Employees are not hugely motivated by their employer’s reasons for change. Leadership must therefore learn how to win the hearts and minds of their staff, i.e. sell to them

How to sell change in an organization

The greatest stumbling block to transforming an organization’s culture is this: first, it’s not seen as a sale which it is, and worse, those selling it (leadership) are not salespeople-or more accurately, don’t see themselves as salespeople.

Contrary to popular belief, a company is not driven by strategy. A company’s day to day activities and long term fate, lays squarely in its culture. But what is organizational culture? Edgar Schein, a prominent theorist of organisational culture, referred to it in general terms as, “A pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.” Shared thoughts and feelings make or break organisations.

Most leaders are poor sellers

In the case of a far-reaching change in culture (a transformation) the product feature on sale may be the change, but the product offering (why staff should buy) are the benefits of changing their mindset. We don’t buy the shirt for its features, that is, to cover our nakedness or because it’s blue and long sleeved; we buy it because it makes us feel good, or, it’s in vogue or, it emphasises our enviable shape or some other emotional reason. Like average sellers, most organizations, sell the feature of the product: we are in an increasingly competitive sector with increasing customer needs, and we must change to retain our leadership; or, we are performing below industry standards and must transform to survive. These are factual (logical), feature-based arguments, and are not useful because buyers (the staff) are driven by emotional benefits.

Employees are moved by benefits not features

In the same way the objectives of buyers and sellers are at polar opposites, employees are not hugely motivated by their employer’s reasons for change. Employees (like buyers) are more moved by what the change means to them. The average seller (employer) will quickly latch on to money (a feature) e.g. bonuses and increased salaries. In essence he is looking at price as the reason why the buyer (employee) should purchase the product. It’s cheap, it’s affordable; buy it. Yet, any stellar performing seller will tell you that price doesn’t sell-value does. Warren Buffet puts it best: price is what you pay, value is what you get.

Differing value propositions

And value to the employee is in contrast to value to the employer and, according to McKinsey & Company, could go beyond the organization to say the customer, or community. As such, focusing the sale solely on the organization is unlikely to inspire genuine commitment to the organization. Some leaders reading this may dismiss it as fluff stating ‘shape up or ship out is our maxim’. Buy or leave. This is tragic. And in the case where you desire to transform your culture to customer-centricity, the irony of it is plain to see. It’s true though, that you can’t win them all; you can’t sell to everyone.

The change will have those who will not embrace it and will leave and that is fine; in any case, change or not, attrition happens. However, this does not exempt the sellers (leaders) from the winning the hearts and minds of existing buyers (staff) with the desired cultural change. After all, doesn’t cross-selling to existing buyers make more economic and long term sense over acquiring a new one?

A leader’s role in change

To change the culture of an organization, or manager change, calls for a change in how those in it perceive, think and feel. A ‘sales’ style of management allows staff to buy (not just buy into) the new direction. Strategic, structural and systemic changes alone will only attain so much traction.

Finally, is this excerpt from a McKinsey & Company report on change management. “The perception that behavior is a “soft” topic leads managers to assume they can rely on their own instincts. An approach that seldom leads to sustainable long-term change. Instead, managers need to take the time to understand some of the factors that influence human behavior.” In other words, learn how to sell.


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