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Why a Change Pathfinder is Essential to HR Transformation

Why is it so difficult to successfully implement change?  

This is a haunting question for any HR professional. Any perusal through common literature in the genre of change management will reveal high probabilities of failure – some sources stating that as many as 70% of all attempts at change fail. Whether you’re implementing an analytics application in your HR department, trying to drive a change in mindset to become more data-driven, or pushing through a transformational redesign, if these frightening statistics are even remotely accurate then we should all approach change management efforts with considerable trepidation.  

In recent work we’ve done at Exelon in partnership with our colleagues at BPI (Bridget Laffey in particular), we’ve gotten a little closer to making change implementation easier. Through the ups and downs of a nearly two-year HR transformation initiative (ultimately called “Powered by Talent”), we discovered the often-neglected role of what we called the Change Pathfinder.

We learned that this role can be played by the individual(s) leading the change, and there were key actions, as well as ways of “showing up,” that when demonstrated by the individual(s) leading the effort, increased our effectiveness in making change happen.

Adapting to a Changing Landscape

The business conditions that spurred this HR transformation were all-encompassing and dynamic. The organization, indeed the entire energy sector, was (and still is) reeling from the impact of factors such as disruptive technologies like fracking and smart grid. Internally, we’d recently completed a merger with Constellation Energy, and promoted a new CEO who issued a challenge to all parts of the business to examine how they could become more effective in service of driving improved results and delivering increased innovation.  

Powered by Talent was HR’s response to this challenge, and consisted of:

  • Enhancing our talent acquisition process
  • Revitalizing our executive development
  • Adopting a strategic business partner model
  • Building an analytics capability by implementing Visier’s people analytics solutions and up-skilling the HR population with respect to analytical thinking and becoming more data-driven

This nearly two-year effort drove a considerable amount of positive change for the larger HR function. There were many things that contributed to our successes in Powered by Talent, including the presence of many of the classic requirements for change management: a devoted, mission-focused team, dedicated resources and funding, securing the support of the CHRO and the HR leadership team, and the CEO’s challenge provided a clear and compelling mandate for action.  

However, the concept of someone being a Change Pathfinder – someone who blazes a trail ahead of the organization and ahead of even the sponsors – was something that became clear to us only afterward. In the case of this effort, I ended up assuming the Change Pathfinder role, although I wasn’t aware of this at the time. We noted several key actions that I executed in this capacity. I’ll offer the following tips on “things to do” and “ways to be” a change pathfinder, which can hopefully be illustrative for others attempting to drive change.  

[Tweet “Be the Change Pathfinder who blazes a trail ahead of the org and sponsors. #HR #HRTransformation”]

Things to Do as a Change Pathfinder

Looking back, there are several key actions that I executed as our Change Pathfinder that can hopefully be illustrative for others attempting to drive change:

  1. Realize that large change efforts often place unrealistic burdens on executive sponsors. These individuals are typically time-starved and, as a result, overloaded with priorities. Expecting them to prioritize your change effort over everything else on their plate, especially if your change requires them to figure out a new way of operating, isn’t fair to them. So figure out the new path for them, and role model the new way of operating. Doing this also makes it “safe” for them to follow your trail, as you’ll likely stumble and make early mistakes, saving them from experiencing possible loss of face. Depending on your culture, it may be harder for senior leaders to take these kinds of risks without their reputation taking hits. You can take the initial blows and make it safer for them to walk the new path.
  2. Consider who has a natural passion for what you’re trying to drive, and leverage them. There are those in the organization that are perhaps better able to take risks and color outside of the lines. Consider enlisting a “renegade” or “free spirit” to help drive a new message or demonstrate a new behavior. Doing this can be a double-edged sword, so it’s important to pick the right free spirit as an ally, lest you spend more time than you’d like herding these cats. But using this kind of talent can also help loosen things up, break down resistance, and keep energy high when managed well.
  3. Seek a third party perspective and use someone in this capacity as a sounding board. It’s harder to see what’s possible when you’re mired in the “current state world.” Talking to someone in another part of the organization or an outsider can reassure you that you’re on the right track, give you examples of fresh approaches that have worked elsewhere, and help you reflect on your thinking to ensure you’re not falling into any mental traps.  

Ways to Be a Change Pathfinder

Perhaps more important than applying any of these tactics is “showing up” as a Change Pathfinder.  Similar to role-modeling the new processes as mentioned above, you can also model a new way of being, to be a living example of new behaviors required in the post-change world. While there are several Change Pathfinder behaviors that allow you to show the way, I’ll elaborate here are a few of the most important ones:

  1. Be willing to be vulnerable and check your ego at the door.  This is critical if you’re going to “go first” and hit walls, step on landmines, and discover hidden pitfalls. You WILL make mistakes trying out the new ways of doing things. If you react with anger or fear, others will be understandably hesitant to follow your footsteps. If, however, you react with humility and even humor, others will be more willing to follow your course.  A related behavior is to not take yourself too seriously. Humor is an effective tool in diffusing challenging situations, and change certainly falls into this category.
  2. Have confidence that this will work out in the end, and project this belief.  Confidence and calm are contagious – the reverse is also true. A useful concept to keep in mind here is the Stockdale Paradox – maintaining a realistic view of your circumstances, while remaining confident that you will come through fine in the end.
  3. Be willing to be afraid and uncomfortable. Seek out new ways of doing things and push the envelope. The phrase “never let a crisis go to waste” could apply here. Not that your change efforts should rise to the level of crises, but be aware of when the organization is “unfrozen” and time your roll outs to move them when they’re in this state. If you’re not pushing the envelope, both personally with respect to feeling a little scared, and professionally with respect to challenging the status quo, you’re not being as effective as you could be.  

In the end, we often overlook the idea and role of a Change Pathfinder because we’re either unwilling to put ourselves out there or because we think someone else is going to do it for all of us. If you truly want to lead change and make a difference, you need to cut a trail through the jungle first, so others can follow you. Be the pathfinder.

About the author: Tim Hickey

Tim Hickey is the Director of HR Strategic Services function (formerly HR Strategy & OE group) for Exelon Corporation. In this position, Tim is responsible for facilitating the development of HR’s strategy, leading HR’s technology team, oversight of HR corporate compliance programs, data reporting, and driving HR’s human capital analytics and organization effectiveness programs. Tim has a Master’s degree in Industrial / Organizational Psychology and is also a certified professional corporate coach.

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