Does Your Enterprise Need a Chief Change Officer?

As a learning executive, you know the importance of the chief learning officer (CLO) to an organization. But according to Randy Kesterson, CEO and founding executive director of The Society for Leadership of Change,” organizations may need a chief change

As a learning executive, you know the importance of the chief learning officer (CLO) to an organization. But according to Randy Kesterson, CEO and founding executive director of The Society for Leadership of Change,” organizations may need a chief change officer (CCO) as well. SLC is an international forum and learning community that aims to improve organizations’ capacity to change by acting as a source for the most effective change-management approaches.

The differences between the CLO and CCO positions are subtle, but distinct, and should be collaborative in nature. A chief change officer would be responsible for all organizational change initiatives, tools and methodologies within an organization. These include Six Sigma, Balanced Scorecard, Lean Enterprise, supply-chain management, benchmarking and business systems process modeling, among others. A chief learning officer would be responsible for organizational learning and development of the workforce.

Obviously, the first question is, is there a need for a chief change officer? “In my mind, that person is the focal point for organizational change activity,” said Kesterson. “In some organizations, you have change initiatives that tend to bubble up from the bottom, so you have some people working on Six Sigma initiatives, you have people working Lean Enterprise projects, you have supply-chain-management people, people working benchmarking assessments and so forth, and it tends to be fragmented.”

Combating this fragmentation, ensuring that change initiatives do not stray from overall business strategy and encouraging a more streamlined approach to learning and development activities are a few reasons why Kesterson suggests that there is a need for such a person. But fulfilling that need may not mean engaging a change agent in a full-time role. “To me, a chief learning officer is a person who’s responsible for organizational learning, and training and development of the workforce. I think there’s a difference,” said Kesterson. “The chief change officer is a person who leads change, whether it’s to improve customer service, improve quality, improve productivity, reduce lead time or some significant change in the organization that leads to better business performance. I think the two roles go hand in hand—in order to lead change, you need to develop people and make sure they understand the initiatives, but I think it’s a slightly different responsibility.”

The primary reason an organization might engage a chief change officer is to provide coordination among various divisions, business units and other functional areas within an organization and to coordinate organizational change, said Kesterson. “In many organizations, there isn’t such a person, and then it falls to a variety of people and the result is fragmentation and, in some cases, open confrontation among the various groups. In many organizations, there isn’t one focal point for leading change. In some cases, the CEO serves that role. In other organizations, they do not. In my experience, in companies where leadership of change flows down from the top, everything is well coordinated. In many organizations, leadership of change bubbles up from the bottom where you have low- to mid-level managers who see the need for change, and they advocate the use of certain tools and philosophies with their peers in another division or another functional area. It’s not doing the same thing.”

The CCO also would focus on ways to implement different change initiatives strategically. “The chief change officer would really look to the organization’s strategic plan, determine what needs to change in order to meet the strategic needs of the business and then help bring about those changes within the organization,” said Kesterson. “That’s why I believe it’s a C-level responsibility, because if there’s not someone at that level leading change, the projects and the action plans tend to be less than strategic. They’re within the field of vision of low-level managers, but oftentimes they’re not strategic projects.”

The SLC is in existence to develop the change leader or chief change officer and to familiarize a person in that role with the various tools, philosophies and techniques available, enabling them to put together organizational change programs for their companies that are tailored to the specific environment and corporate culture. “You do it by familiarizing people with the various approaches, what works, what doesn’t work,” said Kesterson. “The SLC is like an open forum and a conduit, if you will, between two groups: the people who are seeking knowledge, the people who want to learn to be better change leaders, and the experts in all these various tools and philosophies. The SLC is about bringing those people together in low-cost, primarily Internet forums, to learn about Six Sigma, supply-chain management, Balanced Scorecard, benchmarking and so forth. We will be offering online classes based on what the membership group seeks to know, and that’s why we’re collaborating with other organizations that are experts in the various tools and philosophies. We really don’t have our own agenda, and we don’t have our own favorite tool, approach, technique. We’re about helping people learn about all the various tools and techniques that seem to be working, whether it’s in health care, banking, manufacturing, public sector or elsewhere.” The organization will educate members via webinars, audio conferences and other interactive discussion groups on the best ways to bring validated organizational change initiatives to their enterprise and how to apply them appropriately.

Kesterson is aware that his belief in the need for chief change officers will generate debate. “I think many organizations will say there’s not a need for a central person, that every C-level person is responsible for change. I wanted to foster a discussion about it and begin to get people to think about the possible need within some organizations for such a role even if it’s just a part-time role.”

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