategic plan to thwart a competitor or get in front of an emerging industry trend. While a strategic plan is critical because it gives focus, cascading the change is where most transformations fail.

So, the senior team begins communicating the vision and strategy, prioritizing initiatives, and allocating resources. They are championing the transformation and doing all of the “right” things. However, much like the rocket, they need to quickly fire the second fuel source to sustain the momentum and reach the desired destination. This means that the top team needs to quickly transfer ownership and leadership to a broader group of executives who will lead and champion the transformation’s initiatives. In reality, this is easier said than done, because most executives find it difficult to transform their organization and also perform their day job. As a result, momentum often stalls at this point.

Based on my experience, here are tips to build and sustain the second fuel source:

  • Hold one-on-one and small group discussions. Town halls and big presentations are great. To really make an impact, meet with key leaders, share the thinking behind the transformation, and create a discussion. This level of intimacy and transparency builds understanding and advocates, which creates leverage.
  • Conduct periodic check-ins. Because this work is emotionally and physically exhausting, it is important to frequently ask others: “How are you managing the current pace and intensity?” “Is there anything I can do to help you achieve your performance objectives?” and so on. This builds commitment as well as identifies barriers to performance.
  • Create a sense of optimism. Keep the organization focused on what is possible without ignoring the barriers. Research shows that if you believe you can achieve a goal, you are more likely to be successful. At the same time, ignoring the obvious barriers can create a perception that leadership is out of touch.
  • Set small goals. Small goals help maintain focus and make a daunting task seem achievable. Break it down to what needs to be accomplished this month, this week, or even today.
  • Celebrate milestones. Acknowledge and celebrate what has been achieved—doing so can build excitement and sustain momentum.
  • Encourage executives to recharge emotionally and physically. Senior leaders must periodically re-energize and re-ignite momentum. If this group is burnt out and exhausted, their impact will be diminished.
  • Stay the course. While it is important to periodically re-evaluate your plan, having the fortitude to persevere and continually push the organization forward is important. Transformation can be difficult; at times, senior leaders need to do the heavy lifting required to push the organization forward.

Leading transformational change takes resilience, stamina, and a significant amount of emotional energy. The top team will get things moving, but they need to quickly engage a broader leadership group if the transformation is going to succeed. By following the tips above, you have a greater chance of building and sustaining momentum.