All Articles Leadership Inspiration Jennifer Chatman, on how cohesive leadership drives effective change

Jennifer Chatman, on how cohesive leadership drives effective change

4 min read


Major change within an organization is easier to lead if leaders at all levels of the company are collectively committed, found a recent study, “How leadership matters: The effects of leaders’ alignment on strategy implementation.” Published in The Leadership Quarterly, the paper was co-authored by Jennifer Chatman, a professor at the Haas School of Business in the University of California, Berkeley and chair of the Haas Management of Organizations Group. SmartBrief’s Doris Nhan spoke with Chatman to learn more about what her research means for business leaders.

Where did you come up with the basis for this study?

We were concerned that despite the voluminous research on leadership, all of it had focused on single leaders and their effectiveness. When multiple leaders had been studied, it was always the executive team — everyone at the same (senior) level of the organization. We were interested in understanding how the leadership team, across levels, influenced organizational effectiveness and particularly an organization’s ability to make change.

What new insights do you think your study adds to the conversation about leadership, initiating change within a company and staying successful?

Our research really points to the importance of recognizing that change takes the commitment of all leaders in an organization. If leaders are not committed to the change, it will be too easy for members to resist that change.

Your research concluded that effective change occurs through successful senior leadership. What are some tangible steps that a senior leader should take to implement change throughout the company?

Our research suggests that it is critically important for senior leaders to recognize how important it is for leaders through all ranks in the organization to be clear about and committed to the change. Our research suggests that a significant amount of time and effort should be devoted to convincing leaders at all levels of the organization that the change is necessary and desirable. While this is not necessarily a brand new revelation, our research underscores the importance of these influence characteristics.

What are the study’s nuances that managers should be aware of? For example, are the results of this study something that is applicable to companies of all sizes? Should leaders of a giant corporation take the same lead as a smaller non-profit group of 10?

Though we would be reaching to say that this study applies to all organizations, the logic seems to make sense across the board. If you want to speed up and insure major organizational changes, you need to gain the commitment of leaders across levels of the organization.

What’s the biggest mistake that someone could make while they execute change within a company? How do senior leaders avoid it?

Assuming that the change makes as much sense to everyone else as it does to him/her. Senior leaders overestimate how much information and clarity others in the organization have about the context that those senior leaders operate in. Without bringing these perspectives alive for all leaders – such as competitive threats and opportunities, customer interests, and relevant technological developments — those leaders have no reason to think that change is necessary or desirable. Senior leaders massively underestimate how much time they need to spend selling and reiterating the change throughout the organization.

Is there such a thing as being “too committed”? In other words, is there a possibility that an overenthusiastic leader might discourage employees from embracing change initiatives?

There is such a thing as being close-minded about the change — that’s a problem — if the leader has not gathered enough information and included enough perspectives on the change before deciding what to do. That is during the change formulation stage. But during the change implementation stage, I think it’s hard to be too enthusiastic. Change takes an enormous amount of time and focus — that’s the clear message here!

Did we miss any other key elements to implementing change in a company? Share your stories with us.