Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, famously wrote in one of his company's annual reports, "We've long believed that when the rate of change inside an institution becomes slower than the rate of change outside, the end is in sight." In all my years working in the accounting profession, I don't remember a time when the rate of change from "outside" influences — demographics, automation, consolidation, and regulation — was ever this significant. Is your firm keeping up with this change? Or, even better, staying ahead of it?
If you're like most change agents I meet, you're suffering while trying to drive meaningful change in your firm. You face resistance, and it's disheartening. I hear you! That's why I want to share three change truths and 12 ways to respond to objections raised by classic change resisters. Your goal is to shift your expectations and better address objections, so you can maintain your commitment to the change and gain traction.
My three change truths:
- In most cases, you don't need "everybody" to buy in, "everyone" to undertake the change, or "all" of any group to agree. You need one person, one client or a small pilot group willing to meet, plan and test the change, develop a proof of concept, and then produce some early positive results to attract the next change group. Over-focusing on the resisters in the early stages of change can derail your efforts.
- Change is always easier to effect with an intelligent strategy and persistent communication. Answering the question "why must we change?" is critical. Explain market drivers, who else is changing, the benefits of changing, and the risks of resisting. Do the thinking, planning, and communicating. And then communicate some more. For more guidance on strategies to drive change more effectively, read my JofA article "Managing Change Successfully."
- All change will meet at least some resistance. Being surprised, disappointed, or frustrated is futile and drains the energy you need to drive the change. Expect resistance. Anticipate objections. Remain positive, professional, and open to feedback in the face of detractors and complainers. Doing otherwise can make you, rather than your change, the subject of discussion and can generate negativity on your team. Positivity is much more attractive.
To address the 12 most common objections to change, consider these responses:
Objection: We don't have time for this!
Response: Sometimes we have to make time for things that are important and strategic, even when we don't feel like we have time to spare. What are we committed to as a group? Consider the Jim Rohn quote, "If you really want to do something, you'll find a way. If you don't, you'll find an excuse." We can always put off change because of timing, but will we have time for lost talent or clients later if we don't make this change?
Objection: This will cost too much! We don't have the budget for this!
Response: We have considered the cost/benefit of this change and believe that the cost of not changing — risk of lost clients or talent — is greater than the investment required to make this change. We cannot afford not to change.
Objection: It won't work!
Response: How do we know if we don't try? Or: It is working for [names the firms]. Why wouldn't it work for us?
Objection: We tried that once and it didn't work.
Response: Yes, and that was in the past. Things are different now. Based on what's happening in the market, we should try again.
Objection: What if the technology fails?
Response: That's always a risk. But people feared technology failure when moving to computerized accounting, and now that's the standard. Some resisted going paperless, but it's now the norm. Others have been afraid of moving to the cloud, but its adoption is growing daily. Technology may be imperfect, especially early on, but it will eventually improve upon the way we do things now. And if we wait until the technology is fully mature, we risk being at a competitive disadvantage.
Objection: I don't want to personally make this change.
Response: As leaders, we each have to put our selfish interests aside and do what is best for the firm (or our clients, or our people). We don't expect you to be at the leading edge of this change, and we will start with others first. But eventually you'll be asked to come along.
Objection: We've always done it this way.
Response: And the way we have done it has worked well for a long time. But our market is maturing, our competitors are embracing change, and our clients and people expect it. We cannot rest on the way it was, we must innovate and create a new, better way.
Objection: If it isn't broken, why fix it?
Response: It may not be broken, but waiting until it is broken will surely put us at a disadvantage.
Objection: Can't we just take a year off from significant change?
Response: Only if the market, clients, referral sources, our talent, and technologists rest. And with the biggest demographic — and associated responsibility and wealth — shift ever seen in our country upon us, we know that the market will not rest. We don't have to change everything at once, but we do have to drive strategic change every year to compete and remain relevant.
Objection: If I have to change, then everyone else has to, too.
Response: Over time, everyone will change, but we are initiating change in a specific order. We'd like your group to change now, and we'll focus on others later.
Objection: Why do I have to share in the change investment when I'm retiring in a few years?
Response: The value of the firm can be adversely affected if we don't invest, keep current, and change to be competitive. Putting off change until some stakeholders retire will put us at risk of not being competitive. As an existing stakeholder with compensation and/or a buy/sell tied to the firm's well-being, it is important that you invest in this change to maintain the health of your investment.
Objection: I don't feel like I was consulted prior to the decision about this change. How can you be sure it will work for me/my group/my clients?
Response: This change was vetted by a smaller test group or by a specific person or client, and we're glad to now get your input. As part of your change process, we welcome feedback on how we can minimize disruption and maximize the benefit to you/your group/your clients.
Change is not optional. Accept my three change truths and practice using the 12 techniques for handling objections. When you do, you'll accelerate your firm's rate of change and ensure your overall sustainability.
Jennifer Wilson is a partner and co-founder of ConvergenceCoaching LLC, a leadership and management consulting and coaching firm that helps leaders achieve success. Learn more about the company and its services at www.convergencecoaching.com.