Leaders Initiate Change

This is a continuation of my blog post titled Change Management Framework. This content also comes from my Master’s thesis. This part of my thesis describes the three waves of change that leaders initiate in the first three years on the job. This section provides the evidence for Nadler and Tushman’s (1993) change management framework.

This section references a survey by Kepner-Tregoe of 182 senior executives. It also presents Gabarro’s three-wave explanation on the changes that new managers make in their first three years on the job. I am leaving out most of the details of Finkelstein and Hambrick’s review of high-discretion organizations.

My thesis is titled: The Relationship Between Leadership and Change Management.

Leaders Initiate Change

In a survey by Kepner-Tregoe of 182 senior executives, nearly nine in ten executives had undertaken more than five major initiatives in five years (Kepner Tregoe, 1994, p.9).  The table below displays the initiatives mentioned most often in the survey results.

Table 3: Initiatives in the Past Five Years (p.12)

Initiative % of Executives
Setting/implementing strategy


Empowerment/employee involvement


Downsizing/cost reduction


Customer service improvement




Productivity improvement


Gabarro proposed a three-wave phenomenon to represent the relationship between changes new managers make in their first three years on the job (Gabarro, 1987, p.15).  The three waves generally peaked at between 3 and 6 months, 15 and 20 months and 27 and 30 months (See Figure 2).  Gabarro also reported that the second wave was typically the largest and the third wave was the smallest.  Managers allow changes to play out after initiation.  Managers also take time to watch and review the impact of the changes.  Thus, the first wave of changes take place while the manager is still learning about the new organization and applying their previous experience to the situation.  During the second wave of changes, the manager has a greater knowledge of the organization and a new understanding of the situation.  The manager also takes into consideration their success and failures from the first wave.  Thus, the second wave is much greater than the first.  In the remaining years, the managers make only minor changes, or fine-tuning, to their organization.  Gabarro noted that the managers started at different times of the fiscal year and that budget and reporting cycles did not seem to influence the three-wave pattern.

Figure 1: Average Number of Organizational Changes per Three-Month Period Following Succession (p.16)


Gabarro based his research on three sets of field studies over three years involving seventeen management successions of general managers and functional managers in organizations in the United States and Europe (p.3).  While the Kepner-Tregor research shows that senior executives implement changes regularly over time, the Gabarro research provides a pattern to the changes.

In a 1996 study of top executives, Finkelstein and Hambrick examined the relationship between executive tenure and organizational strategy (Finkelstein and Hambrick, 1996, p.86). Finkelstein and Hambrick reference Gabarro’s 1987 study noting that almost all of the actions taken by new managers occur in the first two and one-half years in office (p.86). Finkelstein and Hambrick proposed that there are five seasons in a Chief Executive Officer’s (CEO) tenure (p.83). The first three seasons last one to two years each. In the first season, a CEO responds to a mandate. The CEO is committed to a particular paradigm or standard. The CEO has a high degree of task interest, but a low and rapidly increasing knowledge of the task. In the second season, the CEO may or may not be as committed to the same paradigm. The CEO may experiment during this time. The CEO still has a high degree of task interest and a moderate and increasing knowledge of the task. In the third season, the CEO selects an enduring theme. The CEO’s task interest remains moderately high and remains committed to their paradigm. The CEO’s task knowledge is now high and only slightly increasing. In the fourth season (lasting three to five years), the CEO enters a period of convergence. The CEO is now strongly committed to the paradigm with a moderately high degree of task interest. In the final season (all remaining years), the CEO may enter a period of dysfunction. They remain highly committed to their paradigm with a high degree of task knowledge. However, their interest in the task is moderately low and diminishing. The generalizations from this particular study are limited because only CEOs were involved in the sample. Furthermore, it does not distinguish between organizations and industries. However, it provides further evidence that leaders implement strategic changes early in their tenure and later made few changes.

Relationship between Finkelstein and Hambrick studies and the Change Management Framework

The Finkelstein and Hambrick studies (1987, 1990, 1996) are relevant because they show a positive relationship between leaders and strategic change. First, they indicate that leaders tend to initiate change early in their tenure and then taper off. Second, especially the 1987 and 1990 studies indicate that high-discretion organizations, such as those in the computer industry, offer a greater degree of latitude to leaders to implement strategic change. Thus, the computer industry is a good choice for analyzing the relationship between leadership and change management. Combining the Finkelstein and Hambrick studies (1987, 1990, 1996) with the change management framework thus helps to identify two issues:
1. the types of changes that leaders make and
2. where these changes fit into the tenure of a leader

Finkelstein, S. & Hambrick, D.C. “Top-Management Team Tenure and Organizational Outcomes: The Moderating Role of Managerial Discretion”. (September, 1990). Administrative Science Quarterly v35 n3 p484(20).

Finkelstein, S. & Hambrick, D.C. (1996). Strategic leadership: Top executives and their effects on organizations. St.Paul, MN: West Publishing Company.

Gabarro, J. J. (1987). The dynamics of taking charge. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Kepner –Tregoe, Inc. (April 1994).  House divided: Views on change from top management and their employees. Princeton, New Jersey.


One thought on “Leaders Initiate Change

  1. Pingback: Change Management Framework | Randy's Migration Blog

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