Last summer, I saw what I’ve learned from over two decades as a private equity insider simplified in a way that only a group of 15-year-olds could pull off.

It happened on my son’s Boy Scout trip to Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico. Now, this isn’t just a place for s’mores and campfire songs. Philmont sprawls over 140,000 acres of rugged wilderness and is the mecca for Boy Scouts looking to find out what kind of stuff they’re really made of.

The highlight of this particular trip was a multi-day backpacking trek through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Everything you need for this excursion, you carry on your back. And you better limit yourself to only the essentials because the last thing you need out there is extra “baggage.”

These mountains test Scouts physically and mentally, putting them through the full gamut of emotions—from fear and anger to homesickness and sadness. But in the end, every individual and every team experiences a feeling of accomplishment. And that feeling is pretty damn magical.

Throughout my career, I’ve strived to harness that feeling for my clients. I do this by facilitating change, whether it’s through strategic sourcing, supply chain management, or something else entirely.

The bottom line is this: To make a real impact, you have to step outside of your comfort zone. You can’t expect to reach the mountaintop if you never leave the familiar confines of your neighborhood park. You have to challenge the status quo. You have to evolve. You have to change.

But change is hard—especially within an organization. If change happens too quickly, it may be based on rash decisions without enough information and thought. If it happens too slowly, it leads to overthought, stagnation, or decisions based on outdated information.

In some ways, implementing change is like launching a rocket: Both involve careful decision-making and a small window of opportunity to take action. For my most successful clients, that change occurs in five mission-critical phases.

1. The mindset for change

One of my mentors always said, “Vision precedes everything.” As a business leader, you have the vision. Now, you need to communicate why your vision will succeed and why change is necessary to fulfill it. You don’t need total buy-in right away. The goal is to encourage open-mindedness and set the stage for a collaborative path ahead. 

It won’t be easy, though. You’ll need to prepare for the “fear” to seep in when introducing this change to your front line.  

For example, let’s say we want to switch to a more cost-effective supplier. This change brings about a plethora of anxieties. What if the supplier does a bad job? What if they don’t ship on time? What if the quality stinks? Am I going to get fired? These are the questions your employees will ask themselves at the onset.  

As a leader, one of the most important things you can do is proactively accept responsibility. Let your employees know that if your vision falls flat, it’s on you. And whatever happens, your team needs to trust that you’ll listen to them and value their feedback so long as they keep an open mind.

2. Investigation

If living in the “Show Me State” has taught me anything, it’s that whatever “it” is, people won’t believe it until you prove it to them. Even though, by this point, you’ve convinced your employees to meet you with an open mind, you still need to outline a scientific process where you thoroughly test your hypotheses (e.g., cost-saving measures by changing suppliers).

3. Proof of Concept 

Don’t worry about proving your overall vision right away. Instead, focus on quick wins that build trust and momentum as you climb the mountain toward your ultimate goal.

Be deliberate. Flip over every stone you encounter to see if you find gold. But do it methodically, starting with the big rocks first (or the hypotheses that have the greatest chance for success). Then, discuss the evidence with your team to solidify buy-in and celebrate the little hills you have climbed together.

4. Knives out 

At this point, you’ve had some small wins. That won’t matter to everyone, though. Some people have been sitting on the sidelines with their arms folded, waiting for you to fail. The fact that, so far, you’ve done the opposite will encourage them to express their doubts and concerns more forcefully.

In other words, the knives come out as the vocal opposition tries to poke holes in your plan. How you respond to this resistance—whether you retreat, compromise, or resist—will significantly impact the trajectory of your desired change.

But don’t be afraid of this step. Healthy pushback is critical to “getting it right.” Working as a team to address potential issues leads to a better result and helps individuals feel heard. The key here is to have an attitude of “what needs to be true for this to succeed” rather than “why this won’t work.” The leader’s responsibility is to help the team stay positive and have an attitude of success.

5. The “aha” moment 

We arrive at the mountaintop when your team has reached its collective “aha” moment. By now, you have proven why change was necessary through a series of quick wins and earned your team’s trust in the process.

Your team realizes that your plan worked. And they didn’t return from the journey battered and bruised either. In fact, it wasn’t even a painful process at all in hindsight.

Most importantly, the entire organization has confidence that if your plan worked this time, it will work again. And because you’ve all been through it together once, it will be even easier next time. You might even have some fun in the process.

 

Nate Overboe is a managing partner and client engagement lead at Forsyth Advisors. Since co-founding the firm in 2011, Nate has worked with clients with revenues ranging from $7 million to over $500 million. He has worked across a wide spectrum of industries, including consumer products, heavy industrial, and medical, delivering over $1 billion of annual profit improvement.

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