Change Whisperer – Gail Severini's Blog

Insights in Change Management—Interview with Kimberlee Williams, CEO, ignitem (Part 3 of 3)

Who do you seek out when faced with something new?

Someone who has done it before, of course. Leading and managing change is fraught with risk—nuanced, contextual, dynamic, and difficult to decipher.

Judgment is acquired over time and experience.

It is a rare opportunity to speak with a seasoned practitioner in change management and get his or her insights.

This is a continuation of the interview with Kimberlee Williams, CEO, ignitem. For Part 1 please click here; for Part 2 click here.

7.  Inspirations and Aspirations—Who inspires you? Individuals you work with? Do you mentor others? Do pro-bono work? Writing? Networking?

I find that the people who are most inspiring are regular people who accomplish extraordinary things. I enjoy the camaraderie of working with like-minded, business-focused professionals who find ways to deliver seemingly impossible initiatives of all shapes and sizes.

That, to me—the hard work of rolling the rock up the hill, and getting it there successfully—is awe inspiring. I train and mentor others for a living, but beyond that, I also do some pro-bono advisory work with non-profits—last year I worked with the American Cancer Society. Next year, I am looking forward to publishing my first book (based on “the 7 critical elements”) and I am always open to networking.

There’s a large volume of superficial change management advice published, but real specialized knowledge in executing transformation and change is still too inaccessible, often veiled in the mystique of costly consulting firms.

My deepest aspiration is to leverage and share my expertise with business professionals so they can access affordable knowledge that develops their ability to lead change and helps them accomplish whatever change they are making in the world. My job is to help them be successful. That is my role.

8.  Futuring—If you could imagine one discovery or innovation that would radically improve our CM work, what might that be? What is missing from our “standard” body of knowledge?

Two shifts that would radically improve our work:

1)      Prioritize our time/work differently so we have the time to influence strategically. I still see too many change professionals deliberate over change management plans, reinvent PMO roadmaps, and so forth. While a level of customization is needed, this is not where the high-impact work happens. There are some great done-for-you resources that can take hours, days, or more off of even seasoned professionals’ approaches; we need to use them.

2)      The next frontier for us, and the place the high-impact work does happen, is in “coaching conversations. My theory is that, because there are so many variables, and conversations are so dynamic, only a limited amount of this can be learned through books. The crux of learning what to say to get people to take desired action happens through using scenarios, quick situation assessments, asking questions, and practising to get to the best results. It’s time we move off the theoretical and help our practitioners find the words they need in the moment. That’s an area I am tackling head-on in my business through individual and group coaching calls.

3.  Rejuvenation—Helping others through change (leaders and change targets) can be emotionally fatiguing. How do you renew? Re-fuel?

Helping others through change is actually very energizing for me, but at times when I do need a break, I make changes in my environment. I will change my scenery by working in different locations in my building or nearby spaces; it creates new perspectives that get me past short-term humps.

In terms of really rebooting, my husband and I are both renewed by nature, especially water. We live on the Hudson River across from Manhattan and spend a lot of time there and in Ontario, Canada, boating and fishing. 

We also enjoy international travel very much, particularly Asia. Although being in unfamiliar places where people speak a different language and use a different alphabet is exhausting for many people, the intellectual energy and focus it takes to adapt makes it impossible to worry about anything else. We’ve made 4-8 week trips to Japan, China, Singapore, Malaysia, Nepal, and India. We’re hoping to make Thailand/Laos/Cambodia our next trip. Our ultimate goal is to be location-independent within the next few years so we can both continue our work, but our trips can last longer.

If anyone knows of international speaking or other opportunities on topics related to business transformation or change leadership, I would love to discuss them.

Bonus Question: Ask it forward—What question(s) would you like to ask other practitioners?

What conversations or situations do you struggle with the most while driving change in your company?

Thank you, Kimberlee.


More great posts on change management and strategy execution in the archives to the left and coming soon.  You can subscribe top left.

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Insights in Change Management—Interview with Kimberlee Williams, CEO ignitem (Part 2 of 3)

7 critical elements Kimberlee Williams Ignitem.wmfChange management practitioners are in the fray of turning strategy into ROI. This often feels like nailing Jell-O on the wall, but seasoned practitioners have insights that the rest of us can benefit from.

This is a continuation of the interview with Kimberlee Williams, CEO, ignitem. For Part 1 please click here and Part 3 here.

4.   What are the three essentials that you bake into every CM initiative? What are the three most important decisions you make as a CM practitioner?

I recommend baking “The 7 Critical Elements” into every initiative. It may sound like a lot, but professionals actually find the framework I use very intuitive, visually indelible, and easy to remember: “inspire, guide, navigate, innovate, translate, energize, manage” (ignitem). Here is a breakdown:

  • Inspire: Tell the compelling story about the transition or gap that needs to be closed representing the “motivational spark” to achieve it, including emotional not just rational reasons. It’s often helpful for a skilled change leader to shape the story with the sponsor to assure the story is properly structured and can be told throughout implementation by the sponsor and other leaders.
  • Guide: Change leaders needs to assure they effectively position their role to guide the sponsor and other power players, often in politically charged or ambiguous environments. This includes quickly moving from being a “pair of hands” to a trusted advisor, with a special focus on feedback and sphere of influence.
  • Navigate: Acquire a deep understanding of the players, their interactions with one another (outside of the usual organization hierarchy), and their preferred outcomes.  Ideally, this involves a visual way to map with the sponsor where influence needs to be applied to achieve desired results.
  • Innovate: Ensure that teams are representing the interests of the ultimate customer in a coordinated way. Surface pieces of solutions that already exist inside the organization (where possible) rather than immediately defaulting to the design of new solutions.
  • Translate: Enable people managers to have conversations with their teams where, together, they take company goals and make them real for the work group. This includes closing the gap between corporate strategy and local implementation.
  • Energize: Identify individual differences and motivations for personally making the change, even when the change will be difficult. Create the local discussions and support mechanisms between individuals that support true change.
  • Manage: Put the organization enablers in place in advance to assure the change is sustained, creating “accountability agreements” with functional organizations needed to deliver the enablers. Shift the dialogue from project/initiative update reporting to ongoing operational discussions.

The three most important decisions I make are:

1)  The actions I choose to ethically establish and maintain a position of influence with the sponsor and lead players throughout the implementation (often in a noisy field of stakeholders, consultants, and others who are angling for their own interests)

2)  The steps I will take to shape (and develop) my sponsor to exhibit behavior required for successful implementation of his or her priorities

3)  The highest-value activities to spend my time on to get required outcomes; that sounds pedestrian, I know, but I find most change leaders spend way too much time on the activities of assembling change management plans or on building a change management function when they should be directly influencing line-leader behavior that truly delivers dramatic business outcomes

 5.  SWOT—What is the most important characteristic or attribute required to be a great CM practitioner? What is the most common Achilles’ heel?

Business acumen. We need to understand the overall functioning of our company’s business.  But, more than that, change leaders need to be able to articulate their sponsor’s precise business landscape extremely well so they resonate when they speak eyeball-to-eyeball and can anticipate the issues that are likely to emerge.

This includes key levers of profitability, strategic priorities, value chain, market conditions, and so forth. If you can’t, the best you can hope for is to be a “role player”—someone who is optional, but may be brought in to execute a series of tasks that may not be perceived to be particularly valuable.

Attaining this level of business competence will require significant effort for many change professionals, but the pay-off is being recognized and invited in as a business partner, rather than having to push your way in (which is where many change managers find themselves today).

Again, this gets back to the necessary shift from change manager to change leader—no matter what your job title. Not coincidentally, deep business acumen also opens up avenues to increasing levels of responsibility, more interesting projects, and higher levels of impact, influence, and income.

Our Achilles’ heel as a community is that practitioners (at all levels) too often use the common language and methods that define us in ways that alienate our business clients. In our unspoken desire to be acknowledged as “real” professionals, or perhaps our personal need to share in a collective identity, or to raise our clients’ level of knowledge/acceptance of change management before they are ready, we inadvertently misplace the emphasis on our discipline rather than on our clients’ business needs.

Pushing our approach doesn’t accomplish any of these; there are better ways to create the sequence where clients pull for our expertise because they desire the outcomes we can help them accomplish and then we help them learn the value of our contribution.

Lead with the business problem, never the methodology.

This is the same methodology-business paradox that every function suffers at one point or another. Change management and change leadership are emerging disciplines and, as such, they will travel the maturity path that other functional disciplines, including HR, marketing, Lean Sigma, operational excellence, and others have followed. The trick is to understand how to ride and accelerate that wave.

All that said, I am confident that many of our practitioners will graduate from being role players to change leaders, because they will make it a priority to:

  • Understand the change maturity curve,
  • Become excellent at “translating” what we do into outcomes that are irresistible to our business leaders so they will pull for our support at every level of maturity, and
  • Develop the personal engagement skills to influence the business toward higher levels of utilization of our skills and services while assuring accountability for execution rests firmly with the business.

6.  Touchstones—What are the top three CM resources you refer to?  Recommend to others?

There are lots of traditional change management tools/techniques resources on the market, but in the spirit of growing past those I would like to recommend that people look to “adjacencies.” In other words, don’t just keep diving deeper and deeper into the tactical nuts and bolts; instead, look to related areas that can strategically expand your skill set.

An easy way to do that is to evaluate your skills in any of “the 7 critical elements” listed above. Usually, change managers have the most skills in the areas that touch the workforce—“Translate” and “Energize.” Scores often point out areas for improvement in the up-front elements, which require deeper persuasion and influence skills—“Inspire” (storytelling), “Guide” (engagement skills), and “Navigate” (ethical political skills).

For those, I recommend:

  •  Storytelling: “Resonate” by Nancy Duarte. John Wiley and Sons, 2010.
  •  Engagement skills: “True Professionalism: The Courage to care about your people, your clients, and your career.” By David H. Maister. Simon and Schuster, 1997. (This is about professional service firms, so you will need to adjust to your internal circumstances, but the advice is on target, especially Part III: Clients)
  •  Also recommended here is Peter Block’s seminal work “Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used” Third Edition. Pfeiffer, 2011.
  •  Politics: “Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success” by Rich Brandon, PhD and Marty Seldman, PhD

Of course, I invite change leaders to explore the online resources and coaching I offer across those 7 elements as well. 

Part 3 coming soon.

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Insights in Change Management—Interview with Kimberlee Williams, CEO, ignitem (Part 1 of 3)

Kimberlee WilliamsWho knows more about change management than practitioners in the trenches? These are professionals who are vested in helping organizations achieve the promises to the Board (the strategy, “the change”) and who have dedicated their careers to figuring out how to do this well.

In this series, Insights in Change Management, we will hear the voices of these professionals.

Kimberlee Williams is the voice of global business professionals driving performance through transformation and change. She’s worked with companies in 18 industries, often during ambiguous, distressed, and difficult periods in their histories.

As Head of Global Change Execution in Merck’s Strategy Office, she pioneered strategy execution and change leadership by accelerating critical initiatives, building sustainable skills in the $46B/50,000-employee base, and guiding an informal community of thousands of change agents who enabled $3.5B in savings.

She served as Executive Director, Strategy and Program Management Office Global Services, a $4B/5,000-employee business unit and was previously VP, Organizational Effectiveness/HR at a privately held 30,000 employee-outsourced services company. Kimberlee is a certified Master Change Agent, Lean/Sigma Black Belt, award-winning executive facilitator, and advisor.

Today, her company, ignitem, specializes in transformation and change, guiding leaders around the world to achieve extraordinary results through her online training resources, coaching program, and live events.  You can download her free article, “Closing the Confidence Gap in Change Leadership” here and check out her website at

This interview comprises a series of questions and answers that will be published in three parts:

  1. Part 1—What brought you here? Includes: How did you get started? What’s your definition of change management? Where do you start when determining your approach to change initiatives?
  2. Part 2—Where is here for you? Includes: What do you bake into every engagement? What have you learned from failure? In SWOT analysis, what are the top three touchstones you refer to?
  3. Part 3—Who inspires you? Includes: What gets you up in the morning or keeps you going? What does the future of change management need? As a bonus, Kimberlee answers the question, “What would you like to ask other practitioners?”

This is Part 1.  Parts 2 and 3 will be published shortly. You can subscribe to ensure that you don’t miss them.

Here we go…

1.       Your story—How did you arrive at change management? How did you choose this discipline and why?

My career started in a small town gas station. I started working in my family’s business when I was nine years old and was doing automotive repairs and supervising adult employees by the time I was a teenager. I was absolutely fascinated by our employees’ behavior and performance, and the mechanisms needed to shape their behavior (especially when they were asked to do something different or that they did not want to do).  Learning the finer points of a combustion engine and how the elements of an automobile are designed to work together to achieve a certain level of performance shaped my interest in whole-systems design. In addition, abstract concepts such as horsepower and torque helped me to visualize invisible drivers of performance inside systems, like beliefs and assumptions, and to learn how to measure those drivers.

I carried those people and systems interests into college and grad school, studying Industrial/Organizational Psychology and Statistics/Research Methods. After entering the professional world, I worked in HR/Talent/OD. Although I rose quickly to become a senior HR/OD executive, I discovered there were other line functions (business development, operations, strategy, etc.) that might more fully utilize my skills, so I began to cross-train in those areas.

I worked in outsourced services for about 10 years, leading transitions of large numbers of employees in very turbulent environments. A pivotal moment for me occurred when an employee in one of our client facilities was killed performing maintenance on a piece of manufacturing equipment, despite the fact that my company had been actively promoting a safety program there for several years. It underscored for me how hard it is to change human behavior—even when people know it means life or death. After that, I totally shifted my focus from HR/OD to Organization Effectiveness, Strategy/PMO, and leadership roles on huge projects that gave me the opportunity to address systemic elements of business and people change using a variety of methodologies such as scorecard, Lean Sigma, and others alongside change management.

2.       Perspective—What is your definition of change management? Is there an aspect that has captured your attention that you continue to study and investigate?

Change management means assisting people to 1) move from the current state to a defined future state as quickly as possible while 2) maintaining or improving their desired level of performance. Methods and techniques to do so are primarily rooted in behavioral science and often involve up-skilling and working through others (e.g., people managers) rather than directly.

It is both a discipline (i.e., formal organization role with title) and skill set (i.e., the competencies can be defined and embedded in a vast number of roles across the company).

Although it is often discussed in isolation, in my opinion, change management is part of a larger constellation of organization capabilities (e.g., identifying, deciding on and prioritizing strategic opportunities; aligning leaders; designing solutions; implementing solutions; measuring to assure desired results are achieved; and sustaining those results over time). I see change management mostly supporting “implementation,” as there are other approaches better suited to address the other areas. For instance, Sigma is much better suited to designing solutions. Developing all of those capabilities in an organization requires a multi-disciplinary approach.

In addition, change management techniques have evolved from, and contributed to, other disciplines, including Organizational Development, Lean Sigma, Balanced Scorecard, and even Talent Management. This can create organizational friction and needs to be managed thoughtfully.

My passion, and the reason I founded my business, is to enable professionals who are implementing change—no matter what their job title or discipline—to graduate from change management to change leadership. Change management has been commoditized to a large degree (and the focus is frequently mis-directed to tools and tactical techniques) and it has not always delivered on improving implementation results, leading to an overall devaluation of the discipline.  Change leadership is much broader. It is about persuasion, influence, politics, high-impact conversations that redirect behavior and get to the root of a wide spectrum of issues, at the time of implementation and beyond. So this is what I do in my business—I work with companies to define the roadmap to identify and develop these organization capabilities, and I work with professionals leading change to improve their own impact, influence, and income.

3.       Starting Point—What do you see as the most significant attributes that differentiate change initiatives and how do you approach them differently? Examples might include transitional vs. transformational, culture, impact dimensions (number of people, change history, locales, positive vs. negative impact, etc.).

All of those you have listed here are critical and I agree need to be considered when evaluating any organizational change. In the impact analysis I use in my own business, I have added a few dimensions. Two that I recommend people consider are:

 1)      Apparent Inconsistencies—the degree to which change actions, on the surface, seem contradictory to one another. These create credibility problems for change leaders because they are incorrectly interpreted as a coordination problem (i.e., the left and right hand don’t know what they are doing) or worse, a leadership trust issue (e.g., belief they are deliberately being “sold” a benefit that they will not experience). Some examples of apparent inconsistencies include hiring in one part of the organization while reducing force in another or optimizing globally while sub-optimizing locally (as often occurs with ERP implementations). I find that these conflicts are sometimes not uncovered until quite late in the implementation and, with focused attention, could have been anticipated and addressed.

2)      Shifts in Management Power Bases—an attribute evident in reorganization and restructuring efforts for a long time that becomes even more acute as companies undertake business model redesign. Business model redesign fundamentally disrupts structures, processes, products/services, resource allocation—often in highly unpredictable ways—making some leaders’ roles or entire functions obsolete (so there is a heightened sense for leaders that they could end up with no role at all or a greatly diminished base of power). This can cause excessively protracted decision-making as executives attempt to create a fit for themselves, obfuscate in an attempt to manipulate circumstances, buy time to keep options open, or engage in other behaviors that make moving forward seemingly impossible. Shifting management power bases often requires a parallel work stream (beyond basic change management) of dealing with those especially challenging leader behaviors, and providing extra coaching to sponsors to work through options.

Parts 2 and 3 coming soon. You can subscribe to ensure that you don’t miss them.

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Advances in Strategy Execution

There have been three important developments in the last six months that we should all take note of:

continue reading here

Building your leadership legacy—the organization that thrives for generations. Interview with Daryl Conner, Chairman, Conner Partners on the “nimble organization.” Post 3 of 3

“If I have done any deed worthy of remembrance, that deed will be my monument. If not, no monument can preserve my memory.”—Agesilaus II

Legacy - fingerprint with citation.jpgLeaders at the very top of organizations—and by this I mean board members, CEOs, EVPs, and SVPs—have a very rare opportunity. They shape the destinies of their organizations and those of the people working for them, not to mention people in the communities they serve and the economies in which they operate.

Through their corporate strategies, they leave their fingerprints on the future of their organizations in the short term (which is always under scrutiny by Wall Street), but also in the long term.

Can leaders build organizations that outperform the market over 18 years or longer? Where should they start? continue reading here

What is leadership’s responsibility for driving and sustaining a nimble organization? Interview with Daryl Conner, Chairman, Conner Partners. Post 2 of 3

Daryl Conner’s extensive thought leadership on creating nimble organizations has the potential to breathe new life into the dinosaurs of the Fortune 1000 and S&P 500.

As a preface, let’s just level-set. Why should leaders and boards care about an organization’s ability to change? Is it a real issue?

Tenure on S&P500The statistics are not kind.

The Innosight study, “Creative Destruction Whips through Corporate America,” indicates that:

“the 61-year tenure for the average firm in 1958 narrowed to 25 years in 1980—and to 18 years now.” (2012) continue reading here

The strategic imperative of the “nimble organization” and why it seems to be a mirage. Interview with Daryl Conner, Chairman, Conner Partners. Post 1 of 3

“The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Daryl photo After the “Evolution of Change Management” series with Jennifer Frahm (where we landed with “Will ‘Change Management’ become extinct?”), and with Zappos announcing its move to holacracy, it just seemed like it was time to talk to Daryl Conner about the nimble organization.

In this post, I interview Daryl about what “nimble” means, why it is a strategic imperative, and why it seems to be so difficult for organizations to get traction with it. continue reading here


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