Why Should HR Lead Change Initiatives?

Shared Leadership Carol Andersonby Carol Anderson, Featured Contributor

[su_dropcap style=”flat”]C[/su_dropcap]HANGE MANAGEMENT is about people, performance and leadership, ergo, one would think HR should be leading the charge (or at least playing a major role). Unfortunately, in many cases, HR is not involved because it does not bring the skill sets that would be useful to organizational change or is simply not even invited to the party. More concerning is that CEO’s don’t hold their HR leadership accountable for building the necessary expertise that would facilitate effecting change. Without the internal expertise, organizations, more often than not, look to outside consultants to provide the needed assistance to effect the organizational changes they’re looking for.

What’s striking here, even with the expertise of outside consultants, change guru John Kotter, (Kotter International) still claims that 70% of change efforts fail; this is a pretty dismal record. Kotter’s approach for “change management” is for organizations to “take a consistent, holistic approach to changing themselves,” and “engaging their workforce effectively.”

Hmmm. Changing themselves. Engaging their workforce. Sounds like learning, development and human resources to me so why isn’t HR part of the solution?

Kotter’s research spans 4 decades and. I have almost 4 decades of HR executive roles in large, multi-unit organizations behind me and from what I’ve seen, Kotter’s research is dead on. Change may come in the form of a merger, a shift in technology, the launch of a new strategy, or a change in organizational leadership. And each change or combination of changes create anxiety and concern in the workforce, which requires strong, coordinated leadership that understand the dynamics of change, foster open channels of candid communication, and facilitate a careful exploration of organizational culture in the context of the change.

Leading the leadership in providing the organizational guidance is where HR can bring tremendous value because HR has, or should have, a top level view of people, programs and process. They have a unique vantage point to breach silos and facilitate organizational changeChange

If HR is going to “lead the change” process, they need the knowledge, skills and resources to make it happen. Many HR Teams, though, are missing the critical expertise needed for leading change. For example, HR needs:

Project Management skills. I’m not talking about HR being project managers but they must understand the need for effective project management so they can provide good counsel as part of the leadership team, counsel that could include ensuring there is executive sponsorship with authority and courage to make key decisions, having a having a clear definition of the purpose, scope and expected results, and evaluating the results against the expectations.

Learning and development skills. With organizational change comes the need for behavioral change, and the more dramatic the change, the more intentional the organization must be in defining, teaching and holding themselves accountable for the behavior change. Kotter says to “engage the workforce,” but that is not an easy task. It means that the workforce needs to clearly understand both the change and the need to change. It means that they need a voice to share concerns and provide input.

Organizational learning is all about setting clear expectations, providing knowledge and resources, and evaluating and tweaking the result, and developing strength in leadership to lead change. The programs and processes that are typically owned by HR – training and performance management – should align to the realities of the organizational change.

HR needs to lead this effort because “HR is all about people.” HR leadership that can assess learning needs, create formal and informal learning opportunities, and evaluate the effectiveness are, in fact, leading organizational change. If the HR programs do not accomplish this, they are not relevant.

Systems thinking skills. Change in today’s world is complex, and a change in one process can have unintended consequences that ripple through the organization. Understanding how systems work, and being able to facilitate the discovery of interacting systems among diverse groups of people brings credibility to the change leader.

With organizational complexity often comes silo’d thinking that leads to decisions being made without effective analysis and risk assessment. Leaders need to understand the implication of their decisions, and collaborate effectively across the organization. This is a skill that must be developed in leadership. It is also a process that begs for oversight, to maintain the coordinated perspective of the organizational change.

If HR programs are aligned and relevant, they provide good business intelligence that illustrates challenges and opportunities with the organizational change. If these programs are not aligned and relevant, they are wasting valuable time.

But there is an opportunity here

CEO’s need to challenge their HR teams to provide the leadership the organization needs to successfully effect change and hold them accountable for the skills and performance. This may mean shifting workload so that HR can truly be a change partner, coach the organization and through this, drive successful change.

But only HR has the overall insight into the people, teams and organizational performance that gives them a vantage point that is unique within the organization. If HR is up to the challenge and is aligned and relevant, they are in the best position to lead organizational change and the whole organization becomes better. If CEO’s need to bring in outside expertise to do the work HR should be doing, then the question needs to be asked “Why do I need HR?”


Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson
CAROL is the founder and Principal of Anderson Performance Partners, LLC, a business consultancy focused on bringing together organizational leaders to unite all aspects of the business – CEO, CFO, HR – to build, implement and evaluate a workforce alignment strategy. With over 35 years of executive leadership, she brings a unique lens and proven methodologies to help CEOs demand performance from HR and to develop the capability of HR to deliver business results by aligning the workforce to the strategy. She is the author of Leading an HR Transformation, published by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2018, which provides a practical RoadMap for human resource professionals to lead the process of aligning the workforce to the business strategy, and deliver results, and writes regularly for several business publications.

CHECK FOR TICKETS / JOIN OUR WAITING LIST! It's not a virtual event. It's not a conference. It's not a seminar, a meeting, or a symposium. It's not about attracting a big crowd. It's not about making a profit, but rather about making a real difference. LEARN MORE HERE



  1. Hi Carol,

    I’m impressed by the scope of your insights on the topic of leading change/transformation (ideally continuous in nature) initiatives. I say this based on having been on the forefront of such endeavors for over three decades now. Based on the content of your article I’d say that we’re operating/broadcasting pretty much on the same wavelength. However, as time goes on (ever more quickly), there seems to be more in the way of extra added dimensions (not unlike what’s been happening on the forefronts of quantum theory) that need to be added to the on-going practice of change/transformation/continuous improvement.

    In this regard, one of the most recent and powerful/compelling additions I’ve come across pertains to abandoning the traditional thinking and behaving when it comes to the notion of “leadership,” which can be appropriately expressed in in the form of the “leader-follower” modus operandi. And when I speak of abandoning it, I’m not referring to the notion of leadership altogether, but rather only in its traditional or more popularly manifest form.

    Most interestingly, what I believe to be a much more efficient and effective form came to my attention via a book written by a now retired US Navy Captain named L. David Marquet. The name of that book is “Turn the Ship Around.” And the ship in question happened to be a real one, which at the time the transformation/change process took place, was under the command of Capt. Marquet. That ship happened to be a US nuclear-powered attack submarine named the USS Santa Fe. When Captain Marquet took command, the Sante Fe was best known (within the Navy’s Submariner Service) for being the lowest ranked, worst performing ship in the entire nuclear submarine fleet.

    After taking command of the Sante Fe, within a 3-yr. period of time (1999-2001) the ship and crew went from being ranked at the bottom of pack (from an overall performance standpoint) to setting a new high-water mark (excuse the pun) for the rest of fleet to try to match. In that period of time, it had achieved levels of performance that far surpassed anything that had ever before been achieve by any other sub in the fleet. HOW IN THE WORLD DID THAT HAPPEN, you might wonder? Well, it was the result of abandoning the Navy’s traditional leader-follower command and control model and embracing a new and much more powerful leadership modus operandi. That new mode eventually became referred to as the “leader-leader” model. Why and how that model represents – in my opinion – the best model for any highly complex adaptive system/organization seeking not only to survive in the 21st century, but also to prevail in a globally competitive environment, is best appreciated and understood by reading the book.

    [Note: After doing so, a reader will never forget the following three words… “I INTEND TO…” and will never again speak of a true leader as “empowering” other individuals. Rather, the more appropriate term to use would be to “emancipate”… as in “freeing” the utmost level of discretionary behavior of others. In so doing, one creates a breeding ground for new and better leaders.]

    I could go into an elaborate level of detail, but that would only represent my perspective. By reading the book, it will become possible to imagine one’s self in Captain Marquet’s shoes and consider what you might have done to improve the situation based on one’s prior experience(s). To my way of viewing things, the outcome attained is exceptional in nature as is the underlying thinking and behaving. In my years, I’ve only rarely encountered anything close to this. And what’s most important about it is the fact the crew and ship continued to perform at superior levels long after Captain Marquet had move on to other assignments.

    • You might also be interested in Frijof Capra’s The Turning Point and Margaret Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science – both evolving scientific quantum theories into theories of organizations and leadership.
      I have been having some interesting dialogue with my Marine Captain son, who is an instructor for new second lieutenants. I have been a fan of chaos theory in organizations for quite a while, but what he talks about (which makes sense) is helping leaders to understand that both styles are necessary depending upon the challenge ahead. To simply move to emancipation when a collective, focused vision is critical can be deadly in their environment.
      As we develop new leaders, we need to help them effectively assess the situation, and lead in the way that will provide the best outcome. Oh, and they need to understand how to determine the best outcome, because it isn’t always simple.
      Thanks so much for your comment and the dialogue.

    • Hi Carol,
      My mention of quantum physics was not meant to be a central focal point of my comments regarding the need for and availability of a new leadership paradigm. Rather, it was merely a tangential reference to the need for new thinking and frames of reference in order better address so many of today’s and tomorrow’s most difficult challenges.

      That said, the manifestation of appropriate leadership behavior (i.e., what, by who, when, where, how) will always be context sensitive. In that regard, what happens on a life and death battlefield/mission versus internal to an organization faced with a challenging business environment are more than likely going to be different manifestations. And I agree with the need for different manifestations. However,, the key point regarding the leader-leader modus operandi is that it is specifically architected to allow for context variability. In fact, one might look at how special ops teams and/or green beret teams (in a battlefield context) and recognize key aspects of the leader-leader model.

      What makes this model so relevant in the vast majority of contexts that are likely to exist going forward is the fact it will not work if two key factors are not put into play; both of which I am inclined to believe you will immediately recognize the value of. The first being the creation and repeated communication of clear and compelling purpose/mission that all members of an organization can freely embrace (i.e., take ownership of). The second – despite its crucial and often acknowledged importance – is one that many organizations struggle with. And it happens to be that of ensuring that every member of the organization be supported in their endeavor to attain and sustain the highest level of competency possible; not only specific to their particular chosen role but also to adjacent or related roles (i.e., as in cross-training). Ergo, under the leader-leader model, it’s possible for someone – other than the primary performer of a particular activity – to intervene in a critical situation where the expressed/announced intentions of the primary performer are likely to jeopardize the well-being of other stakeholders and/or the mission.

      In the book I mentioned above, the author provides multiple examples of where such leader-leader behaviors actually saved lives and helped preserve the integrity of the mission. On a concluding note, I hope the fact that this new leadership model – and the context in which it evolved (i.e., through a branch of service other than the Marines) – does not represent cause to discount its value. In that regard, the ideal future-state HR function will also need to be a very strong advocate of pursuing learning and discovery from all potential sources, both internal and external to the organization in which such learning/discovery needs to occur.

      [Note: Determining the best outcome is often (and increasingly so) best done via a collectively aware/competent effort as opposed to merely a singularly aware/competent effort. The examples given in the book will highlight why this is the case.]

    • I don’t discount any model until I’ve taken a look. I have a book coming out in the summer detailing collective thinking in the HR realm. Appreciate your feedback, and I’ll check out the book.

    • Hi Carol,
      Just a quick footnote regarding Frijof Capra’s The Turning Point… It looks like an interesting and quite prescient piece of work (at the time of its publication). In that regard, any potential value contained in it – from an HR perspective, will likely require a monumental effort by most HR practitioners to extract that value. Also, something a bit more up-to-date – relative to quantum theories – would help in conveying exactly what’s involved in creating new paradigms capable of resolving/addressing complex issues.

      That is, when Capra first published that work, the quantum physics community was just at the beginning stages of putting forth theories to help explain the Standard Model. Much, much, more critical thinking and experimentation-based validation has transpired since that time, revealing ever greater complexity relative to the way the manifest universe and unmanifest universe(s) work. The “Turn The Ship Around” story portrays a similar paradigm-shifting, experimentation-based discovery process.

      And relative to Margaret Wheatley’s work… definitely a voice to be listened to and heeded. Unfortunately, her most important and compelling advice…Seeing with new eyes gives us the capacity to solve problems instead of creating more of them… is not reaching the ears of those who need to hear it the most.

  2. Hello Carol,

    Change efforts fail if executives/managers think behavioral change is needed for everyone but themselves. 

It is easier to insist that others change their behaviors than it is to change our own behaviors. 

Change efforts are necessary when those in charge don’t or won’t change their own behaviors.

    The last lecture, on the last day of my MBA program, was about corporate change agents. Dr. Spector made the point that being a change agent is a tough job and often thankless and he noted that you should not try it unless the CEO appoints you to it and will stand behind you, how far behind is the issue.

    He said the first VP to get in your way should be fired by the CEO so that all others will know the change agent role is more important than any one employee. Managers will not survive that do not act with in the overall communicative structure. A welcomed change.

    The book ‘Reengineering the Corporation’ (RtC) was a big hit but one of the authors had to write the book ‘Reengineering Management’ because the two authors of RtC forgot to include the impact on employees especially managers in RtC; employers lost many employees during their change efforts.

    I’m going to write the next book ‘Reengineering the Employees’ (RtE) and RtE will be very short. What the heck, here it is. “’We can’t reengineer people and employees are people so don’t bother trying to do it.”

    However in my experience, having a positive culture is rarely at the top of the ‘behavior’ of CEO’s and the result is high turnover and political surroundings. In the article ‘Transforming the Engineer into a Manager: Avoiding the Peter Principle,’ Civil Engineering Practice, Fall 1989, the author, Dr. Neil Thornberry a Professor at Babson College, asserts that young engineers are judged on technical merit and accomplishment, and that promotions go to the technically proficient and verbally expressive engineers, while less technically proficient and less verbally expressive engineers wait their turn.

    The Peter Principle is, “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”

    Dr. Thornberry found that for a group of engineers the most talkative, competent engineer gets the first promotion into management. The second most talkative, competent engineer gets the second promotion into management. However, the third most talkative, competent engineer makes the best manager. Now let us presume that a growing company keeps promoting their most talkative competent engineers into management. What do we have? The best technical experts no longer doing the work and the best managers not in management and if they are in management they report to someone who is less capable of managing effectively–they talk too much.

    • Excellent thoughts, Bob – thanks. First of all, you made me realize that I need to clarify what I mean by “leading change.” While HR might be a change agent as you describe, I think it is more important for them to understand change theory enough to recognize that part of a change leader’s role is to identify and engage strong change agents throughout the organization. When I suggest HR lead change, it might be a better statement to have them be “change facilitators.” Hmmmm….maybe another blog post?
      I love the engineer story – it probably repeats itself in every industry based on whatever qualities the leadership sees as valuable.
      This was a great comment, Bob! Thanks for pushing my thinking.

    • Carol,

      “Excellent thoughts, Bob”


      “First of all, you made me realize that I need to clarify what I mean by ‘leading change’.”

      It must be hard to lead change considering the failure rate of change efforts.

      “While HR might be a change agent as you describe, I think it is more important for them to understand change theory enough to recognize that part of a change leader’s role is to identify and engage strong change agents throughout the organization.”

      I agree, but it is the CEO that must lead the change effort not HR.

      “When I suggest HR lead change, it might be a better statement to have them be “change facilitators.” Hmmmm….maybe another blog post?I”

      My guess is that HR needs to learn how to persuade the CEO why change is necessary and how to achieve the change. Then, persuade the CEO to spend the money to hire an experienced change agent.

      Employees should not risk their careers to help their employer achieve the desired changes. Internal change agents are used because they are cheaper than hiring an experienced change agent and they can be fired. Yes, I know, external change agents can also be fired but the external change agents take the jobs knowing full well that they may be fired by an incompetent/emotional CEO and they are paid to assume the risk.

      “I love the engineer story – it probably repeats itself in every industry based on whatever qualities the leadership sees as valuable.”

      That is so true but CEOs don’t know how to identify future successful managers prior to the job offer so they make the wrong hiring decisions about 4 out of 5 times. This explain why so many employees self report they are not engaged, i.e., 80%.

      “This was a great comment, Bob! Thanks for pushing my thinking.”

      Thanks, we’ve been showing employers since 1991 how to identify future successful employees, managers, and CEOs. It is not hard to do but persuading a CEO that he may not know how to it is very hard.

    • I actually am very wary of external change agents. While I agree that external experts can say things that internal folks can’t/shouldn’t, I have seen over and over and over how they fly in, lead the change, and leave. Yes, they say that they want to educate the internal folks on keeping the change, and that intent is a good one (I’ve done it myself) but to keep the external consultant engaged costs money and most organizations think “I’ve got this” until they realize they don’t and fall back into comfortable behaviors. Those change projects I have seen go well in my 40 years in HR have been those where the change has been owned from inside, and the sponsors cared enough about making it work that they educated themselves on the principles of organizational change. That is my proposition for HR – to be the facilitator that helps the CEO understand her role in the change, facilitates dialogue at the executive level around behavior change and the processes that influence that behavior, and creating an open and candid dialogue up, down and across the organization.

    • Carol,

      “I have seen over and over and over how they fly in, lead the change, and leave.”

      That is what they are supposed to do. If the CEO cannot maintain the change then that is a CEOs failure.

      If leading change were easy, then the success rate would be far higher than it is, i.e., about 30%.

      Should HR professionals be fired if their efforts fail because some managers or executives actively work against it?

      The CEO is paid to make the changes that need to be made but too many of them fail which means they failed or someone else failed. Do CEOs willingly accept the blame for their failures?