Managing change

We recently launched a new podcast series – Modern Perspectives where we share insights from B2B leaders and explore how they deal with transformation, change and technology in a marketing context.

In the sixth and final episode, hosted by Nicola Ray, we spoke with two senior marketing leaders with recent experience managing massive change programmes in large organisations to get their thoughts on how to implement change while keeping your people on board.

You can listen to the Modern Perspectives podcast series here.

Introducing Michael and Stephen

Whether you’re changing the way you work to achieve greater business success, or changing to simply survive, you need your people to buy in. If not, you’re likely to end up back where you started sooner rather than later.  

In this episode, our guests are senior leaders who have done just that:

  • Michael Bernard – Ex-CMO, IBM – At IBM between 2015 and 2016, Michael managed a huge change programme to raise productivity and shift focus towards digital marketing
  • Stephen Davies – EMEA Marketing Director, Roland DG – While at American Airlines, Stephen led a change programme in the wake of its merger with US Airways to rebrand and relaunch in multiple worldwide markets

It’s an enlightening discussion packed with great stories and valuable insights. Here are five highlights from the podcast.

What does success look like? 

What were the elements of success in your change programmes? Why do you think they were successful? 

Michael – We gave ourselves a goal of delivering 30% more in terms of marketing results with effectively 15% less resource – and we managed to beat that. 

There were also some elements of success that we hadn’t anticipated. Giving our marketing team access to state of the art tools and giving them a whole raft of education gave them a renewed sense of engagement. We got them to shift the way they thought about marketing, the tools they used and the processes they followed. 

Stephen – You’ve got to have clearly defined success markers, and I think any change has to be demonstrated with skills, tests and performance indicators. Otherwise, how do you know you’ve made any change and have been successful? 

Look at how you can provide data points for decision-making. In the past, it was easy to make subjective comments about where you take the business. But what I try to do is bring up more objectivity and use data to help persuade and influence. 

Change with purpose 

Does your change programme need to have a purpose? Where does the customer fit into that? 

Michael – Purpose is really important. I’m a huge fan of Daniel Pink and his book Drive, which says that purpose is one of the three key areas to motivate people, along with autonomy and mastery. If you don’t buy into what you’re doing, it’s extremely difficult to become motivated. 

I think of it as the rule of a third, a third, a third. One-third of your people will enthusiastically embrace it. Another third will need some assistance, but then they get it. Then, there’s a third who are reluctant. Sometimes they come on board, but other times they disengage. 

Stephen – At American Airlines, we were forced to change to survive. But, it was centred around the customer; we needed to retain our affluent, high-value customers and attract new people to the brand.  

We were in a vicious circle, where we were not making much money and couldn’t invest, so customers and staff were unhappy. So, we made it clear that our journey was turning it into a virtuous cycle – no debt, investment into modern planes that staff want to work on and customers want to fly on, you make money which you re-invest, and the cycle continues. 

Leading change 

How important is leadership in a successful change programme 

Stephen – It’s hugely important. At American, we created a Chief Transformation Officer role that I haven’t seen before or since. It meant you had a senior person on the Board of Directors involved in every single change across all departments.  

The role of leadership – and when I saw it being most effective – is sharing information in an honest, open and transparent way.  

Michael – In an ideal world, over the course of a change programme, leadership would shift to the professionals. The role of leaders should then become more about facilitating the change that their teams have bought into and are making happen. Leaders should be helping to get rid of the hurdles that stop them from going faster.  

Bringing your people on board (and keeping them there) 

Everything seems to come back to the people side of things. How do you bring the people throughout your organisation on board? 

Michael – If the quality of your professionals is high, if you have bright, highly qualified, motivated, thoughtful people, you don’t need to tell them how to do their jobs. You’re giving them new tools and processes that revitalise their interest in what they do. It’s hugely motivating, and we were lucky to have some very talented people doing that work.  

Stephen – Communication is vital. You need to communicate everything. You can’t over-communicate during a big change programme.  

For example, at American Airlines, we were exposed to frontline employees at the check-in gates that simply were not kept updated on the changes in enough detail. It was really good to talk to them and say, ‘Hey, did you know we’re going through this change and this change?’ Whether it’s formal or informal, it’s all about communication at the end of the day. 

I’d also add that you need to plan your communication. It needs to be well-planned. Talk about the speed of change and the key milestones you’re expecting to achieve. Of course, as an agile, flexible business, you can recalibrate your plans, but having that plan is still hugely important. Communication provides that sense of direction. 


What can go wrong on a change journey? What should you watch out for? 

Michael – When you’re designing or involved in a huge transformation programme, you’re completely buried in it. It’s easy to forget that there are people going through it who don’t know as much as you, who aren’t as familiar with it as you are. What Stephen said about it being impossible to overcommunicate is so true. 

You also need to watch out for what I call ‘gravity’. When you’re shifting an organisation in a big way, there’s a huge amount of inertia that wants to pull it back to where it used to be. However much energy you put into taking your organisation to this new place, you must put as much energy into stopping this drift. 

Stephen – For me, it’s about focusing on the positives. It’s very easy for people to focus on the differences and the negativity that can evolve. Instead, look at the positive aspects, whether that’s someone having a bigger role, more responsibilities, increased empowerment, different technology or anything else. Americans are very good at this. 

Also, cross-functional collaboration is absolutely vital. You can’t achieve change in a silo; you need everyone on the same page. Everyone has a part to play, going right up to the head of the business.  

Key takeaways 

Thanks to Michael and Stephen for their excellent and thoughtful answers. Here are the five key takeaways from the conversation: 

  • You need to clearly define the change you want to achieve in your organisation. If not, how will you know if you have been successful? 
  • Whatever the purpose of your change programme, your customers will usually be at the centre of it. After all, it’s your customers that make you a business 
  • Leadership is critical for the success of a change programme. You need buy-in throughout your organisation (and eventually, you may prefer your people to take the lead), but it all begins with leadership 
  • Communication is the key to successful change management. It’s impossible to overcommunicate when it comes to change 
  • Remember that while you’re buried in change management, other people have their own jobs to do. Make sure you bring them along on the journey

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