Change Lessons from My Hiking Adventure

It’s hard to experience change. It’s even harder to lead change. I just had a very personal lesson on change from the Amalfi Coast. Five key elements are needed to lead change successfully – vision, action plan, resources, skills, and communication.

Recently, I spent several days trekking in a beautiful area with steep cliffsides and stunning vistas. Every day was different. We started one day by deciding which direction to explore, the trail to the west or the southeastern trail. We thought our guide would help. She recommended a path that was “less busy and more scenic.” Pointing to the top, she said, “It’s a moderate trek, only about 2 hours.”

As we walked, the trail faded, the path became steeper and rockier, and the temperature and humidity increased, yet the pace did not. “We’ll stop for a picnic with a great view and then go on to the top.” We scrambled over rocks and around brambles, one person lost their footing and rolled off the ‘path’, another was becoming seriously overheated, others expressed their fear of heights. Yet the guide urged everyone to look up at the views as the path became a sheer cliff on one side and a steep hillside on the other. [The picture does not convey the elevation or the wind shear!]

“It’s too windy to stop for lunch here; we can just eat at the top.” So, we pressed on, our guide becoming visibly annoyed by our flagging pace, our water breaks, and grumbling about no food. We became increasingly upset that the guide didn’t listen, seemed unconcerned for our wellbeing, and was dismissive of our limitations.

We finally arrived five hours later, so exhausted and unnerved from our ascent we couldn’t fully appreciate the 360-degree panorama. We’d banded together in spite of our leader’s shortcomings. Our backpack loads were redistributed, water was shared, walking sticks stowed, hands were extended, backs supported, shade stops embraced, fears assuaged, and camaraderie established. After safely returning to town, our group decided to rebook the following day with a different guide!

While this trek wasn’t a formal change initiative, I couldn’t help but connect this experience to successful change leadership.

  • Vision – A change leader must convey a clear vision and direction. Without a destination and map there is confusion. Confusion breeds resistance. Our guide’s articulation of the vision was ok as the mountaintop was the destination; however, the roadmap and pace to get there were unclear and unrealistic.
  • Action Plan – You need an action plan. Consider how the initiative impacts every stakeholder, including people, processes, tools, and culture. Without an action plan for implementation, progress sputters, and engagement fades. Our guide’s action plan was bare bones… follow the leader, put one foot in front of the other, and keep climbing, despite conditions and difficulties that didn’t match stakeholders’ expectations, capabilities, or norms.
  • Resources – All initiatives require the right resources. Determining, assessing, and securing resources is the responsibility of the leader. Without the right resources, you can create frustration and unnecessary risk. My guide never defined what was needed, such as appropriate hiking shoes, hydration needs, or a plan for replenishing energy with rest and food.
  • Skills – Ensuring that the skills are in place for the journey and the future state is foundational. Without the skills necessary to create or implement change, there is anxiety which can lead to trepidation and even paralysis. Our guide asked no questions and therefore was unaware of each hiker’s situation from a wobbly recovering ankle, being prone to heat exhaustion, a recent cardiac illness, vertigo, or individual trekking abilities.
  • Communication – Two-way communication is vital. Convey information in a timely and targeted fashion and seek (and incorporate) feedback to inform the way forward. Clear, compelling, consistent, and cohesive communications are essential. Our guide was directive and took no feedback; duration and conditions were unclear, and messaging changed over time. All bringing more confusion and resistance.

We are all change leaders, so remember these change principles:

  1. Prepare for the initiative – Craft a plan and roadmap, learn about your stakeholders, anticipate the change impacts, and assess capabilities and readiness.
  2. Execute the project– Communicate the vision and milestones, manage the plan, listen to resistance and adapt accordingly, and celebrate wins along the way.
  3. Measure & Sustain outcomes – Track progress and enable new behaviors and mindsets to drive not just compliance, but true adoption.

Susan Barnicoat is a Partner at PeopleResults. You can reach her at and follow her on LinkedIn