A few weeks ago, on our “Talk Retail to Me” podcast, Parker Avery’s change leader Kathi Toll interviewed change management expert Carrie Habel. The two retail veterans discussed how company leaders can understand and address their teams’ and their own resistance to change.  This week’s blog post reveals some highlights of their conversation.

Success Still Needs Change

Carrie’s initial foray into the change management world was several years ago at Limited Brands (now L Brands). The company’s founder, Lex Wexner, wanted a common way of operating across all brands: Limited, Express, Bath & Body Works, and Victoria’s Secret. The initiative’s goal was to create a consistent, exceptional experience for the internal and external customers. This entailed a common set of guiding principles, coaching models, hiring practices, business analytics, and merchandise management across all the brands. Decidedly, a pretty big challenge.

Carrie was involved in the development and implementation of many of the operating system changes. This initiative introduced a common playbook to all the brands.  As such, it involved telling four independent, successful retail brands they would change how they work, what tools they will use, how to hire, how to lead teams, and other new ways of operating. This project was big, overall process and system changes across those four brands, impacting a lot of people.

Understanding Leadership Resistance

In leading this project, there was significant resistance to change in the leadership ranks. Most people don’t like change, and successful leaders usually don’t like to be told what to do. Regardless of how great the new processes and systems were to the people who instigated the project, the impacted associates and managers were much more resistant than anticipated. The challenges experienced, such as influencing company leadership, strengthened Carrie’s approach in navigating and mitigating change resistance.

The most challenging moment was discovering that one executive leader was not aligned with the project objectives.  At the time, the brand was highly successful and had already implemented many new tools and processes. As such, this executive was really invested in the brand’s established culture and ways they operated. Essentially, they didn’t feel the need to change.  As a non-executive at the time, Carrie had to influence up and first attempt to communicate what the benefits would be. Yet, this approach didn’t work.

So, Carrie dove deeper into why there was so much resistance to change. In doing so, she uncovered a fear in losing the brand’s successful culture. The change management approach became a lot about acknowledging those fears and feelings and accepting them. Further, the team needed to understand and embrace the direction in which the company was moving.  It was critical that this executive understood why they needed to be on board. This approach wasn’t easy; it wasn’t a single conversation. As such, addressing this resistance to change entailed a lot of communication and involvement of multiple levels in the organization.

Change Resistance and Vulnerability

Over the past year, with COVID, there is definitely more vulnerability and resistance to change. In a way, it’s becoming the “new norm.” It’s not comfortable for people to be vulnerable, but it’s becoming easier to have conversations about it. People are just tired of expressing of how hard things are. Over this last year, there have been many lessons learned, but vulnerability is definitely one of them. The load of cognitive, emotional, and physical stress really takes a toll on people. Best performers aren’t going to be performing at their top when faced with such massive change.

It’s a really challenging time for leaders because they are also experiencing those same feelings. It’s almost like trauma happening on a daily basis. So leaders must  be able to manage themselves first and then manage their teams, be strong, and be a sounding board. Situational leadership has become crucial, because everyone is experiencing significant personal change at different levels. As a leader, knowing what people are going through personally and professionally has been really taxing. Acknowledging that everyone’s at a different place on the change curve and working through these feelings is important.

Kathi referenced a recent article from Harvard Business Review, “How to Lead When You’re Exhausted,” which illustrates leadership operating in high stress environments and understanding the fatigue. Most leaders are going through this and need to recognize that people may say or do things that are not characteristic. Emotions and stress make people behave differently. It’s important to be able to understand this and keep an open mind about what everyone’s going through, including those in leadership positions.

Firsts are Always Tough

Lastly, keep in mind that many times, resistance to change has a lot to do with being exposed to something new for the first time. Firsts are hard—especially when there are so many happening at once. Consider the pandemic and experiencing the first time wearing a mask, working at home, kids attending school virtually, holidays without family, and other stay at home mandates. To get through these “firsts,” leaders and teams must acknowledge those feelings and that initial resistance to change is very normal. Moreover, understand that firsts are almost always going to be uncomfortable and new, but they won’t always feel that way.

Leaders need to tap into that resilience and build those skills.  Don’t expect change to just happen by itself. Lean into that discomfort and resistance and talk to your teams about it. Don’t let your teams be silent, because silence causes doubt. Give the firsts and the accompanying discomfort the sufficient acknowledgment. As a result, leaders and their teams will build resilience, strength, and cohesion.

To listen to the podcast or read additional Parker Avery insights, please visit our insights page.

Cover image by ejaugsburg from Pixabay

Learn More
Contact Parker Avery