Good People Want to Make a Difference Every Day. Does Your Company Let Them?

business transformation Jul 11, 2023

Too many executives fail at leading successful change initiatives, even as successful initiatives are a prerequisite for winning in today’s dynamic marketplace. That failure is no small part of the reason why employees detach emotionally or resign.

Addressing how some 70% of change initiatives fail, John Kotter came up with an 8-step change model in the 1990s. In multiple CEO roles, I have used his model and developed practical actions to implement its different steps.

I found that three of the steps – create a sense of urgency (step 1), enlist a volunteer army (step 5), and institute change by instilling new habits (step 8) – are where change initiatives most often break down. 

This article is about what I did to successfully implement steps 1 and 5. 



You cannot “tell” people to feel a greater sense of urgency because feeling that urgency is an emotional conviction, a stirring of the heart. 

In today’s overly therapeutic culture, many people think the way to build a sense of urgency is to first delve more deeply into employees’ feelings. Nonsense. That's treating a symptom instead of the problem.

Instead, the first step toward building a sense of urgency is for executives to have candid, intellectually honest conversations with employees about the state of the company’s business.

Why? Because employees already know a lot more about the company’s important issues than is appreciated by many executives and that means employees quickly detect disingenuous or out-of-touch executive behaviors. So do not insult or demean them. Few things make employees more skeptical than executives who do not talk openly about what is really going on. Few things make employees detach emotionally or resign faster than executives talking pablum, like giving pep talks, instead of talking openly about what is really going on.

When I stepped into my six CEO roles, I found the lack of intellectual honesty – not psychological safety – was the first missing piece of the puzzle. 

Building a sense of urgency is enabled when the employees' sense of what is going on explicitly aligns with the executive team showing – by candid, intellectually honest communications – that they share the same awareness.

Such candid talk puts spotlights on the elephants in the room - about either what is known to be going on or where there is a need for a discovery process to figure out what is going on - and makes it possible to discuss all of them.

Leaders who are not afraid to face both hard facts and uncertainties know that all hands are needed on deck. That belief creates an invitation for people to join the effort while feeling safe enough to ask questions and propose ideas about those things that really matter. Approached that way, such discussions minimize organizational politics and psychodramas, creating emotional engagement and letting the change process begin. 

Said another way, intellectual honesty about the state of the company enables psychological safety at the personal employee level, the combination of which powers the building of an organization-wide sense of urgency.



If you believe good employees want to make a difference every day, then they will be energized by seeing it is possible for them to make that difference. In an article entitled “Why Innovation Depends on Intellectual Honesty”Jeff Dyer, Nathan Furr et al describe the transformative impact of intellectual honesty: “…[it] unleashes the knowledge of team members…”

With a shared clarity that things had to be done differently during my CEO roles, I encouraged the formation of voluntary 2-4 person SWOT teams. The brief video in the Comments section to this article offers particulars about how the SWOT teams worked.

A SWOT team topic was about addressing a current difficulty or about capturing a new opportunity. It was related to an issue inside the company or about an external issue in the marketplace impacting the company. The key point - the topic was something the team members had direct personal knowledge about and saw as an issue or evolving trend. 

The SWOT teams energized the entire organization because they blew up the typical reasons for employee disillusionment – nobody listens to me and I can’t impact anything. They also teased out decentralized/disseminated bits of knowledge that would often not see the light of day, the combination of which created new insights and contributed to breaking down organizational silos. 

My biggest takeaway from my 11 C-suite positions: Good people want to make a difference every day. So let them! Dare to be bold, instead of timid.

Originally published by Donald B. Hawthorne