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Driving Change Successfully: How to Enlist Managers as Catalysts for Strategic HR

Jon Greenawalt

Enabling your managers with the tools, training, and development they need to be successful is one of the most effective ways to drive employee engagement, performance, and retention. And when you can also turn those managers into strategic HR champions, that’s when you’ll see true transformation in the organization.

After 30 years working in the HR industry and most recently as the Chief People Officer at SharkNinja, I have a career-long passion for leader and manager development and the need to deliver it at scale. That’s why I joined 15Five four years ago, to focus on that work and help enable other people leaders who share my passion.

I believe effective managers can be a linchpin for change and a huge asset to the HR team. But how do you get managers invested in their own enablement? How can you leverage them as partners in change management? This is a topic I was excited to drill into at 15Five’s Thrive conference this year. 

At Thrive, I was joined onstage by two exceptional HR leaders, Hayley Norwood, VP of People Operations at Nettwerk, and Caroline DeConto, Director of Talent and Culture at Nugget.

Hayley and Caroline shared their tips for establishing a mutually beneficial relationship between HR and people leaders, along with some practical approaches to training and motivating your managers to be change agents. Read on for some insightful takeaways from our conversation.

Why are managers so crucial to change management?

Josh Bersin recently released new research that says of all the HR capabilities that need to be mastered and practiced, the one that has the most impact relative to all other capabilities is developing leaders and managers. 

When you have effective managers and leaders on your team, the company is more innovative, adapts better to change, and is much more likely to achieve financial targets and desired business outcomes.  

How do you motivate managers to help drive organizational change?

Change isn’t easy, especially for managers who already feel overwhelmed with their current responsibilities. Learning about the specific challenges your managers face and getting to know more about their needs can help you break down walls and gain trust. Show managers how you plan to address their concerns or remove existing roadblocks with your proposed initiatives. 

As Caroline suggested during our conversation, while motivation starts with getting buy-in on the why, enablement comes from involving managers in the process of determining the how

“Often, HR teams make the mistake of devising solutions or implementation plans in a silo, only asking managers for their help after the approach has already been decided,” she said. “If managers feel they’re being asked to do something they aren’t confident they actually have the training or resources to do, it can lead to pushback, a lack of follow-through, or a perceived divide between managers and people teams.” 

Make managers your strategic partners

While they may resist change, most managers really do want to be successful, and most will be receptive when given the opportunity to learn, grow, and affect change. But first, they need to be able to trust their leaders and HR team and understand how organizational changes will make their lives better and help their people succeed.

As Hayley shared, “It’s a long game. It starts with building relationships with your people managers. Building those relationships really early on and building trust. When it comes to driving change, it’s about finding that emotional connection and showing them what’s in it for them and their team.”  

Managers who feel they have a say and some ownership in the implementation of manager enablement (or any other org-wide initiatives) will be more motivated to put in the work themselves and advocate for those programs with others. When that happens, you’re working as a team to solve problems rather than HR handing down instructions from on high.

Caroline shared a few helpful questions you can ask managers during the process of rolling out a new initiative:

  • What roadblocks or obstacles are you worried might come up for your team in this transition?
  • What resources or support do you need in order to be confident about implementing this?
  • What do you anticipate would be the outcome or impact on your team if you were able to successfully implement and lead through this change?

Overcoming friction with senior leadership

Both of our panelists agreed that changing executives’ minds about HR being a strategic function rather than an administrative function is one of the biggest roadblocks in change management. I asked the panelists how they garner not only manager support but also senior leader buy-in for their strategic programs.

As Hayley said, “With any kind of change management, it can be so disheartening when you put something out to a group of leaders or managers, and they immediately say, ‘Why are you doing this? It’s fine the way it is!’ And so whenever I’m in those conversations, I keep putting myself back into the place I was when I first thought about this and remind myself that that’s where they are right now.”  

In most cases, focusing on continuous improvement and showing how your plan will improve business outcomes is the key to executive hearts. And it only takes a few changed minds to get the ball rolling.

“Find your cheerleaders,” Hayley added. “The leaders in the organization who do see the benefits. Get them rallying around you and rallying their team members and peers to help them get there.” 

Use technology and data to show the measurable impact of your strategic HR initiatives 

When asking for leadership support, using data to back up your agenda is critical. Especially when budgets are tight, learning and development are typically the first to take a hit, unfortunately. Showing results and potential business outcomes can get you the program investments that you need (and deserve).

Hayley shared an example of how employee engagement data helped her win over her skeptical exec team. “When we implemented engagement surveys, that was absolutely transformative for our business. As HR people, we had been screaming about certain things for ages, but until we had a quantifiable metric to point back to, we weren’t able to get buy-in to change. When I had the metrics to point back to, [our leaders] were like, ‘Oh, that’s actually a thing.’ I was like, Hallelujah! We can actually get a budget to put money into this to actually affect change. Showing those engagement drivers was crucial.”

Empower managers with the tools to drive meaningful change

Today, performance management is evolving from merely analytics and insights to a generative engine of specific actions and recommendations that leaders and managers can take. Having this comprehensive technology in place for managers is critical to moving the needle on performance, engagement, and retention. 

But as our panelists shared, while data and technology are crucial, platforms can only take you so far. Managers need ongoing education, training, and coaching to lead effectively and affect measurable change.

As Caroline added, “Managers are the ones who are actually providing employees with feedback and guidance, helping them set goals, holding them accountable, and offering day-to-day leadership and direction… We partnered with 15Five to provide training and coaching for our managers so they had the resources and confidence they needed to support this initiative well from day one.”

Unlock the potential of your managers with Transform

15Five’s holistic training and coaching solution, Transform, focuses on helping organizations drive business results and create lasting change. Managers have access to live and on-demand training and learn through a blend of instructor-led and coaching-based practice. 

Transform can be tailored to your company’s specific needs and performance challenges, and you can customize and change manager learning journeys to align with your organizational goals at any given time. With Transform, your managers will master the full spectrum of what they need to drive performance and engagement.

Learn more >