10 Steps to Success: How to Make Big Change Happen
Leadership is ultimately about change, hopefully change for the better. After over thirty-plus years of working for change agents, I can tell you that finding a better way forward is not the hard part – convincing others to implement the change is.
When it comes to realizing opportunities, there are enormous, rational hurdles and conflicting interests, all with very rational reasons for resisting the change.
As a result, I am inspired by people who make substantive change, against the odds, against numerous setbacks. This is what I discussed in a recent episode of my podcast “Out of The Comfort Zone” with my guest Dr. Amy Rothenberg, a licensed medical practitioner, author, and healthcare advocate. Dr. Rothenberg is certainly no stranger to fighting for big change: Together with a group of like-minded individuals, she and her husband Dr. Paul Herscu started in the late eighties to campaign for the licensure of naturopathic doctors in the state of Massachusetts. Dr. Rothenberg invested thirty years of hard work into the cause she believed in, all the while enduring discouraging roadblocks, setbacks, staff changes, and her own diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. “I would go from chemo at Mass General, walk up the hill to the statehouse, put on my wig and spend my afternoon lobbying”, she told me during our talk (you can listen to our full conversation here). Dr. Rothenberg recovered from cancer, and the bill finally passed in 2017.
Dr. Rothenberg lobbying at the State house in 2017.
So how did she and her colleagues succeed? Based on Dr. Rothenberg’s story and my own coaching experience, I have compiled a list of ten steps to making big change happen. Whether you are fighting for a political change like Dr. Rothenberg, the implementation of a new software at work that will save your co-workers time, or the introduction of a new strategy that you believe will bring your organization forward – these steps will help you succeed no matter what your cause is.
1 Create a grassroots effort.
If you are the only one lobbying for a change, you will not be successful. There needs to be a groundswell of likeminded people that believe that your cause is worth spending time and money on. It takes a village, and in order to gather that village behind you, you need to build credibility with your audience. That means repeatedly and persistently making your cause visible in a public sphere by writing about it, speaking about it and showing people how your objective can make their lives better. While building your network of supporters, give them the tools they need to advocate for your cause: can they explain the merits of your new software to their co-worker who struggles with the old one? Will they convince their close circle that you have something important to say? Only once you have a grassroots movement behind you can you start lobbying the senior leadership to make a change
2 Know the people you are influencing.
Learn as much as you can about the people that you need to have on your side. What do they care about? How can you make your cause relevant to their primary concerns? Find the overlap between your agenda and theirs and frame your approach accordingly. Are they most interested in finances? Calculate how your idea can boost profits and start your conversation with those numbers. Do your homework so you can share the right information with the right people.
3 Emphasize the risks of not doing what you are doing.
When you are trying to convince others of the merits of your cause, you will certainly highlight the positive outcomes of your proposal. But there is hardly any talk about the flipside – often, one of the most convincing arguments is to call attention to what would happen if your objective is, in fact, not implemented. Is your company at risk of falling behind competitors who have already introduced the new system? Are high-performing employees of your organization dissatisfied with the status quo and thinking of quitting? Emphasize those possible repercussions of staying stagnant when you are trying to convince others.
4 Identify a champion.
Who is the ace in your pocket? Who can influence the decision-maker(s) and are they willing to fight for your cause? Identify and convince your “champion”, so they make sure your proposal succeeds once it reaches their desk. Remember that systemic change often takes time, and during that time, circumstances and power structures can change. The supporter you had influenced at the start of your campaign might not be tied to the ultimate decision-maker anymore by the end of it. Bosses may retire, managers fall in and out of favor, and individuals gain and lose power as the structure of the organisation changes. Always keep track of your supporters and know that when the playing field changes, you might have to adjust your strategy as well.
5 Recognize that yours is not the only issue on the table.
Be mindful of the fact that you are not the only one actively pursuing an opportunity. Others will be doing the same thing you are doing – influencing people of power to support their cause. Someone might be actively working against your proposal, or they are just fighting to get the same budget for a different objective. In either case, your champion might have to disappoint you in order to appease a bigger fish. That does not automatically mean that they are no longer supportive of your proposal – they might simply have had another more pressing cause to address. Is there a way for you to make sure the circumstances are different the next time?
6 Don’t be afraid to change your team.
Be hard-nosed about who and what you need. As circumstances change, your team might have to change as well. The publicist that spearheaded the first twenty miles of the marathon might not be the right call for the home stretch. The manager who originally wanted to pitch the proposal to the higher-ups might have had a falling out with a boss. Now his job is on the line, and your cause will not be well received by someone senior management no longer trusts. The super organized team member may not have the skills to cross the finish line when organization is not what is needed now. Someone who was incredibly committed to the project for months might now have a personal responsibility that takes up the majority of their time and mental energy, making them no longer the best person for the role. Don’t hesitate to make changes in your team if someone else could serve the cause better.
7 Pay it forward.
In order to succeed at making big change, you will need a lot of supporters from various walks of life. A good way of building a community of backers is to do favors for others. By paying a kindness forward, there is a good chance you will get it paid back. Actively try to be helpful to others – to those in power, but to everyone else in your community as well. You never know whose support could come in handy one day.
8 Set yourself up to be lucky.
Sometimes, you just have to be at the right place at the right time. With every big effort, there is a bit of luck and serendipity involved. After all, you cannot plan to be stuck in an elevator with the decision-maker you were trying to influence. However, it is in your power to be aware of your surroundings and to recognize opportunities for you to take a chance. As Dr. Rothenberg said on my podcast, it’s about being present and about paying attention. Instead of waiting for a lucky moment to simply come by, actively create opportunities for good things to happen.
9 Coordinate well.
Organizing a group of supporters behind a shared goal is reliant on logistics. No matter how good your cause is and how much support you have, if you miss a crucial deadline to hand in your proposal, you will not succeed. Who needs to be doing what and at what time do they need to be doing it? Who in what office needs to be convinced by when? Keep track of your supporters and constantly update your game plan so you can put your best foot forward and keep the momentum.
10 Tell stories.
Numerous studies have shown that we make almost all our decisions based on emotions and then justify them with facts. Therefore, data and spreadsheets will only get you so far. Instead, paint a picture by telling compelling personal stories. Stories convey the emotion that will impact decisions and connect us to the human experience. Purpose, cause and reason will be remembered long after people have forgotten the numbers you presented to them. While all the (necessary!) long-term planning of the first nine steps will pay off eventually, the story will remain your most persuasive tactic for a simple reason: because it creates human connection. And that will make all the difference.
Dr. Rothenberg’s team implemented these steps when she and her husband took on leadership roles in the campaigning effort and eventually succeeded. Nevertheless, it took them years of hard work to get to the finish line. Before embarking on a campaign to make a big change, know that you may not succeed on your first, second or even third try. But just like Dr. Rothenberg, don’t give up. How did she stay resilient? “It could be a little bit of insanity”, she laughed, “but if you have a goal and a strong set of values, and you believe in what you are working toward, you can be unflappable.”