Did you know that in most organisations, two out of three transformation initiatives fail? That’s what studies show and it is clear, that with a backdrop of constant change and disruption, we have to get better at leading change effectively.
‘It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.’ – Charles Darwin
Driven by external drivers like globalisation, the future of work, multi-generational workplaces, technological progress, environmental change and global health crises, the focus for leaders must be on leading change. This is not an article about organisational change management; it is an article about the skills people need to embrace disruption, thrive in uncertainty and lead transformation. Change happens at a personal level and the more we equip our leaders with the necessary skills, the more likely our transformation initiatives will succeed.
I remember working as a general manager for a global serviced offices company in Melbourne. In 2009 the company had decided to change our roles to focus purely on sales. One morning we arrived at the office to an email from head office informing us that our new title was Sales Manager and that we were to drop all operational aspects of our job. We were specifically instructed to not meet and speak with existing clients anymore instead get ready to hustle.
My colleagues and I just looked at each other as we waited for our leader to explain, reason, support, challenge…anything. What we got instead was crickets. We were beside ourselves. How could we simply ignore our clients and move them on to an operations team they hadn’t dealt with before? Where was this change even coming from, and what were the new expectations?
The actual need for structural change was quite clear. We were dealing with the aftermath of a global financial crisis. For the company to survive and win investors’ trust, we needed to increase revenue and build a strong forward order book. But no one explained this to us; there was no support and poor communication. Change happens all the time. And change is necessary to stay competitive and survive a crisis. But our boss didn’t have any leadership skills to guide us and get our buy-in. Instead, we lost trust and resisted as much as we could.
I work with many leaders and executives, and I am often brought in because the team or organisation is undergoing change. One of the challenges I am typically seeing is a lack of transparent communication. This sometimes goes wrong at the top level of the organisation with poorly executed messaging frameworks, but more often than not, the buck stops with the department head or team leader who misses to cascade the communication and translate the communication conducive for their specific teams. Management fails to explain the why and don’t point out the opportunities of the transformation.
Poor communication is quickly followed by resistance. People go through what you could call a ‘grieving process’ when they are faced with change. They are grieving the old way of doing things and without empathetic conversations and supportive communication, people will deny and ignore taking on new ways of working.
Resistance turns into setbacks as the process of getting people on board and delivering results takes much longer. Going back to my story: our boss knew about the change a couple of days before the global email. He should have had a meeting with us explaining why the company had decided to change our roles. Reasoning with us and explaining the why would have achieved much greater buy-in. Then we could have agreed together on the best way forward for our region and how we can support each other and include the operations team. Change happens at a personal level, and it was his job to involve us personally.
There are, of course, other challenges when it comes to change management. I often see executives reacting to, rather than foreseeing change. Organisations underestimate the scope of change, as well as a lack of implementation of real transformation. ‘Multifaceted transformational change needs to be appropriately scoped, resourced, and most importantly, integrated. Every initiative must be linked to every other initiative.’, says Ron Carucci in this HBR article https://hbr.org/2021/04/how-leaders-get-in-the-way-of-organizational-change
“Our job is obvious: We need to get out of the way, shine a light, and empower a new generation to teach itself and to go further and faster than any generation ever has.“ – Seth Godin
The world is changing, and we need to equip our leaders to lead change, not just chase their tails in a quest to keep up with it.
Here are ten critical leadership skills to lead change effectively
- Purpose – Have bold aspirations and engage your teams to see opportunities in change and create a purpose. Purpose for your team members means knowing how they can contribute to the purpose.
- Mindset – See change as a transformative competency. Accept that change must occur to stay relevant and competitive. Create a desire for change rather than a ‘forced change of behaviour’, normalise change.
- Envision – To envision our future, we need to develop foresight which is called ‘visioning’. Visioning is a process where people collectively design what the ideal future would look like. When you create your vision, stay away from going into planning or problem-solving mode.
- Communication – Transparent and consistent communication, effective messaging frameworks and channels to cascade information to every level of the organisation, to stakeholders and clients. Explain the why, then the what and how. Create open, two-way and multi-way communication channels.
- Empathy – Be open about the fact that change can be difficult and scary. Take your team members’ personal situations into account and show them that you understand how this transformation affects them. Help them to connect their role to the outcome of change and keep their WIFIM (what’s in it for me) in mind.
- Engagement – Role model teamwork and collaboration, create a feedback culture, offer support and be accessible. Empower high performers and buddy up with low performers. Be an active sponsor of change by expressing, modelling and reinforcing the behaviours required for changes to be successful
- Resilience – Build strengths to endure short term and long-term changes. Lead with empathy, agree on regular check-ins and milestones. Learn and teach how to build resilience with a systems view.
- Accountability – Align and set expectations for your team or department. Enforce through validation and use a coaching approach as well as reward and recognition initiatives.
- Adaptability – Start with self-adaptability and have a clear and positive mindset. Read and act on signals and be open to experiment. Adaptability is Intelligence.
- Develop – Invest in leadership development and coaching. Create initiatives that will elevate leader’s performance. People need to bolster their leadership skills to effectively lead during this time of transformation.
If you experience friction, resistance or setbacks in transformational processes, go back to the list of skills and see what’s missing for you to lead change effectively.
Get in touch on email@example.com to chat about how I can help you develop the critical leadership skills required to effectively lead change.