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Driving engagement through organizational transformation or: How to engage the elephant

Lars Linnekogel
Lars Linnekogel

Today’s economic environment presents numerous challenges to business leaders. They constantly face new competitors disrupting their industry with innovative products and business solutions that outperform existing models and increase cost pressure. As this happens, the need for change arises.

The responsibility lies with the organizational leaders to drive the needed transformation of their companies and to ensure their operating model is set up in a way that it can not only cope with volatile business environments, but that actually brings their company ahead of the competition and ensures its future success.

It is a challenge to tackle this endeavor. The question is how do you create the mindset and engagement that is needed to change the way of working for 1,000+ employees? Simple: you have to engage the elephant!

The elephant metaphor for transforming organizations

When looking at transforming organizations, we like to refer to the elephant-rider metaphor. The vision for transformation usually originates from a small group within an organization. This small group, usually the company’s C-level team, has the vision to develop the future path for the organization. We refer to this small group as the elephant rider.

The big body of the organization, entailing all employees across different functions and locations, is now encouraged to follow the leadership’s direction, while not having the same oversight and perspective – just like the elephant.

Besides the information asymmetry, the elephant might also have a different idea of where to go, as the new path leads to unknown territory. The bigger the elephant and the bigger the uncertainty connected to the direction set, the less you can expect the elephant to be excited about leaving the known path and walking in the new direction.

However, the rider needs the elephant; its wisdom, experience and strength to reach the envisioned goal. Only when working together, both rider and elephant, will they arrive where they need to go. So, here comes the next question:

How does one engage the elephant?

In my experience, there are six key steps we take in order to engage the organization:

1. Mind your target group

The image of an elephant makes us think of the organization to be changed as one cohesive organism. However, in order to address your organization in the right way, you need to break it down by department, hierarchy level and location, among others. Depending on those and many other factors, your employees will have different motives and motivators. Thinking this through in detail is key to successful engagement.

2. Carrot beats stick

There are various ways to get your organization to change. Two basic models are the “carrot” – incentives and positive motivators. Alternatively, you can rely on the “stick” – the directive approach of enforcing directions, at the cost of decreasing motivation. In your effort, rely as much as possible on the carrot.

3. Communication is good, fair communication is better

One important way to use the carrot in a better way is to ensure a Fair Process. We recommend structuring the communication process according to the Fair Process method.

Communication that follows a Fair Process enables management to make comprehensive changes without compromising the trust of its employees. In change management, Fair Process consists of three principles:

  • Engagement: Employees are involved in brainstorming and help to evaluate the changes that directly affect them. They have the opportunity to express their thoughts, doubts and fears on the proposed changes.
  • Explanation: Management explains the reasons that led to the decision to their employees. Every affected employee should be able to understand the underlying rationale for the change.
  • Expectation clarity: All employees are informed of the new rules of the game from the outset. Every employee should be able to anticipate which new expectations, goals and responsibilities are in store for them.

Making your communication flow fairly also means making it a two-way street, with communication flowing from top to bottom and from bottom to top. This brings up some challenges, especially in transformation projects that come with negative implications, like lay-offs or shift and lift of roles. In order to be able to handle the stress of such a project, the next action step is crucial.

4. Ensure sufficient support for operational leaders

A big transformation is usually the sum of a large number of efforts. Each of these need to be developed and implemented by someone who has not only the management skills but also the operational expertise in his/her department. The better those leaders operate, the more successful your efforts to transform will be. Targeted support can be a big success factor. This can entail general project management training, but also targeted feedback or 1:1 coaching support.

Research shows that providing leaders with support and feedback can improve their coping capabilities for work-related stress and increase their work engagement. Setting up a coaching or mentoring program to support project leaders in the implementation phase is a well-proven way to ensure the successful delivery of the overall program, as the sum of many smaller efforts.

5. Support your leaders in fostering engagement

While you cannot have coaching and mentoring sessions for each employee involved in the transformation projects, you can enable your transformation’s project leader to engage their direct team members. Giving them tools and frameworks on how to support their colleagues in the change process will not only pay off for the project’s outcome, it will also support your project leaders in feeling more in control of leading their team members through uncertainty.

Make sure to customize the efforts to the focus areas of your transformation. If you are looking into digitalizing your processes, your training wants to focus on how to foster new ways of working and the usage of digital tools. If the transformation project teams will face a lot of resistance and negative emotions about the transformation from the rest of the organization, you want to focus on enabling positive emotions and uniting the different target groups. While you can trust your project leaders to foster engagement in their teams, there might be certain individuals who need some special attention, as described in action step number four.

6. Create stickiness for employees you want to keep

As mentioned before, the elephant consists of many groups that, in the end, all have to walk and work in the same direction. That’s why you want to make sure not to lose the ones important for progressing right now and on the way forward. Therefore, we recommend taking a moment and asking:

  • Who is important for making the transformation a success?
  • Who is important for the organization after the successful transformation?

Answering these questions will make you aware of who you want to keep for your organization. In order to ensure their commitment, you can deploy a variety of measures and gestures. For some, having a coffee chat will make them feel seen and committed; others might look for a career development plan or an additional bonus payment for their great work. Whatever you do, make sure that it does not seem staged but comes across as a true expression of your appreciation.


For the C-level, being the elephant rider, engaging the elephant and therefore their organization is not only about sharing a vision of how the organization will look like after the successful transformation of their company or business unit. It is about enabling the elephant to walk through unknown territory, being aware of the elephant’s fears, taking its wisdom into account and rewarding the elephant for every major step.

Get our support for your next transformation project!

We bring know-how and a fresh view of your company’s internal dynamics, and support you personally in your current challenges. As a reliable partner, we are 100% there for you in both the fact-based and the soft, emotional aspects of strategic transformation. Get in touch with us and experience the difference!



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