Why the C-suite isn’t the main driver of change

28 December 2016 -


The latest from our Management Book of the Year series

By Management Book of the Year shortlisted author Warren Parry

The C-suite often gets the most praise for an organisation’s success, while team leadership is typically lauded as the foundation for getting work done.

Yet our data shows that the most important role for implementing change lies with business unit leaders or divisional heads. In studying nearly one million employees involved in change initiatives at 150 global corporations, we identified 10 major drivers of successful change.

Of those drivers, we found that business leadership has the most significant impact on business performance as well as a substantial effect on benefits realisation —and all the other major drivers of change are themselves driven either primarily or indirectly by business leadership.

Business leaders are the linchpin that connects the top and bottom of the organisation. From the top down, they translate the corporate vision into terms that staffers can understand and embrace. From the bottom up, they ensure that teams below them are well led and have everything they need to do their jobs well.

When leaders at all levels are doing their jobs, the result is a system of trust aligned at multiple levels and held together in an interrelated series of actions.

In combination, these actions develop confidence that management knows what it is doing, is responsive to staff needs, and is willing and ready to provide support to help every person bring about change.

Our research has found that all high-performance organisations possess strong alignment between C-suite executives and the business leaders under them.

In such environments, change radiates from the core of the organisation because of the synergies involved. This contradicts the conventional wisdom that change initiatives lose steam whenever they hit the “frozen middle”.

Business leaders need to explain and communicate the vision to many audiences, across many different contexts, and in myriad ways.

When done well, all teams will be aligned and goals, roles and outputs will all be in sync with the overall organisational vision and direction. People will be linked across and between groups, building strong value chains that connect employees, systems, and processes to business outcomes.

Our research indicates that a 30 to 40 percent improvement in the level of business leadership is often required to bring change back on track. To help achieve that, the C-suite needs to work closely with business unit leaders to build their capabilities and to establish a mindset where institutionalising the change is just as important as fixing day-to-day problems.

Effective business leaders are crucial to laying the foundation of an organisation’s change capability. Attaining the highest levels of business performance requires this core strength, enabling organisations not just to endure change, but thrive on it. High-performance businesses are faster and more responsive to unpredictable events in the environment, and that agility comes from a strong competence of managing change.

Indeed, if our research has taught us anything it is that the highest-performing organisations have the most change taking place at a fast pace, and that change is typically being driven by business leaders who keep their hands tightly on the wheel, quickly implementing one initiative after another while still staying in firm control of their organisation’s destiny.

Without that type of business leadership, high-performance change will be elusive, regardless of the strength of the C-suite.


Warren Parry is the author of Big Change Best Path, which is shortlisted in the Management Futures category of the 2017 Management Book of the Year

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