Leading Organizations Through Change, Part 2

Photo by Tony Greco.

By Jacob McAfee

For Part 1 of this series, click HERE

The more you communicate and show transparency along the way, the more landmines you dodge in the process. Although there will be hesitation and even outright pushback well before anything is changed, being honest and transparent builds trust and fosters a sense of reassurance.

Once the stage has been set and foundational trust developed through interaction, observation, and communication, you may be ready to start leading through change. As you move through the stages, make sure to complete them in order. Also, be successful at each stage before moving on to the next. Moving from one stage to the next too fast or without knowing whether that stage has been successful can lead to failure.

“People have to buy into the leader before they buy into their vision.”1


Following eight stages of change help create a framework from which to work as you focus on people to make change successful:

  1. Create a sense of urgency.
  2. Form a guiding coalition.
  3. Develop a vision and strategy.
  4. Communicate the change vision.
  5. Empower employees.
  6. Generate short-term wins.
  7. Consolidate gains and produce more change.
  8. Anchoring new approaches.


Creating a Sense of Urgency

Because this is the first step in the process, not ensuring your team has done a complete job of communicating the urgency for change can lead to failure from the start. Many times, leaders underestimate the effort and commitment that creating change requires. Creating a sense of urgency takes humility, vision, action, relationships, and a willingness for your members to go well beyond what’s listed in the description of their position.

“Creating a sense of urgency is possibly the most crucial step in the process. In fact, 50 percent of change initiatives fail here.”2


No matter your department’s size, the number of members needed to invest in and produce significant change outside of their traditional roles may be as high as 25 percent of the workforce (Kotter, 2012). Whatever the change is—staffing, accreditation, uniforms, additional duties, service delivery, and so on—you have to make it seem as if NOT CHANGING is more dangerous than change itself.

Strategies for creating a sense of urgency include the following:

  1. Be honest and transparent on where you stand as an organization.
  2. Base the need for change on an identified gap.
  3. Do not have a personal agenda and remain focused on the people.
  4. Have perspective.
  5. Address the most important thing to each member—his own security.
  6. Communicate WHY change is needed.
  7. Remove obstacles.
  8. Accept your “piece of the mess” and face issues together.
  9. Set the mood by establishing trust and empathy.


Creating a Guiding Coalition

Nothing we do will be successful alone; our success is based on how the fire service acts like an effective team centered on people driving toward the same mission, vision, and values. Successful change-effort coalitions must span across various levels of influence in the organization. Revisit the purpose and WHYs of these groups frequently, and don’t allow time and firehouse rumors to tear apart your coalitions. Following are several ways to identify the various factions in your department and their reasons for or against change to help you be successful and create a guiding coalition:

  1. Understand the perspective of various factions in your organization.
  2. Engage all stakeholders across those factions.
  3. Use strength-based leadership. Engaging various factions across the department and using the strengths of your team will accelerate your progress. High-performing teams use the strengths of each team member to complement each other to achieve a common goal.
  4. Keep members engaged and frequently communicate with them.
  5. Empower members to tell stories of their transition and how it benefits members and the organization.
  6. Ensure change agents are at every level.
  7. Focus on the proponents, not the opponents.


Create a Vision

What is a vision? A vision is a picture of where you or the organization strives to be. The vision is typically accompanied by WHY people should chase that future. The leader of any organization should be committed and passionate about the vision, and he has prepared and built trust among the members to have greater success.

Three things affect people’s intuition to follow a leader are trust, hope, and vision. A quality vision does the following:

  1. Clearly articulates the end state.
  2. Excites/motivates people to take action.
  3. Coordinates people’s actions.
  4. Makes goals seem realistic and attainable.
  5. Is tied to the mission and values.
  6. Relates to all members (what’s in it for them?).
  7. Changes hearts and minds.


Communicate the Vision

The first step in communicating the vision is for leaders to lead by example. Communication at any event or at any level is the common reason for failure. To communicate the vision appropriately, consider the following tips:


  1. Use all type of communication (verbal, electronic, social media, written, newspapers, and so on).
  2. Communicate face to face.
  3. When communicating the vision, stimulate emotion and be empathetic.
  4. Be clear, concise, frequent, and consistent. Confusing and inconsistent messages can cause strife and influences people to lose interest.
  5. Use your vision to drive the department.
  6. Don’t overcommunicate and under-deliver (communicating the vision should have actionable meaning).
  7. Don’t make the vision complicated or unrealistic.
  8. Guard against “leadership fade.” Communicating the vision appropriately takes work, especially if you get out in front. Since change can be a physically and an emotionally taxing endeavor, leadership fade can creep in.


Empowering Others to Take Action

As discussed previously, no significant change initiative is successful on its own. Empowering your employees to take action is the only way to be successful. However, be aware of the “danger zone.” In the fire service, we tend to give projects or tasks to our “go-getters” because we know they will get it done. This can overload the most motivated and skilled employee quickly, increasing the chance of burnout. So, this must be a team effort.

When empowering others, ensure they understand the expectations and be at peace with the fact that they may not do something quite the way you would do it. Let them work; if they run into issues, provide support and guidance, and give the work back to them as soon as possible. If the outcome is not what was expected, ensure a positive learning environment, take advantage of the training/mentoring opportunity, and find a way to get members back grinding on their own to foster that positive, safe environment that encourages innovation and employee engagement without fear of reprisal. Tips to empower others to take action include:

  1. Encourage risk taking.
  2. Set expectations. Empowering without expectations can backfire if there are competing visions.
  3. Eliminate obstacles to change and make efforts compatible with the vision.
  4. Follow through with the members’ efforts.
  5. Acknowledge losses.
  6. Share success publicly.
  7. Mentor and coach toward success. Provide training and foster an environment of trust and support or your people will feel disempowered.
  8. The best ideas must win. Listen to your members, be open minded, and ask their opinions.
  9. To prevent backsliding, follow up on goals and offer any necessary support.
  10. Don’t micromanage.
  11. Confront supervisors who undercut change.


Generating Short-Term Wins

Change is a long process that takes a significant emotional and physical investment to succeed. Recognizing “short-term” wins along this journey is critical to feeling as if action toward the vision is occurring and efforts are paying off. Talking about goal accomplishments will help people recognize that you are working toward the same thing. Acknowledge short-terms wins publicly by describing how the most recent win has further progressed the agenda, helped the organization, and improved the situation for the people. This will enhance the buy-in from the members and turn the “fence sitters” into believers.

Generate a consistent progress report that recognizes the team’s success and individual efforts. Depending on the change effort, I create a 30- to 90-day progress report that I brief at a department level. These reports take place at a department where recognition is awarded and questions answered. Typically, these events are informal; I usually have a cook-out for the department following the brief and offer follow-up recognition. Consider removing the crews from any nonemergent tasks for the remainder of that day; everyone needs a recharge.

Following are some strategies for successful goal recognition:

  1. Involve leaders.
  2. Set goals that foster improvement and recognize effort.
  3. Pace your work.
  4. Be creative in the recognition process and show appreciation publicly.
  5. Show the success and impact of the change efforts.
  6. Focus on collective performance.
  7. Use a variety of methods to communicate success.


Consolidate Wins and Create More Change

As short-term goals become a reality, capitalize on those wins to foster excitement and create more change in your department. The momentum gained from success and the employees’ realization that the change has been positive can make them feel better about their positions. This confidence will help people think clearly and openly and give new ideas a chance to succeed. Until change sinks deeply into a company’s culture, new approaches are fragile and subject to regression. Remember, anchoring change can take five to 10 years. Instead of declaring victory, leaders of successful change efforts use the credibility afforded by the short-term wins to tackle even bigger problems; they typically go after systems and structures that are not consistent with the transformation vision.

Frequent mistakes in this phase are consolidating wins and feeling the “pulse” of your people before further change is initiated, reinforcing change too early, thinking short term, not using a crew resource management approach to assess the pulse of change, and having initiatives that are too lofty. For change to be effective and receptive on a consistent basis, it must have had a positive effect over time. One success does not ensure future readiness.


Anchoring New Approaches

When organizational change sticks, it becomes “the way we do things around here.” When it seeps into the organizational body, and new behaviors are then rooted in social norms and shared values, change is setting in. Here, you will need to employ strategies to ensure leadership development and succession planning for long-term sustainment. Don’t let the initial feeling of success cause you to lose sight of the overall objective and inflate your ego.

The following factors are particularly important to institutionalizing change:

  • Creating a relationship between changed behaviors and organizational success/progress.
  • Showing how new approaches, behaviors, and attitudes have helped improve performance (management meetings, newsletters, other forms of organizational communications).
  • Ensuring that the next generation of top management personifies the new approach.
  • Determining if change is more difficult than planned. Look up, not down; top-level management is the most common reason for failure and insertion of barriers.
  • Remember, each step is the foundation for the other. You may need to continually evaluate each step before moving on to ensure their impact.
  • Knowing that you have anchored change is to have it succeed when you are gone.


20 Common Sense Tips for Successful Change

  1. Know your workforce.
  2. Lead by example.
  3. Relate the benefit to members’ well-being.
  4. Understand members’ perspectives.
  5. Meet disruptions head-on with transparent, frank, and data-driven discussion.
  6. To work the change must be about what members love. People generally see change as always about “me,” “my stuff,” and “my feelings first.”
  7. Behave consistently with your people’s goals, needs, and values in mind.
  8. Identify the champions, allies, fence sitters, mellow opponents, and hardcore opponents early.
  9. You will only be successful with a TEAM approach.
  10. Never let personal opinion influence change.
  11. Take advantage of momentum and empower your people to do great things.
  12. You can never communicate enough.
  13. Champion your cause, be out in front, and be public about it.
  14. Continually assess each phase before moving to the next.
  15. Publicize short-term wins and extraordinary efforts.
  16. Stay connected, be transparent, and be open for discussion.
  17. Understand that change starts at the top but is anchored at the bottom.
  18. Remember, everyone changes at a difference pace.
  19. Frequently move out to “the balcony.”
  20. Build coalitions at all levels.


Ultimately, It’s Up to You!

No matter the profession or trade, change is happening all around us. As you initiate change, remember that people take on the characteristics of the leader. Focus on building the team, communicating often, and educating and mentoring along the way. Change is about dealing with adaptive challenges; to stay ahead of problems and predict behaviors, frequently move up to the balcony.

“Down in the weeds,” everything can seem chaotic and disorganized. “Moving up to the balcony” allows you to see from an elevated position across the organization. Overall, success means understanding your people and your organization.

Remember how you felt the last time something changed in your life? Plan to address those same needs for your employees. If something seems off, gather your team and assess the phase you are in. Perhaps you underestimated the process and need to go back and shore up the previous phase before moving on. Whether you use this approach to foster change or not, it’s coming. So, be prepared.



  1. Maxwell J. (2007). The 21 Irrefutable laws of leadership (10th Ed). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc.  
  2. Kotter J. (2012). “Leading organizations through change.” Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.
  3. Fitzgerald I. (2005). “The death of corporatism? Managing change in the fire service”. Personnel Review, 34(6), 648-662. doi.org/10.1108/00483480510623448.
  4. Odagiu C. (2013). “Organizational culture, change management and performance. Managerial Challenges of the Contemporary Society.” Proceedings, (6, 1).


Jacob McAfee, MS, CFO, CTO, MIFreE is a 19-year fire service veteran and the chief of the Fresno City College (FCC) Fire Academy and director of Fire Technology programs. He is a former fire chief for the Department of Defense (DoD). McAfee has served as chief, assistant chief (AC) of training, AC of fire prevention, and AC of operations. He is also a United States Marine Corps veteran, beginning his professional service in Yuma, Arizona, and going on to serve in Iraq from January to October in 2003. On return from deployment, McAfee was stationed at Camp Pendleton in California to serve as AC of operations before deploying to Iraq again in 2006. After honorably completing his military service in 2007, McAfee entered the DoD federal fire service for the Department of the Navy (DoN) at NAWS China Lake in 2008. He worked for the DoD as a fire service professional for the Marine Corps, the Air Force, and the Army.

McAfee is a registered instructor for the California State Fire Marshal’s Office and the California Specialized Training Institute, where he teaches hazardous materials, intermediate and advanced incident command system, swiftwater rescue, urban search and rescue, and technical rescue. He completed the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program (EFOP), and has Chief Fire Officer (CFO) and Chief Training Officer (CTO) credentials from the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE). In addition, McAfee reviews CFO credential applications and serves as the mentoring curricula subject matter expert for the CPSE. He has completed the Harvard Kennedy School of Executive Education’s “Strategic Frameworks for Nonprofit/Nongovernmental Organizations” class and serves on the professional development and education committee with the Institute of Fire Engineers as a member grade.

As a certified peer fitness trainer through the American Council on Exercise, he developed and implemented the IAFF/IAFC Wellness Fitness Initiative at multiple departments. McAfee is fire service author who has been published in Fire Engineering and other fire service periodicals and has presented nationally for ARFF operations. He has master’s degrees in occupational safety and health and emergency management while currently pursuing his PhD in emergency management with Capella University.