Talent Management Truths: 5 Lessons from the Field to Help Solve Today’s Workplace Challenges

Talent management has been in the spotlight recently as many organizations face historic talent shortages, a workforce struggling with fatigue and burnout, and the ongoing pressure to reduce costs and increase productivity. Not only do organizations need to find talent with the right skills for today, but they also require an agile workforce who can adapt to the constant changes in job demands. According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report, half of all employees will have to reskill by 2025.[1] The pressure is on talent leaders, and organizations alike to ensure their people are prepared for the future of work and this pressure is not likely to dissipate any time soon.

At the same time, the balance of power has shifted, and employees want to choose where, when, and how they work. Employees have altered their expectations of work following the pandemic, and are prioritizing meaning, purpose, and balance in their work lives. These changing expectations have placed organizational culture and leadership behaviors at the forefront, with many organizations lacking the critical leadership capabilities to address the changing organizational and workforce needs.

While the work of talent management remains the same – attract, select, hire, develop, perform, and retain the required talent to meet current and future needs – the environment in which organizations operate has changed dramatically. With the rapid pace of change, the rise of modern technologies, and ever-changing customer, organizational and employee demands necessitate a more fluid and agile approach to talent management. What is a priority today, may not be one tomorrow, and this means that talent leaders need to create a compelling vision for the future, yet be flexible and nimble to course correct as required.

But where do you start? How do build a talent management strategy that works for employees and organizations alike? What are some of the ‘do’s and don’ts’ that will make your organization  successful?

I’ve seen lots of changes in the 20+ years of talent management work. Here are 5 core talent management strategies that will serve organizations through this next wave of change:

1. Build Your Talent Strategy to Meet Business Needs

It can be easy to sit at your desk and craft a talent strategy on your own, but do so at your own risk! An organizational talent strategy should consider the diverse needs of each unit, business or function. Implementing an overarching talent strategy is typically the default method, but be careful not to build a ‘one-size-fits all’ approach that does not address the urgent needs of each function.

It is critical to partner with business leaders to get their input on the top priorities that will have the greatest impact. It is easy to focus your plan to address the talent needs in the current fiscal year, but what are you doing to build the skills of your employees to meet the needs of tomorrow? What are the next most important strategic shifts that will require you to build, buy and/or borrow new skills and capabilities to meet tomorrow’s needs? How will you start working on tomorrow’s needs today?

Business challenges and needs often change, make sure you meet with your leadership team at least quarterly to review your plan.

2.  Keep Your Strategy Simple, Usable, and Meaningful for Your Customers (not just a boring PowerPoint deck)

The customers of your talent strategy are the employees and leaders of your organization. The first principle of a solid strategy is to ensure that it resonates with your audience. It should be simple, meaningful, and relay a compelling story about the impact it will have on employees and the business. I believe that developing a plan-on-a-page is a great approach because no one has the time, energy, nor desire to read a 25-page deck anymore.

Talent management is about crafting impactful and engaging talent experiences for internal customers. In today’s world, our default position seems to be that it is better to add more features to existing talent programs (e.g., performance management) because we believe our customers want them. If you are adding more processes/ features without considering if they add incremental business or customer value, you better think twice. Make sure you solicit employee/manager feedback on your talent programs before making changes. Remember that no one will complain if your programs are too simple to use. People love simplicity – it’s why the KISS principle is sage advice.

I learned the hard way that a simple, well-executed strategy beats a complicated, poorly executed one every day. It is not about the net number of initiatives you include in your strategy; it is about ensuring that you are launching sustainable, executable programs that add real value to your customers.

3. Make Sure Your Strategy is Interconnected (vs a set of separate activities)

The overall talent system (i.e., hiring, selection, onboarding, learning, performance, development, succession) is like a manufacturing process, in that there is an input and output of each sub process. It can be easy to optimize one area only to jeopardize the overall performance of another. To have an effective and efficient talent system, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts and every sub-process needs to be maximized to ensure successful outcomes overall.

One example of this is when a manager focuses on near-term priorities when hiring, while ignoring a longer-term need to develop a deeper leadership pipeline for their function. In other words, you can hire a technically strong manager today, who may not be the best candidate from a future leadership perspective. This decision requires that additional time, money and resources be spent on development down the line with no guarantee of success. You can solve a problem today, only by creating a bigger, more expensive one tomorrow.

4. Measure Talent Management Against Business Priorities (vs. leaving progress to chance)

I’ve learned that the best way to be credible to business leaders is to speak in the language of the business. Business leaders don’t care as much about HR terms as you do. It is important to be specific about what you are going to do, when you are going to do it, and the resulting business impact of each initiative.

I used to include many standard talent metrics in the strategies I developed until I learned an important lesson from a CFO. He informed me that if your initiative doesn’t end up with tangible results on the income statement or balance sheet (i.e., cost, sales, revenue, etc.), it really doesn’t matter. I initially thought that HR metrics were enough, and that cost avoidance was good metric to share with finance teams, but now I know otherwise. HR metrics are good, business metrics are great.

If you want to be a legitimate business partner, you must articulate how each talent initiative will impact that achievement of the overarching strategy and lead to favorable business metrics.

5. Help Everyone be Accountable for Talent (vs thinking it’s just HR’s job)

I mistakenly thought I had full ownership over organizational talent outcomes. Thankfully, I learned that this was an impossible and unrealistic expectation. The role of a talent leader is to establish the processes, systems, and programs required for success, and influence leaders to implement these programs to achieve expected outcomes. Every talent program starts and ends with a conversation between a manager and employee, meaning that managers are fully accountable for bringing these programs to life.

The impact of talent management is not measured by the implementation of a new system, process, or technology. You can have the most advanced systems or technologies, but people forget that the success of each talent program is measured in the quality of conversations had. Managers need to be supported, coached, and guided to make this happen with the support of their leaders and the talent team, and they also need to be held accountable for talent outcomes.

Talent management is a challenging, but a fun area to work in. The goal is to drive performance, development, and career outcomes for employees, and enable better business results for the organization. The external environment will continue to change, and the pressure will be on talent leaders to ensure the organization has employees with the required skills to be successful today and tomorrow. This means that talent leaders need to define a vision for the future, and continually review and adapt their strategy and plans required to address needs. A simple, well-defined strategy that results in measurable business outcomes is the goal, and to accomplish this, talent leaders need to design programs that create positive experiences for employees and leaders alike.

About the Author

Mark Coulter

Mark Coulter, MIR, CHRP, CHRL, is a talent management and organizational development expert and leadership coach. He has over 20 years of experience in human resources with a focus on leading talent management functions in automotive, retail, consumer packaged goods, and beverage organizations, including Fortune 500 and Fortune 50 companies such as Campbell Soup and Lowe’s. Mark has expertise in implementing end-to-end talent solutions in the areas of talent acquisition, employee & leadership development, performance management, succession planning, and career development. He currently works as the Director, Talent Management Solutions at HRSG, where he partners with clients to design and implement competency-based talent management solutions to achieve business and workplace outcomes.


[1] Whiting, K. (2020, October 21). These are the top 10 job skills of tomorrow – and how long it takes to learn them. World Economic Forum. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/10/top-10-work-skills-of-tomorrow-how-long-it-takes-to-learn-them/

Leaders and Change: Imperatives in the ‘New Normal’

Positioning the ‘Conversation’

The pandemic experience, while incredibly challenging for leaders and teams, also provided important learnings. We came to recognize the greater impact and influence of such attributes as resilience, agility, humility, curiosity, self-care, compassion and caring, and attention to growing self-awareness, as central to the leader role in guiding teams and ensuring that organization priorities are realized. These are foundational and increasingly expected of the most effective leaders.

Courage, however, stands out as it is a pre-requisite, a ‘non-negotiable’ way of behaving. If our learnings from the pandemic are to be applied in a way which has both positive impact and also yields essential results, then courage and courageous action has to be ‘front-and-centre’. I like Mark Kingwell’s phrase and I think it is quite apt as we think about courage. Through the experience of the pandemic, we see that the place of courage in the leader’s role as being “not so much new as more vivid”.[1]

The Ongoing Challenge of Leading Change

As I thought about the changing role of leaders, I was in the process of reading Professor James Conklin’s recent book on change entitled Balancing Acts: A Human Systems Approach to Organizational Change.[2] With his thoughtful model of change before me and my decision to use the courage ‘lens’ as my guide in writing this article, I set out to explore the leader’s role in navigating the uncertainties of the ‘new normal’ of organization life. That led to the generation of a number of ‘courageous questions’ which internal leaders might use in challenging organizations to marshal energy appropriately in making desired changes.

One important note, however, is that Conklin’s model is focused on external interveners, including consultants and related outside advisors. That said – and based on a short conversation with Professor Conklin – I believe that his model can be used effectively by leaders within organizations. The primary caution is that the leader and his/her organization must pay particular attention to areas in which an absence of complete objectivity can potentially detract from the full effectiveness of the change initiative.

(To address this obvious reality, I offer some ideas at the close of this article to mitigate, to the extent possible, the ‘downside’ associated with having an internal leader guiding the change).

Applying the Conklin Framework

As noted above, there is no doubt that it is often a daunting challenge to bring tough, sensitive and courageous questions to colleagues and more senior leaders when you are part of the organization; this is never more obvious than when the questions touch on sensitive ways of behaving. As tough as that might be, however, this is very much part of the role leaders are expected to take on in this new reality.

In essence, Conklin’s approach looks at the patterns of thought and behaviour in organizations and how they interact with structure or are influenced by it. Those elements summarize what constitutes a ‘human system’.[3]

The notion of paradox, or ‘seeming paradox’ is intriguing and part of understanding and applying Conklin’s change model. His framework speaks to four aspects of balancing in the process of leading change:

  1. An initial phase of ‘Confrontation and Compassion’, in which there is a tension between balance and push, and creation of safety;
  2. A ‘Planned and Emergent’ phase, where the balance is between staying the course and changing the course;
  3. A ‘Participate and Observe’ phase, in which the leader or intervener is in my words ‘in the system’ but not ‘of the system’; and
  4. A Fourth phase, referred to as ‘Assert and Inquire’, where the leader is not there to provide answers but rather to work with the organization to generate or discover answers and approaches.

In each case, the model also assumes that reflection, review, and two-way conversations inform any actions or change in direction.

The Approach

With that in mind I offer a set of questions which I believe might be helpful to teams, their leaders and the wider organization, even when they are accompanied by a necessary tension. For each, courage will be necessary to both pose the question and then work through it and any consequent discomfort. Intention is always to focus on developing clarity and generating options for action. For many, while this will be ‘new territory’ it has the potential to very rich ‘learning territory’! There will be days when the comment that ‘…now we know what doesn’t work so well’ becomes the beginning of wisdom.

Courageous Questions to Help Leaders Connect, Integrate and Coach at Each Phase of a Change Process

The implicit assumption around the most important change efforts is that the current situation is unwanted, unsustainable and/or unhelpful in the context of current and perhaps future organization priorities.

Guided by Conklin’s language let’s look at each phase and propose a few questions which will balance two essential elements: the need for respect at all times – for ideas, resistance and challenge – with the equally-important need to be clear and toughminded in order to help the organization move forward:

1.   The Confrontation & Compassion Phase:

  • Why is this change effort an imperative for you?
  • What are your underlying assumptions, beliefs and values which you bring to the initiative? Let’s talk about any biases, conscious or otherwise, which might impact the work, both yours and mine as you perceive them.
  • What is at risk for you personally in engaging actively in the change? What risks will you be willing to assume, and which will you not? What are the risks for me in taking on this role?
  • What needs to happen to make this challenge as ‘safe as possible’ for you and your colleagues (e.g. team, organization unit)? What do I need to do to help ensure that there is that level of safety? What should I not do?
  • What concrete actions will you look for that build trust in my leadership or facilitation of the change effort? Again, what will work against or erode that necessary trust?
  • To what degree do I have freedom in asking the difficult (but what I believe to be necessary) questions? What might be off limits?

2.  The Planned and Emergent Phase:

  • When we have the data, understand it, and identify major themes, are you willing to commit to an action plan which I draft, we discuss, revise, and finalize? Where will you anticipate the team being less open, less certain, or less comfortable? Where do you think I will need to be especially aware of concerns in the team or areas of potential disagreement and resistance arising?
  • Some of what I find will probably require that you and others will have ‘to suspend disbelief’ in order to understand countervailing opinions or perspectives clearly at odds with your understanding and view of the reality. What might I expect by way of behaviours in those instances? Will you be willing to declare them in order for us to see new options for moving forward positively?
  • What will you need from me if I see a need to ‘change course’ based on new information or emerging themes?
  • What are the key elements in creating and maintaining confidence in our ongoing communications?

3.  The Participate and Observe Phase:

  • In order to lead this change effort, I will need to be intimately involved with you and your colleagues in this change effort. We know each other well and we are part of the same organization. That said, my role is to participate fully but also maintain a distance to avoid colluding or losing any sense of objectivity. That is no small task, so what is going to be the key challenge for you and the change team? For me as a leader?
  • A key challenge is one that an external consultant would not face. In a sense, while I am ‘of the system’, for this work I need to behave as if I am only ‘in the system’ – a ‘visitor’ in a sense – but as much as possible without having our work derailed or overly-influenced by my obvious vested interest in the change outcome. While it may be ‘raggedy’ and imperfect, what do I need to do to achieve that balance to the extent possible? What can I count on you and your team to do to help with that ‘boundary’ issue?
  • On occasion, I will need you to push back, if you think I am mixing the ‘participate’ role with the ‘observe’ role. Will you be willing to do that in the interests of the critical need for integrity in our change process?

4.  The Assert and Inquire Phase:

  • If I am going to be truly helpful to the team in making the change, I will have to balance making statements with asking questions; the former must take second place to the latter if I am to lead effectively. Where do you think I will have the most difficulty in achieving that balance? How can you help me with that challenge(s)?
  • There may be occasions when you look to me for an answer and I will resist or choose not to provide one. (I may have ideas or even think I have the answer, but it will be my answer and not one that you have thought about and committed to). How will we have that important conversation?
  • My job is to enable the best answers. This may take time, be frustrating and obviously position me in a coach role, not ‘subject matter expert’ or ‘boss’. Where do you think you’ll need support in staying with that distinction in role and what will you look to me for as a coach-leader? Where do you think you will you be most stretched or challenged with learning new approaches (and perhaps letting older ones go)?
  • Where do you think that you might be in the best position to ‘coach’ me? Based on what you know of me, where do you think coaching will most benefit the change initiative and my growth? Can I count on you to be ‘straight’ with me when you think I need that clarity or feedback?

The Role of an Internal Change Leader: An Owner’s Manual

This article is and was a ‘work-in-progress’, in that it attempts to work with a model not originally designed for use by internal leaders of organizations. But more importantly, we have no complete certainty as to what the ‘new normal’ will ask of us as leaders in our organizations. That said, given the need to lead change and inspire others to join in the effort, leaders have no choice but to engage, consult, learn, act and coach.

While Professor Conklin’s ‘architecture’ is obviously a very strong model for making change, we must also recognize that by virtue of being part of the organization, there are limitations and challenges to how the leader goes about being the courageous change agent. In an exchange with Professor Conklin on this very point, he points out that the internal leader’s use of the model is “difficult, but not impossible”.

In order to take account of that caution and mitigate any unwanted impact when the change leader is an intrinsic part of the system, I suggest the following actions as potentially useful:

  • The choice of a leader for the change initiative is crucial. Demonstrated effectiveness, thoughtful listening skills, concern for the wellbeing of colleagues and a reputation for ‘honest dealing’ in achieving results can position the leader most effectively to lead the work;
  • A pre-requisite for launching the initiative includes positioning the work as a learning opportunity first and foremost. Convening a conversation which includes the designated leader and key stakeholders to talk about ‘learning’ and ‘un-learning’ and to define the nature of the risks which might arise, the likelihood of their occurrence and the potential impact on the initiative is a key step;
  • A supportive and skilled HR business partner can be a great assist to the leader in both understanding process, broader organization culture and dynamics while potentially serving as a coach to the leader;
  • Active involvement of executive and other senior leadership sends a strong signal of support and commitment both to the initiative and to the leader charged with being at its head; active support is what the organization will both see and therefore believe;
  • A commitment to ‘reflect and refine’ throughout is a further opportunity to ensure that unwanted outcomes or ‘stumbles’ do not detract from or compromise the impact of the change work in a lasting way; and
  • Finally, the extent to which the leader is self-aware in respect of such factors as his or her ‘blind spots’, any ‘unconscious bias’ and remains open to clear feedback throughout will contribute directly to the potential for a successful change process and a strengthening of the leader’s role and the trust others have in him or her.

On this last point – and incorporating an email exchange with Professor Conklin – the leader’s task is to ensure that he or she is deliberate in identifying any “hidden commitments” which might impact their attempts at balance and objectivity. As Professor Conklin reminded me, the work of Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey developed in their enduring and thoughtful work entitled ‘Immunity to Change’ remains a very relevant reference for the self-aware leader.[4]

Concluding Thoughts

A clear implication and one which runs across each of the phases outlined above, is that ‘straight-talk’ and courage will be foundational in the leader’s role. In addition, there is an implicit assumption that leadership is going to be informed by and at times shared with stakeholders. The process requires time to ensure that common understanding and commitment are present throughout and that focused time for reflection on actions taken, results and adjustments to plan is built into the change initiative.

The leader remains in what some have described as the ‘conductor’ role. But what is new…or ‘more vivid’ as Kingwell writes… is that he or she becomes the primary and increasingly courageous voice in connecting relevant ideas with necessary actions, integrating these with larger organization priorities and coaching the behaviours in colleagues charged with executing and operationalizing the plans – a skilled ‘conductor’ certainly but also a ‘respectful provocateur’!


About the Author

Ross Roxburgh





Ross Roxburgh is a leadership coach and organization consultant with several decades of experience with a wide range of clients, both domestic and international across the private, public and para-public sectors. He has a strong interest in the effectiveness of individuals and teams in complex organization environments; in many cases he brings both coaching and consulting experience to client engagements. Ross holds the designation of Certified Management Consultant (CMC) as well as that of Master Corporate Executive Coach (MCEC). He has been certified in the use of the EQ-I 2.0 instrument as well as the LEA 360. He is a facilitator with Queen’s IRC on a range of programs related to Board effectiveness, Committee evolution and Performance Management. He has written a number of articles for Queen’s IRC on the topics of coaching and leadership.



Conklin, J. (2021). Balancing acts: A human systems approach to organizational change. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2009). Immunity to change: How to overcome it and unlock potential in yourself and your organization. Harvard Business Press.

Kingwell, M. (2020). On Risk. Windsor, Ontario: Biblioasis.

Recommended Reading

If you enjoyed this article, you might be interested in others which the author has written for Queen’s IRC:


[1] Kingwell, M. (2020). On Risk. Windsor, Ontario: Biblioasis

[2] Conklin, J. (2021). Balancing acts: A human systems approach to organizational change. Toronto: University of Toronto Press

[3] Ibid.

[4] Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2009). Immunity to change: How to overcome it and unlock potential in yourself and your organization. Harvard Business Press.

Bridging the Gap: Successful Change Management in a Project Environment

Project management (PM) and organizational change management (OCM) serve as a bridge between where an organization is today, and where it wants to be in the future. Increasingly, there is recognition of the critical role that OCM plays in a project environment. Human factors affecting the successful implementation of a project include:

  • Speed of adoption: How quickly people take in the changes resulting from the project.
  • Utilization: How many of those affected are doing their jobs correctly as a result of the changes.
  • Proficiency: How many of those affected by the project are performing at the desired levels after the project has wrapped up.

Despite the importance of addressing the human factors that affect the success of a project, Change Managers (CM’s) with limited experience working in project environments can feel overwhelmed, sidelined, or under-valued. Project Managers (PM’s) who are focused on the project deliverables and technical details of implementation may not truly understand or value the contributions that CM’s can make to project success. While successful project implementation depends on an effective working relationship between CM’s and PM’s, this isn’t always the case. So the question is: How do we bridge the gap between these two separate, but inter-connected and overlapping areas of practice?

Drawing on our experience and findings in the research literature, we offer some practical suggestions to help increase the likelihood of successful implementation. Using a case study to illustrate and explore the issues, we hope to provide some guidance to help both PM and CM professionals identify and institute effective organizational change management practices in a project environment.

Download PDF: Bridging the Gap: Successful Change Management in a Project Environment

Leading Organizational Transformation

What is Organizational Transformation?

Organizational transformation is a fundamental, radical, ground breaking paradigm shift, such as re-imagining an organization’s structure and culture. It involves integrated, synergistic, aligned, system-wide deliverables for which all employees and leaders are responsible, individually and collectively.

For example, it is not about creating a new service, but reconceptualizing how the organization interacts with its customers; it’s not about continuous improvement, but groundbreaking innovation based on a radially different foundation and belief system. Organizational Transformation is about dreaming big, not tinkering with the status quo; shattering outdated beliefs and systems, not trying to adapt them to new realities. It’s like conquering the wild west or setting foot on a new planet.

Download PDF: Leading Organizational Transformation

Preparing for the Future with Scenarios

Our lives, personal and professional, have been disrupted in a way that many of us may have never imagined. As schools and businesses close, people find themselves isolated from colleagues, friends and family, and sometimes facing this challenge alone. Everything that we took for granted seems to be upside down and inside out. And there is no definitive end in sight.

How do we plan for a future with so many unknowns? Even though your boards and leaders may be seeking concrete solutions, it’s simply not possible; no one has a crystal ball. None of us can accurately foresee how the next months will unfold, and quite frankly, that is not our work right now. As futurist Amy Webb so pointedly observed, our “goal right now isn’t prediction. It’s preparation for what comes next.”

One thing we can do right now is to actively contribute to what comes next. That means collaborating to find new ways of working and new ways of connecting. To support your planning, we offer an exercise from our Designing Collaborative Workplaces program. It can help you and your colleagues identify and see possible futures, so that you can pull out plausible scenarios, categorize them, and help your team stretch their thinking to develop strategies and adapt to a new way of working.

With so many unknowns, what people need to see from their leaders right now, is that they have a good command of the here and now — even as it changes hourly— as well as the capacity to think about the medium and longer terms. The Shaping Possible Futures exercise below, is a low-tech way to help your teams think ahead, to carefully explore alternative scenarios, so that you can prepare for what might be coming next.

Dementia Care Innovation in the Region of Peel

The first article in this series focuses on the Region of Peel’s bold decision to pilot and implement a ground breaking approach for dealing with people living with dementia. This model of care has proven effective at dramatically enhancing residents’ quality of life and wellbeing, their family’s satisfaction and involvement, as well as employee engagement, fulfillment and retention, all while reducing the number of incidents, and creating more positive relationships all around.

Key information for this piece comes from an interview with Mary Connell, Project Manager for the Butterfly Initiative Implementation at the Region of Peel.

In the series, we will look at the methodology used by these innovative organizations leveraging the 4D Process – Define, Discover, Design and Do, created by IRC’s Brenda Barker Scott. But first, a look at why today’s organizations are transforming service delivery, and the increasing role that Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and Spiritual Intelligence (SQ) play in design and implementation.

Download PDF: Dementia Care Innovation in the Region of Peel

Ghost Sponsors: Is the Sponsor for Your Change Project Missing in Action?

George was sitting quietly at the back of the room when he suddenly came to life. “But you don’t understand. All this talk about getting ‘sponsors’ on board is all well and good, but what do you do when your sponsor is basically invisible?” A roomful of participants nodded in agreement as George continued. “We can’t get sponsors to show up at meetings, they won’t make decisions that affect the project, they don’t allocate the resources we need. They might as well be ghosts!”

Active and visible support from senior-level sponsors is well-documented in the business literature on change as one of the most important contributors to successful change implementation. Key leaders need to communicate their support of planned organizational change. Clarity of vision, and consistency in word and action are powerful levers that sponsors can use to convince people of the need and urgency for change and to get everyone pulling in the same direction. Yet the experience of many mid-level managers attests to the reality that it can be difficult to engage sponsors and maintain their commitment over the life-cycle of a change initiative.

What can you do when you are challenged by ‘ghost sponsors’ who may be mute, or those who fade in and out of your change project?

Selecting a Sponsor

As change champions, we don’t often get to choose our change sponsors. Sponsors are typically selected based on their position, power and status in the organizational hierarchy, and these are important criteria when it comes to being able to advocate or provide needed resources. Daryl Connor suggests that beyond organizational position we consider a more personal set of characteristics, including the ability of the sponsor to develop effective relationships with the change champion and other members of the change team. Connor suggests that at the selection stage we assess several factors. What is the commitment level of the sponsor? Commitment must be deep, personal, and unequivocal. Sponsors should be selected who have a profound appreciation that people implement change. These sponsors understand that investing in the people side of change builds the organization’s capability to be successful with change now, and into the future. Sponsors who have some change related ‘scar tissue’ will bring their experience with past changes to the current change initiative. Select sponsors who believe that resistance is inevitable and healthy, and who understand that mistakes are valuable learning opportunities. Shifting our thinking to consider that the selection process for sponsors should be conducted as carefully and thoughtfully as selecting the next CEO signals to sponsor candidates, and to the rest of the organization, that change is indeed serious business.

Coaching a Sponsor

Effective sponsors are open to being coached. These are the people who lead with humility, who recognize what they don’t know, and who reach out to others in the organization who can help them be more effective in their roles as sponsors. For those of us serving as change champions, we need to be ready, willing, and able to coach and support sponsors: Do you have the skill, the experience, and the credibility to make it easy for sponsors to be receptive to your wise counsel and coaching about how best to move the change initiative forward?

Ed Schein suggests that leaders need to recognize that their personal success, and organizational success, depends on the contribution of their teams and  subordinates, and they should have the humility to acknowledge their own vulnerability and dependence on others. Leaders need to be able to ask their teams, “Am I doing this correctly?” and “Tell me if I am doing something wrong.” They need to be able to “abandon themselves to the strengths of others” as Max De Pree described it, recognizing that much can be accomplished by utilizing the diverse talents of their teams.

But it’s not always easy to tell sponsors how they might be getting in the way, or not stepping up to the plate. It can be very difficult for others in the organization to override an ingrained sense of deference to authority, and provide sponsors with troubling information about organizational resistance or other issues that may require a course-correction before greater problems emerge.

Sponsors have a responsibility to make it safe for others to provide this critical information, and change champions have a responsibility to learn how to communicate difficult information upwards in ways that they can be heard. Change champions need to be at the top of their game, prepared to coach sponsors, and credible in terms of their knowledge, skill, expertise and experience so that sponsors have a trusted advisor (Ulrich et al., 2012). Forging a solid relationship with sponsors is critical for change champions to be able to provide and receive frank feedback that will ensure the change sponsor is engaged, and keeping the project on track.

Sponsors Must Model the Way

While senior leaders and sponsors may have many skills that enable them to manage people, balance the budget, and generally lead effectively, it may be difficult for them to admit that they have no background or training in leading change. I can recall one conversation with a senior leader who told me that since he had been managing change his entire career, he had no need of any change management training. This individual not only refused to attend a training session planned for mid-level managers, but refused to introduce the facilitator who would be delivering the course, because he was too busy with other things. This sponsor failed to recognize the power of shared experience and common frameworks that contributes to change success. Imagine if this sponsor had at least participated in some of the change conversations, and listened sincerely and respectively to some of the challenges faced by his managers in implementing change.

In contrast to this experience, I have also witnessed the CEO of a large corporation who deliberately made time (and more than five minutes!) to come into a training session to talk about the importance of building the capacity of the entire company to better manage change. This was leadership…and sponsorship…in action! This leader shared a personal story about his own experiences learning about change, and how some of his assumptions had been challenged along the way. This leader/sponsor really walked the talk! The effect on the motivation and morale of those managers attending the program was both immediate and long lasting. Effective sponsors recognize and seize every opportunity to demonstrate in word and action that they are committed to helping their people lead change successfully.

Dealing with Sponsor Turnover

In some organizations, sponsor turnover is a very real risk to the success of a change project. Capable leaders may be on a fast-track for promotion, and may be re-assigned to another division or portfolio that removes them from the sponsorship role on your change project. This phenomenon occurs in both the private sector and the public sector. How can we as change champions be proactive in anticipating and dealing with this possibility?

Change guru John Kotter advocates for a guiding coalition to steer the change initiative. Ideally, a guiding coalition consists of the people with the position power to influence and guide the change initiative, create and communicate the urgency for change, and the ability to dedicate the necessary resources to support change implementation. In addition, members of the guiding coalition must possess the personal power that enables them to build trusting relationships with others across the organization. They must draw on their own personal integrity, and the credibility that derives from having expertise, experience, and a reputation for engaging others, and achieving results.  If sponsor turnover is a real and present danger in your organization, consider the option of involving someone who could act as an alternate sponsor if the lead sponsor is promoted or redeployed. This strategy might provide your steering committee or guiding coalition with continuity when key roles and responsibilities change suddenly.

The Sponsor Does Not Understand ‘Who’s on First?’

Lack of clarity about fundamental roles and responsibilities contributes to confusion, communication errors, and inefficiency. Sponsors who are unclear about the various roles and responsibilities that are critical to success are caught in a position of being unable to appropriately steer the course of the change project and ensure appropriate accountability for the completion of tasks. Just like sports teams, this fundamental premise of ‘play your position’ is key to success.

A project charter is a very effective tool to clarify roles and responsibilities, deliverables, performance metrics, and timelines. It also ensures accountability around the project. To ensure accountability, sponsors must understand, and help other key players all understand, what roles they play in the change project. However, when sponsors are not involved in developing the project charter, but simply presented with the final product by the project manager, they may feel disconnected from the project.

One strategy to ensure focused involvement of the sponsor is to extend an invitation to participate in the meeting to develop the change project charter. This task could be accomplished within a very specific and short timeframe, and allows all of the intended project players to participate in the conversation about roles, responsibilities, outcomes and timelines, key deliverables and accountabilities.

Involving the sponsor in setting the change project charter meeting affords an opportunity for honest and open, person-to-person communication about key requirements that are critical to the success of the change project, including an exploration of what the sponsor thinks is important, and what the change team needs from the sponsor. Sponsors with a better understanding of their role are more likely to be active and visible in their support for the project. Effective sponsors communicate the specific changes that are required.  Appropriate delegation of responsibilities by sponsors means communicating clear expectations. They provide a clear line of sight that enables individuals to connect their specific tasks and responsibilities with the overall goals of the change project. Sponsors who delegate appropriately provide this clarity, and ensure that others on the team have the authority, the power and the resources to get the job done. Sponsors who abdicate this critical responsibility quickly fade from view and become obstacles to realizing the benefits of change.


Out of frustration, we might be tempted to blame senior leaders for their lack of effective sponsorship. If we can avoid the ‘blame game, and stand in a place of curiosity, interest, and concern instead, we may be able to diagnose and understand the problem, and arrive at creative solutions to keep our change projects on track. Sponsors are only human. Just like employees, they too may need time to move through the change curve, and process their own emotional reactions to the intended change and the practical implications for the business functions for which they are responsible, as well as the broader organization-wide implications.

Nonetheless, Ghost Sponsors can have a deleterious effect on change implementation, wasting time, money and precious organizational resources.  Poor sponsorship can increase employee resistance to change, have a negative impact on morale, and make it difficult for the change team to accomplish desired results. Rather than time spent with the Ouija board trying to communicate with elusive ghost sponsors who inhabit the spirit world, I hope your future involves interaction with leaders who value authentic engagement with their teams, sponsors who can abandon themselves to the strengths of others, and in doing so, can make change happen.


About the Author

Kate Sikerbol
Kate Sikerbol, PhD is a facilitator with the Queens IRC Change Management Program and an organizational consultant and coach who has worked in business, industry, government, and higher education. As a scholar-practitioner she is interested in bringing theory into practice, especially in the areas of organizational change and communication.  She has delivered change management training to hundreds of people across Canada, and internationally.



Conner, D. R. (2012, March 13). Assessing leaders for change roles.  Retrieved August 10, 2018, from http://www.connerpartners.com/frameworks-and-processes/assessing-leaders-for-change-roles.

Connor, D. R. (2006). Managing at the Speed of Change: How Resilient Managers Succeed and Prosper When Others Fail. New York, NY: Random House.

De Pree, M. (1989). Leadership is an Art. New York, NY: Dell Publishing.

Kotter, J. (1995). Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail. Harvard Business Review. March-April, 59-67.

Schein, E. H. (2013). Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Ulrich, D., Younger, J., Brockbank, W., Ulrich, M. (2012). HR from the Outside In: Six Competencies for the Future of Human Resources. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.


FREE E-BOOK: The Easy, Hard & Tough Work of Managing Change

The tough work of change management is the critical piece in successful change projects. This tough work is often neglected by change leaders and change agents, who place too much emphasis on high-level change planning and not enough emphasis on implementation.

Based on more than twenty years of Dr. Carol A. Beatty’s research, The Easy, Hard & Tough Work of Managing Change walks you through the change management process, from start to finish.

This free e-book takes the complex concepts of change management and makes them as simple as possible, offering frameworks, guidelines, checklists and key questions to ensure that all of the important issues in a change initiative are not neglected. Case studies and examples enable the reader to work through these concepts and apply them to their own change initiatives.

Dr. Beatty draws conclusions about the key success factors of planned change, based on her change management research in hundreds of organizations and relevant literature.

In this e-book, you will learn:

  1. How to choose the right people with the right skills to plan and implement a successful change project, including a change champion, a steering committee, an executive sponsor and implementation teams.
  2. How to create a sense of urgency for the change throughout the organization.
  3. The steps to create an inspiring change vision that will truly motivate people to buy into the change.
  4. How to create a complete roadmap for implementing your change successfully, using a framework and key questions.
  5. Ways to deal with resistance to change, convert resisters and create support for the change.
  6. The essential role of communication during change, including a communications model and advice to help you develop your own communication plan.
  7. How to find a change leader with the skills and attributes of a true change champion.

Download the Free E-Book

Participation or Pseudo-Participation? Change Agent Challenges in Implementing Organizational Change

Creating energy, engagement, and commitment to change initiatives is one of many challenges we face as change agents. Increasingly, organizations, managers, and change practitioners espouse a belief that involving people in the change initiative is important. Many of us would agree in principle with this philosophy: Participation is essential to successful change implementation. However, the practical dimension of how to actually accomplish employee participation in change initiatives poses a challenge to change implementers.

There are many benefits of participatory processes. Participation may help minimize resistance to change initiatives. It affords employees the perception of a greater sense of control during a change process. Control is an important factor in helping to address the feelings of vulnerability and other emotional reactions that employees may experience during change. When employees are honestly engaged in opportunities to contribute their ideas, suggestions, and creative solutions to real and anticipated problems, to express concerns and alternatives, the entire organization can benefit as people learn how to solve problems. However, despite embracing a philosophy that values participation, the reality of how change practitioners actually solicit and use input tells a different story.

What do HR managers involved in major change initiatives actually do to foster employee participation? Researchers Laurie Lewis and Travis Russ (2012) explored this question in an empirical study with 26 human resources managers. They investigated the actual practices that HR managers utilized to solicit and use employee input during major organizational change projects. The study identified four different approaches that are described below: open, political, restricted, and advisory.

  1. Open Approach
    The first style, the open approach, is an informal approach that invites people to offer their input and to talk about the issues involved in a change initiative. HR managers reported that employee input was more likely to be considered if the input was deemed to be “correctly motivated” and likely to improve the process, and rejected if it was “complaining for the sake of complaining.”
  2. Political Approach
    The second style, the political approach, was described as being more strategic in orientation, in contrast to the open approach. HR managers sought input from powerful individuals, regardless of whether the input would be considered relevant or important. Input would be used if it came from the “right people” who might contribute significant resources to the change project, such as money or other services. Given the high power status of those consulted, the change agenda might be altered based on this input.
  3. Restricted Approach
    The third style, the restricted approach, was the most commonly described method used by HR managers. Input was sought from key stakeholders: Individuals perceived to be most affected by the change, high performers, and those described as knowledgeable and savvy. However, input from key stakeholders was rejected if it did not reflect a majority view, was not perceived as relevant to the general population, or was perceived as unworkable. Unique comments, comments perceived as ‘venting’ or ‘lashing out’ and comments that were perceived to be self- motivated or not aligned with decisions that were already made, were discarded. Input was used to support the original change vision.
  4. Advisory Approach
    The fourth style, the advisory approach was the second most common approach to soliciting input. Input was sought from opinion leaders who occupied ‘pockets of receptivity’, those individuals perceived to be ‘thought leaders, strategic thinkers, innovators, and advocates’ who would support the change and be helpful in persuading others to become supportive. The purpose of soliciting input was to seek affirming information and, if necessary, to persuade these employees to change any negative perceptions of the intended change. Deliberate decisions were made to avoid the ‘complainers’ and in some instances, HR managers recounted examples where senior leaders dictated who would be interviewed—those individuals that senior leaders felt confident would provide the answers they expected to hear.

Examining what HR managers actually do in practice provides several important insights that can help us be more thoughtful as we strive to clarify the purpose and intent of participation. This study raises some interesting questions about our work as change practitioners. Are we as change agents engaging in “ritualistic participation,” concerned with soliciting advice from a variety of stakeholders more for “show”, advice that may not be taken seriously (Lewis & Russ, 2012)? Are we working within organizations that in reality support “pseudo-participation,” where managers give the impression of openness, but retain decision-making in their own hands? Are we focused on soliciting input that supports pre-conceived plans, or do we encourage honest and open dialogue about the potential benefits and pitfalls of a change plan? Are we consciously or inadvertently discouraging inquiry, the testing of assumptions, challenging the status quo?

As change practitioners, we need to be clear about our purpose in soliciting input, and how that input will be used. We need to acknowledge the inevitable tensions that exist between approaches that focus on persuading employees to get on board with a pre-determined change initiative, and approaches that are designed to encourage creative and critical reflection on the change vision and how to implement it.

Being effective as a change agent requires us to not only identify our own assumptions about participation, but to help others in senior leadership roles make their implicit assumptions more explicit. We have a responsibility to ask ourselves and others some tough questions:

  • What are the goals or intentions of the participation process? Is it to minimize any alterations to the change initiative?
  • Is there any potential to actually influence and change the intended direction and implementation plan, or is soliciting input an exercise in persuading employees to get on board with the change?
  • Are we just going through the motions of seeking opinions and concerns from stakeholders, concerned only about the optics?
  • Are we trying to make stakeholders more receptive to the change, or simply placating them by inviting them to give feedback?

There can be a danger in some of the simplistic, cookbook approaches to employee participation. Similarly, there is a danger in under-appreciating the skill level required by change agents to address the complex task of managing the tensions and challenges involved in soliciting and using input from employees.  Engaging employees and managers in open, honest discussion of the potential strengths and the potential pitfalls of an intended change initiative requires a specific set of skills in fostering dialogue, compassion, intestinal fortitude, and the support of senior leaders. As change agents, we need to help others learn how to express their diverse views and opinions in ways that might usefully critique and improve our change efforts so that we can move our change projects, and our organizations forward, empowering our teams, and ourselves, along the way.


About the Author

Kate Sikerbol
Kate Sikerbol, M.Ed., MA, PhD(C), is a facilitator at Queen’s IRC.  As an organizational consultant and coach, Kate brings extensive experience in business, healthcare, government, and higher education.  She has designed and delivered change management and leadership development programs, facilitated team building using strengths-based approaches, and provided leadership assessment and coaching to managers and leaders. Kate is passionate about enabling change agents and managers in leading and implementing change.


Selected References

Lewis, L. K. & Russ, T. L. (2012). Soliciting and using input during organizational change initiatives: What are practitioners doing? Management Communication Quarterly, 26(2), 267-294.

Pseudo-participation – Oxford Reference. (2016). Retrieved September 16, 2016, from http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199298761.001.0001/acref-9780199298761-e-999.

How Alberta is Eradicating Homelessness through Systems Thinking and Transformation


Currently, organizations, industries, sectors, and communities of all types are seeking to modernize their systems to enhance performance, improve service delivery, and ensure sustainability. This means extensive transformation: paradigm shifts, radical redesigns, strategic resets and culture re-alignment are the order of the day. Evolutionary change is neither potent, nor quick enough; revolutionary, dramatic change is called for.

Meanwhile, society in general is trying to solve large scale, chronic problems such as family violence, poverty, environmental degradation and homelessness. To quote Charles Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the spring of hope… the winter of despair…. We had everything before us, we had nothing before us…” (1)

Navigating the rushing waters of transformation requires a bold vision and strong systems thinking, as well as widespread change leadership, not to mention a big dose of courage and transformation resilience.

Alberta takes a stand

Homelessness is often viewed as a daunting, if not a wicked problem. (2) Yet, Alberta has shown the way to solutions that deliver results. In contrast with other Canadian jurisdictions who favour municipal approaches, Alberta broke new ground in 2009 by defining an ambitious vision for the entire province: Ending homelessness in 10 years, instead of simply ‘managing’ or ‘reducing’ it. To achieve this audacious goal, Alberta had to dramatically alter the way it thought and acted about homelessness. Here’s how it began:

In 2007, then Premier Ed Stelmach set out to capture the state of homelessness, as the problem was escalating. What factors were contributing to its rapid growth?

Download PDF: How Alberta is Eradicating Homelessness through Systems Thinking and Transformation

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