top of page


Episode 98: Mastering Change Management—with April Callis-Birchmeier

Deb Zahn: Hi. I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting podcast. So this episode is all about change. It's all about how you can actually help your clients achieve the changes that they're trying to achieve and manage that change along the process so that it actually happens so they're delighted instead of frustrated.

So change management is the topic. I brought on an absolute expert in this, April Callis-Birchmeyer who's from Springboard Consulting. She is just a gem filled expert when it comes to how to do change management. And we break down some of the key techniques and strategies that she uses when she's working with clients. You could easily grab two or three of those today. Start using them with your clients. And they're going to be delighted. So let's get started.

Hi. I want to welcome my guest today, April Callis-Birchmeyer. April, welcome to the show.

April Callis-Birchmeier: Thank you so much. I'm really excited to be here.

Deb Zahn: And I'm excited to have you because, as I told you before, when it comes to change, which is what we're going to talk about, I am a complete giddy nerd talking about this. So I am so ready for this. But let's start off. Tell my listeners what you do.

April Callis-Birchmeier: Well, I'm a certified change management expert. I have a consulting group that focuses on change management. So I have a PMP. I'm also a project manager. But my main focus is change management.

Deb Zahn: That's wonderful. Now for those who don't know what it means, define change management.

April Callis-Birchmeier: Oh, this is my favorite thing because I didn't know what it meant when I went to get involved in change management. But it's really...change management. Well, there's two definitions. One definition is from the Association of Change Management Professionals. And we say that change is a transitional process, which has the objective of moving an organization and its stakeholders from their current state to a future state.

Deb Zahn: Nice.

April Callis-Birchmeier: So that's like a theoretical definition. But honestly, as a consultant, as a change professional, I think of change management consulting as a combination—like the Venn diagram—if you will, of communication, training, and business process redesign. So the three of those things kind of come together and are able to bring your skills and abilities to help people in organizations move through change.

Deb Zahn: That's great. And because organizations are comprised of people, then that's why it almost doesn't matter what type of consulting you do. If humans are involved, then change management is important. And so that's why I wanted to have you on to talk about that.

So now I've seen, certainly, companies and organizations frustrated. And I'm sure you've seen this many times because you help solve it, where either they talked about change, and it didn't happen. Or consultants came in, and they have no faith anymore that change is actually going to have... So there's a lot of tension around change because people have been frustrated and disappointed so many times. So when you are first working with an organization, how do you help them understand that change is possible and there's a path to doing it?

April Callis-Birchmeier: That's an excellent question. Well, there's two pieces here. One piece is that when I first start working with an organization, I tried to block out the first couple of weeks to really be able to see things and report out to, at a high level, not to the supervisor who might be signing the time sheet or something, but at a high level to our executives, to our sponsors. I want to make sure that they're taking advantage of my fresh eyes because my fresh eyes don't last forever. They're short-lived. You become quickly adapted to the organization. You start to see the individuals involved instead of the structure and the system. So the first thing I do is I want to leverage that, what I call fresh-eyed period of time.

The other thing that I think is important to start with is really kind of understanding the history of what's gone on in that organization because some organizations have had relatively little change. There's an organization in the town I live in where the men all still wear vests and suits and ties to work every single day. And they're really proud of the fact that they've never hired anybody without a reference into the organization. So, kind of old school.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. Very old school.

April Callis-Birchmeier: And then there are organizations who changed so quickly and who seemed to have that flavor of the day, the program of a month. And then their folks usually are just rolling their eyes and waiting for you to go away so that they can get back into life as they prefer it.

Deb Zahn: That's right. They're running down the clock, as we like to say. Now it's funny, as you mentioned this, I have to admit—and I don't mean this in a sort of a negative way—I pictured Jane Goodall at sort of the early years before she started to get integrated, where you have to sit back and watch with fresh eyes and be able to see something that folks within the organization have become just accustomed to. So accustomed to it that they can't even see it anymore.

April Callis-Birchmeier: Yes. Yes. And that's...It's interesting to me because usually when I point these things out or I'll have a conversation with somebody around, "Well, this is what I'm starting to see." They're like, "Oh, I remember I noticed that a long time ago." But they have forgotten.

Deb Zahn: That's right.

April Callis-Birchmeier: They become one of the spokes in the gear, if you will.

Deb Zahn: That's right. That's right. So what comes next? So if you have your fresh eyes and you talk to the sponsors, the executives, whoever it is. What's the next step in getting them to move towards change?

April Callis-Birchmeier: Well, usually when I'm coming in to work with somebody, they have a change that they're already...Like, their executive team has made a decision. I'm not usually in the organization as a member of the organization to make those recommendations. So when I'm usually coming into an organization, they've already decided to make a change. I'm there to help them move through that change, implement the change. And so what I try to do first is to really understand the change and to speak with them and understand the benefit of the change to the organization. Because sometimes organizations start to change things without actually knowing why. They don't actually understand what they're getting, the benefit. And we cannot support change that is change for change's sake. We have to have a benefit from the change.

So that's the first piece I want to figure out. I want to think about, what is that benefit? And then I want to look at that benefit kind of in a multifaceted way and think about how can I make this benefit relevant and relatable to everybody who has to go through this change? Because when people have that understanding of a relevant and relatable benefit, they can get behind a change. It's when they don't know. When they just can't figure out why we are doing this. And no one can answer that question for them. That's when they become really resistant.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. I think of the example of, a lot of times clients that I've talked with. You want growth—often ill defined—but they want growth of some type. But they haven't gotten to that piece that you're talking about, which is what's the why behind that. And how is it going to help their organization or company. How is it going to help people's daily lives? And so people are like, "Oh, we're growing again, I guess. I'm not sure why, but that's happening."

April Callis-Birchmeier: Yes, yes. And I find that when people have a good understanding of that benefit, they can support change. People are resilient. We can manage it. But I think that so many times organizations and leaders really shoot themselves in the foot by not identifying that why, that benefit, in a way that can help people to really get on board.

Deb Zahn: Now, I know that one of your cornerstones of what you do is communication. So obviously, I would imagine you're finding that out because then there has to be a way to communicate that benefit in a way that actually resonates with people so that they can get behind it in the way you're describing. So what's key with that communication piece? Why is that one of the most important pieces?

April Callis-Birchmeier: Well, I think it's really interesting, Deb. The most recent Gallup Poll that was, I think, came out in 2020, and it wasn't for 2020. It was for like 2019. 2017 through 2019. But they suggested, and I agree, that people now need between 9 and 16 communication exposures before they understand an idea or something applies to them. It's ridiculous. Right? Because we used to say it was seven. Oh, marketing says 7 times. Sell someone 7 times. But now that we know it's 9 to 16 times because there's so much more noise...

Deb Zahn: Oh, yeah. Think of all the information that's coming at us all the time.

April Callis-Birchmeier: Yeah. You don't even know what applies to you. And all day long you get email. Nonstop email. And you think, "Is this an important email? Is this not an important email?" I'm the worst with email. It sits in my email box and I look at it and I have to decide. Like, is this something that I need to take action on? Is this something that can wait? Is this something important to me? And I have...we all have to make that decision. But it just overwhelms you at times.

So I think that knowing that and knowing that people need 9 to 16 times to hear a message before they really get it, that it applies to them. I think that it gives us even more impetus and more guidance on how to communicate with people. And honestly, what I have found is that when we tell people stories that they can relate to, they really get it. They're like, "Oh, that makes sense to me now." And we can talk to them all day long in jargon, technically, and in bullet points, and we won't get through to them the way that we can get through with a story.

Deb Zahn: Because what they hear is "Wah. Wah. Wah." So I think what you're suggesting is you would never tell a client, "Oh, just put it in a newsletter. You'll be good."

April Callis-Birchmeier: In fact, in my book, I had an approach called "just send an email,: which is what I hear all the time.

Deb Zahn: Oh, yeah. And you think that's communicating. And it isn't.

April Callis-Birchmeier: Yeah. Just send an email. Tell them the system changed. Oh, OK.

Deb Zahn: That's right. And then when it doesn't work, you say, "But I sent an email."

April Callis-Birchmeier: “I sent an email. How did you miss it?”

Deb Zahn: Wow. So that's powerful to know because again, a mistake I've seen a lot of clients make, and this is where consultants can come in handy to help them the right thing that's going to get them the outcome, is they will communicate it. Not even the 7 times that you're talking about, like, once or twice. Or they'll say things like, "Well, we don't know enough. So I'm going to wait to find out more before we say anything." And you're nodding your head, so I know you've seen that. So as consultants, what are the types of things that you do to help them understand how important that communication is? And it's not one shot. It's not two shots. It's in the range that you're talking about.

April Callis-Birchmeier: Well, a couple of things. One thing that I definitely always try to do is to build a communication plan so they can see here's all the vehicles we're looking at that we can use to communicate with because so many organizations already have so many communication vehicles. We just need to tap into them. We don't need to recreate them. And then I want to show them, like, here's all of the types of communication we need to send. Here's all of our stakeholder groups. Here's all of the people that need to hear this communication. Here's how frequently we need to send this to them. So I try to put together a visual plan for them to be able to take a look and understand.

I find that most executives like the matrix that I present more than the Word document that describes every type of conversation, every type of communication we're planning to use. So I do always create a communication matrix. And sometimes, we're creating many different communication matrix. Sometimes we have a series of letters that are going out. Sometimes we have a series of emails and social media and announcements. So it just depends on how complex those are and how detailed you have to create.

But the other thing I do try to remind people of is the fact that we're in this all the time. As a consultant, you're talking and thinking about the change or the event or whatever you're implementing all the time. So it's second nature to you. Every thought you have is sort of related to it. But there are people who have no idea that this is even happening and you have to just keep them in mind. They're out there just doing their jobs. They have no idea that this other thing is being created or headed their way. So I think trying to highlight that and to reiterate that to our executives and to remind them that not everybody has heard this message. Even though it feels like we have said it a billion times.

Deb Zahn: That's right. But we also largely say it to each other. One of the lessons I'm hearing is you can't keep it at the C-suite if it's a significant organizational change.

April Callis-Birchmeier: Correct. Absolutely.

Deb Zahn: Oh, that's great. So let's talk about the leaders because I know that's one of the other areas that you focus on because they play a particular role. And if not done well, they can inhibit or kill change. I've seen the kill shot before. I'm like, "Oh, ouch, ouch, ouch. Don't do that." So again, this is where I think consultants can be enormously helpful to get leaders to exhibit the focus and the consistent behaviors that we want to see. So how do you work with leaders and get them behind doing the right things to support change?

April Callis-Birchmeier: Well, I think leadership and sponsorship of change, which is where we have a leader who's "the one," who's accountable for that change. Right? Whose feet are in the fire, being held to the fire. I think that's just so critical in the success of change. And we talk about needing our sponsors to be very active and to be visible, to be seen and heard. But sometimes we forget that those sponsors don't necessarily know what that means. You know?

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

April Callis-Birchmeier: "What does it mean for me to be visible and heard? Am I supposed to walk down the hall and say, change is coming?"

Deb Zahn: "Hear ye. Hear ye." That's right.

April Callis-Birchmeier: What am I supposed to be doing as a sponsor? And I'll tell you, honestly, I had a client about four years ago, a woman who is sponsoring our change. And I said something to her about, "Well, I'll be meeting with you frequently."

She said, "Oh, I don't have time. I'm booked solid every day." And so then I thought to myself, well, I'll just see her at project meetings. Well, I went to three weeks of project meetings and never saw her because she wasn't coming because-

Deb Zahn: Yeah. She's busy.

April Callis-Birchmeier: She's busy. She wasn't lying. And I thought, well, shoot. She's not doing what I need her to do. This is terrible. And then it really dawned on me that she needed me. She needed my guidance to know-

Deb Zahn: How would she know? Yeah.

April Callis-Birchmeier: She had no idea. So I put 15 minutes on her calendar. I thought she can't possibly tell me she can't do 15 minutes a week. So I had her admin put 15 minutes on her calendar. I booked an hour and a half on my calendar because I figured I'd have to stand in the hallway.

Deb Zahn: Exactly.

April Callis-Birchmeier: And then I created a tool for her, and it was called "an engaging leader's brief.” And it was six little sections. And in each of these sections, I had three or four bullet points. And that was it. A lot of white space. And so I had...The first section was "communication this week" and it had three or four bullets of what we were sending out that week.

Communication next week, three or four bullets of what we're sending out. The middle section had activities this week. And it was basically like a town hall with a department and meeting with the department of transportation. Right? So just a couple activities. Couple activities that are coming up because I knew she wanted to be involved, but she didn't have time to be very involved. But if she had-

Deb Zahn: Or even plan it out.

April Callis-Birchmeier: Yeah. I figured if she had a week's heads up notice, she would be able to contribute something. And then the third group was things to keep your eye on. Now this was not a risk registry, but it was sort of like, "Heads up. I see this happening." And I'm the consultant, so I have this ability to speak to her. And then the last one was celebrations because she didn't know when people had something we should celebrate or if we've reached the end of a sprint or something. So I just had these six boxes on this page. Lots of white space. And it took me 10 minutes to explain it. Gave us 5 minutes for a little conversation, and she started performing beautifully. She became very active. She understood exactly what she was supposed to do.

Deb Zahn: That's so great.

April Callis-Birchmeier: Where she was supposed to be at the time. So it was excellent.

Deb Zahn: What I love about that is you were embracing her reality. So instead of saying, "But this is change and you shall do this, darn it," it was very much adapted to her reality so that it was actually doable. And again, this is where consultants being able to switch up based on who they're actually dealing with and the reality that they're dealing with and not what they developed for the last engagement. I mean, leverage what you developed in other places. But I love that. And I've seen other consultants worried about insulting an executive by giving them tasks. But in reality, I've seen them love it because. "Oh, thank God. You just told me what to do." I'm using my executive function for really big-ticket items. “This is really important, but just give me a list I can check off.”

April Callis-Birchmeier: And I think about our sponsors, Deb. I think that you're exactly right. I think about our sponsors very much as almost like, I don't mean this disrespectfully in any way, but almost like a celebrity. Right? Like they're there to draw the spotlight and they're there to say like, "Oh, here is our new, system." Or, "Here's this important piece that we need you to take care of." But I want to use them in cameo appearances. I don't want to put them to work. I don't want them as a... Like a work horse. I want them to be out there as the star that they are. And that's my job, is to make them look great because I'm the consultant. And so I think, when you're a consultant, you make some trade-offs. You trade money for visibility, sometimes. Maybe you're doing all the work behind the scenes, but your client looks fantastic. And you're getting paid to look like you're behind the scenes.

Deb Zahn: That's right. And to make them look fantastic. I love that celebrity analogy because I was coaching somebody recently who was trying to implement a change, and she kept trying to get the leaders to do things. And that wasn't in their purview. And I said, "No, you need them to say yes and then get out of the way. And you need to get through to the doers. And you need to sort of figure out who the doers are that actually create forward motion, and that's who you lavish with support and attention, and then make the leaders look good.

April Callis-Birchmeier: Right.

Deb Zahn: So I'm glad my instincts were right. That's really helpful. Now, I know one of the other things that you address quite often is resistance. And we know that resistance happens, and we should expect it. How would you encourage other consultants to address resistance when it comes up?

April Callis-Birchmeier: Oh, that's a great question. How would I encourage others to address it? I think that resistance, of course, is natural. It's inevitable. We should expect it and we should never be surprised. Like, "Why are people resisting this?"

Deb Zahn: Exactly.

April Callis-Birchmeier: Because if you think about just your own personal life, even when you make a positive change, like a good change. You are moving to a bigger house that has more space or something, right? This is usually a good change for people. They're still resistant. Oh, I have to pack.

Deb Zahn: Oh, I hate packing.

April Callis-Birchmeier: We get all wound up and frustrated even when we have wonderful things ahead of us. So when we don't have wonderful things ahead of us, when we have something new to learn at work. and it's a real...It looks like it's going to be difficult, of course. We're going to have resistance. And I think that the best way to approach resistance is to know that it's there. Not pretend it's not there. We don't want to sugar coat it and say, "Oh, it'll go away. It'll-"

Deb Zahn: Or “It's just him. He'll get over it.”

April Callis-Birchmeier: Oh yeah. “He's just a pain.” You know?

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

April Callis-Birchmeier: Many times we will replace somebody, right? Somebody has the same exact problem, but they're a different person. So we know that resistance is going to happen. And so I think planning for it is really important. So there's a couple of things we can do. It depends on the type of person that you're dealing with who's become resistant. But I find that in general, people who have more information are less resistant than people who have less information.

So the more information. The more rationale we can provide. The more benefit of the change. The more "why are we doing this" that we can provide. The better. Because then people can say, "Well, I don't want an easier year end closing." And you say, "Well, I'm sorry you don't want an easier year-end closing, but we're going to have one." But as long as they are able to identify the benefit of the change, I think that they can start to understand why this is important. If not to them, to the organization. And that's really a key. So I don't want consultants to panic when they see resistance.

Deb Zahn: Panic means you didn't expect it.

April Callis-Birchmeier: Yes. You should say, "There's my friend, Resistance."

Deb Zahn: “Oh, hello. You're early.” Well, and it reminds me of back in the day when I did a lot of implementation of change within an organization. We used to look at it this way and I still do today, which is if you leave blank spaces for people, they will not fill them in with your hopes and dreams. What they will fill them in with is their worst fears. And that's often where resistance comes from, is that you hoped that they would do the same cost benefit analysis you did, but with less information.

April Callis-Birchmeier: Right.

Deb Zahn: And so any blank spaces means that you have now opened up resistance and said, "Please come in" because I didn't think you would be there. And I didn't communicate enough. And I don't have my leaders doing the stuff that they need to be doing. So I always say, just don't leave the blank spaces and never let somebody else do the cost benefit analysis.

April Callis-Birchmeier: There you go. I like that.

Deb Zahn: I love that. And if you were a brand-spanking new consultant, or you've been doing this awhile and you have been struggling with change and you want to figure out, "how do I get better at this?" Where would you send them?

April Callis-Birchmeier: Well, there's an association of change management professionals. It's And I would send them straight there right away to start to learn about change management. I also have an online course called Change Mastery 101.

Deb Zahn: Nice.

April Callis-Birchmeier: And it's based on the book Ready, Set, Change-

Deb Zahn: We will have links to both of those in the show notes.

April Callis-Birchmeier: Yeah. That'd be great. Yes. So I wrote the book because I was running into a lot of project professionals, project managers, consultants, and other folks I was working on change with who would seem to be a little bit overwhelmed by change management. They felt like it was very, very template heavy and a lot of methodology. They couldn't remember the pieces and parts and they would get all stressed out. And even my project management teams, when I would try to say, "OK, I'm going to integrate my change management plan in with the project plan so that we can track all our dates together," many times they'd be like, "Oh, no. No, not that change management stuff." They just thought it was going to be a mess.

So what I decided to do was to build a model that would be super easy for everybody to remember. And I took the word "ready." So it's a relevant and relatable benefit of the change. It's engaging our leaders and sponsors. Advance communication and advocacy for our end users. Develop and support so we can implement. And then "y" is how we deal with resistance. We always loop back to the why of the change.

Deb Zahn: Nice. Nice.

April Callis-Birchmeier: And when I said that very simply to my project management teams, they were like, "That's so easy."

Deb Zahn: Yeah. Well, plus they could probably picture, viscerally feel, all of the times when those things didn't occur and what the consequence of that was.

April Callis-Birchmeier: Yes. Yes, they could. So where I developed it. I wrote the book and then I created the course. It's an online course that I teach live and then you can also watch it recorded. But I teach it live for eight weeks at a time because I really love getting to know people and helping them solve real world problems. And I had a cohort just recently, where I had somebody from the UK. She was working on a huge global implementation. And honestly, we'd spend a couple hours a week talking about it.

Deb Zahn: It's a lot to digest. Now, are there particular temperaments, skills, attributes of a person that really lends itself to that change mastery?

April Callis-Birchmeier: I think people who like to work with people are perfect.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. If you don't like people...

April Callis-Birchmeier: You have to like people, yes.

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

April Callis-Birchmeier: And so, people who like to help people solve problems. Or like to think about how something would work out for individuals. Because we're talking about moving an organization and its stakeholders, which are people. It's people, from a current state to a future state. There can be no organizational change without individual change.

Deb Zahn: That's right.

April Callis-Birchmeier: So all the individuals have to change. And that's a really, really, really tough thing to get every individual to change.

Deb Zahn: Especially if you don't like them. So that's...And I actually had, back when I was employed. I did have somebody that worked for me and she had this beautiful implementation plan. It was gorgeous, but it didn't account for humans. And so when humans started doing different things, she was just so irritated that they were getting in the way of implementation.

And I said, "There is no implementation without people. People are the change." And she found it very frustrating. I think she might work at an animal shelter now. That's what it is. I love that.

So let me ask you one last question because I think that this is where we sort of manage things in our own life. So obviously, one of the benefits of being a consultant is you get to make decisions about your whole life, including how to be able to bring balance to other things that are meaningful to you. So how do you do that in your life? However you define that.

April Callis-Birchmeier: Well, I have to tell you, I was a city girl my whole life. But about four years ago, I moved out to some acreage and property. And my husband and I like to go out in the woods. We have woods in the backyard and we heat our house with wood. So we go cut wood on the weekends. And I have eight chickens. And we take care of the chickens and cut some wood.

Deb Zahn: I have this, too. I don't....We have seven and a half acres. We have two chickens. But it's a good life, isn't it?

April Callis-Birchmeier: It's fun. It's enjoyable. And I find just that connection to living things that are not people, sometimes

Deb Zahn: Yeah. It's a different rhythm and timing.

April Callis-Birchmeier: Yes.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. Oh, that's wonderful. And so you are actually living the dream because there's so many folks that I know that are like, "Oh, I'd love to just chuck city life and go get a farm. Or go live in the country." And I think we're living proof that that's absolutely possible.

April Callis-Birchmeier: It is. Actually I have to correct myself. We have...We're down to five chickens. The reality of farm life is that the hawk has gotten three of our chickens the last few weeks. I'm used to seeing eight and I'm thinking about, "Oh, no. We're down to five now."

Deb Zahn: I will send you pictures of my chicken tractor. So I designed and then built...I had somebody help me build it. A chicken tractor because of hawks, coyotes, all of those things that love chickens. Because all of our neighbors have lost all of their chickens. Ours live to old age and then get buried in the woods. But we designed...I designed a chicken tractor so that we can take them around and they get time on the grass and get bugs and all of that. But if a predator can get in there, it deserves to eat them.

April Callis-Birchmeier: Has to be a smart predator.

Deb Zahn: You have to be. You have to be smarter than me. In which case, I love them, but enjoy.

April Callis-Birchmeier: Exactly.

Deb Zahn: Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. I want to ask you to do actually three things. If you enjoyed this episode or if you've enjoyed any of my other ones, hit subscribe. I got a lot of other great guests that are coming up and a lot of other great content and I don't want you to miss anything. But the other two things that I'm going to ask you to do is, one is, if you have any comments, so if you have any suggestions or any kind of feedback that will help make this podcast more helpful to more listeners, please include those.

And then the last thing is, again, if you've gotten something out of this, share it, share it with somebody you know who's a consultant or thinking about being a consultant, and make sure that they also have access to all this great content and all the other great content that's going to be coming up.

So as always, you can go and get more wonderful information and tools at Thanks so much. I will talk to you on the next episode. Bye-bye.

bottom of page