Managing change successfully

Overcome resistance through strategy, communications, and patience.

It's often said that the only thing constant in life is change. In today’s organizations, this has never been more evident, as leaders navigate ever-accelerating change in standards, technology, mobility, succession, consolidation, the global economy, cultural values, and more.

To successfully manage change, organizational leaders must strategically design, execute, and communicate their change strategy with the same focus and intent that they spend conceiving of the change. If they don’t invest in this effort and carefully coordinate change implementation, they run the risk that the planned change will fail.

To successfully effect change, leaders must:

  • Develop a change strategy and communications plan.
  • Execute the change communications and carry out elements of change implementation.
  • Acknowledge those who have made the transition and encourage those who are lagging.
  • Assess progress toward the intended change and identify changes in strategy needed to effect this and future changes.

This article focuses on the most important and often overlooked elements that drive change success: change strategy and communications.


Leaders must work together to develop a clear and unified change strategy, an approach to implementation, and a communications plan to drive the intended change. Ideally, leaders will meet to discuss and document their answers to the what, why, who, when, and how of change by answering the following questions:

What change is coming or is expected?

  • What new behaviors or actions does the change require?
  • What steps should those affected by the change expect to take (and when)?
  • What is not expected to change?

Why is the change occurring and what factors are driving the change? What benefits will it produce?

The intent or motives behind the change can truly make or break change acceptance. To effectively drive change, consider these five factors that affect acceptance as identified by Everett Rogers, a technology change management expert who coined the term “early adopter.” People are more likely to change when they:

Believe they will gain an advantage or benefit personally from the change. To help others accept change, leaders must answer their unspoken question: “When I change, what will I gain or what’s in it for me?” For instance, when a midsize firm merges with a larger, regional firm, the smaller firm’s people must believe that the change will benefit them. Potential benefits might include being able to more effectively compete for larger engagements because of the more recognized brand of the larger firm, gaining access to better benefits, or having more confidence in the larger entity’s ability to absorb significant upcoming retirements expected in the midsize firm.

Compare the change to their current state and identify similarities. To change, people need to relate expected new behaviors or actions to something they are familiar with. For example, when a finance department relocates to another part of the city, leaders should compare the staff commutes to the new office with the old office commutes and then be prepared to communicate the differences and similarities to the staff and proactively address any disappointments from those whose commutes would be lengthened.

Understand the change despite its complexity. People will accept change when it is communicated in simple terms or broken down into smaller ideas or steps that can be more easily grasped—and therefore acted upon—than a complex or big undertaking. For example, when an organization moves to a self-service client portal, the initial change can be complex to understand. Break down the expected actions into steps that clients can take, such as establishing their user profile, name, and password as the first “call to action.” Provide follow-up steps only after the clients take the first step. That way, clients aren’t overwhelmed with all the instructions at once.

Test the change. Form a pilot test group to allow a smaller group to work through the change before asking a broader group to do so. This allows issues and objections to be identified and resolved, smoothing the way for those less comfortable with change. Rolling out significant change with a pilot program allows those affected to feel that they can still have input on the change, and they don’t expect everything to be perfect yet, causing acceptance of small bumps that occur along the way. For example, when a firm implements a new outsource CFO/controllership service, identifying a small number of internal service personnel to act as the first group to sell and deliver the service—and choosing one or two clients with whom to test the service—enables a firm to engage a small number of people in the less-efficient “on the job learning” that can then be applied to a larger, more effective rollout.

Learn of others who have had success with the change. Seeing or hearing about people or organizations that already have made the intended change successfully can provide powerful assurance to those uncertain about the change. For example, when asking a group of firm leaders to move to a new departmental structure, sharing case studies or articles or referring to other groups that have successfully made this organizational change can help those affected feel more confident in the change being proposed.

Who is affected and how so? Who is leading the change?

Which groups or individuals does the change affect and in what ways? When forming the answers to this question, leaders must consider all stakeholders in their organization, including:

  • Shareholders, partners, and principals;
  • Executives or management working within the entity;
  • Departments, service lines, or groups;
  • Individual team members;
  • Customers or clients;
  • Referral sources or strategic partners;
  • Vendors; and
  • News media.

Who is responsible for leading which aspects of the change? Whom should constituents see with questions or concerns for which elements of the change? Who will lead which aspects when the change has been implemented?

When and how will the change occur, and when and how will the change communications occur?

What timing is expected for the change? Which groups are affected in which ways over that time frame?

How will the change be implemented? Which people, systems, processes, procedures, or other management structures will change, how will they change, and when will that change occur for each?

When will each group be notified of the change? When planning the timing of communications, consider first informing the organization’s biggest stakeholders and those responsible for answering the questions of others, giving them plenty of time to ask questions and absorb the change before they are expected to drive the change with other constituents. For instance, when announcing a new department head, the leaders within that department and then the team members assigned to that department should be told first, before the announcement is made firmwide or to clients.

How will constituents be informed of the change? The more impactful or significant the change, the more crucial that the communications be made live and, when possible, in person. For example, when announcing the appointment of a new CEO, a companywide meeting, webcast, or conference call is most appropriate.


When the change strategy and communications plan is developed, firm leaders must execute the communications plan and then follow through on all of the elements of the change implementation process. A failure to keep their commitments or execute as planned may be construed as a lack of commitment to the change and could leave an opening for those resisting the change to delay their own adoption.

Firm leaders must also remember that everyone embraces change differently. Some love change because they are motivated by variety, challenge, or opportunity. Others resist change because they are more cautious or they fear losing something. It is easy to make those who naturally resist change wrong. Some leaders even choose to exclude late adopters and laggards from the change process, keeping the change “quiet” and not including them in change planning meetings.

Smart leaders realize, though, that those who resist change often identify gaps in strategy and raise objections that must be addressed. When people who naturally resist change become a part of the change-agency group and participate in the rollout, their buy-in increases the credibility of the change process.

Meaningful, successful change starts in the “small room” with a group of thoughtful leaders. When next faced with change, identify those most willing to change and enroll them in developing and then executing the change strategy and communications plan. As cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”


Leaders must collaborate to craft a clear and unified change management strategy. Leaders need to understand the nature of the change, the reasons for it, and the effects it will have on the organization.

Develop a cohesive and targeted communications strategy. Craft specific messages for each group of stakeholders and deliver them at the proper time in the appropriate format. Also, ensure that those opposed to the change have their concerns heard.

Understand how the change will affect stakeholders, and address them appropriately. Acknowledge potential drawbacks, and proactively engage stakeholders who might be negatively affected.

Use pilot programs to test the change with a trial group. The test will help identify potential problems.

Establish a timeline for the change implementation and communications. Define when, how, and where the change will occur, and communications will commence.

Jennifer Wilson ( ) is a partner with ConvergenceCoaching LLC in Omaha, Neb.

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, senior editor, at or 919-402-4056.


JofA article

Managing Change, People, and Transparency,” July 2013, page 40


  • Communications: Methods and Applications for Financial Managers (#PCG1301P, paperback; #PCG1301E, ebook)
  • Leading an Accounting Firm: The Pyramid of Success (#PPM1201P)

CPE self-study

Influencing an Organization's Success: Exploring New and Efficient Ways to Manage a Company (#745581)


Practitioners Symposium and Tech+ Conference, June 9–11, Las Vegas

For more information or to register, go to or call the Institute at 888-777-7077.

Private Companies Practice Section and Succession Planning Resource Center

The Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS) is a voluntary firm membership section for CPAs that provides member firms with targeted practice management tools and resources, including the Succession Planning Resource Center, as well as a strong, collective voice within the CPA profession. Visit the PCPS Firm Practice Center at


Get your clients ready for tax season

Upon its enactment in March, the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) introduced many new tax changes, some of which retroactively affected 2020 returns. Making the right moves now can help you mitigate any surprises heading into 2022.


Black CPA Centennial, 1921–2021

With 2021 marking the 100th anniversary of the first Black licensed CPA in the United States, a yearlong campaign kicked off to recognize the nation’s Black CPAs and encourage greater progress in diversity, inclusion, and equity in the CPA profession.