Few tasks test the skills and qualities of a leader as thoroughly as change. The fact that change, both big and small, has become such a constant in today’s business hardly matters. Ensuring new processes get adopted, new technologies integrated, and new workflows accepted remains an all-encompassing endeavor. Even with an effective change management process in place, leaders remain integral to its success.
But none of this is a reason to shy away from the challenge of change. Instead, leaders need to not only understand how their role can influence their organization’s change management plan, but also what they can do to successfully shepherd their teams and employees through it.
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So let’s explore what good change leadership looks like, as well as how you can model it yourself.
Why is change management important?
Change management, as we’ve written about before, is any system or framework that a business uses to organize and direct its change activities. This can include the design and creation of change initiatives, their implementation, and any ongoing management. Although organizations are free to pursue change any way they want, utilizing a change management process is recommended for two major reasons.
First and foremost, it gives organizations a structured and systematic approach to change. By organizing what can often be a chaotic and haphazard process into a more predictable framework, change management enables organizations to build a more comprehensive plan, better address the challenges that can come along, more accurately predict outcomes, and measure their progress along the way. All this helps make the success of the change initiative much more likely.
Change management can also help employees recognize and accept the need for change in the first place – an essential prerequisite for its success. By helping walk them through what the change would mean (for them and the wider organization), how it would work, and what the results would look like, change management hands them a road map that can help set aside many of the common fears associated with change. In turn, this will make employees feel more capable of successfully managing and adapting to their new circumstances.
What is change leadership?
Change leadership helps organizations visualize, implement, and manage change from the top. Whereas change management is an institutional process, change leadership is a specific role managers and other leaders can take on to ensure the larger change initiatives move forward successfully. It involves inspiring and motivating employees to make change, guiding them through the day-to-day details, holding them accountable, and much more.
Although not every change management process involves change leaders, those that do are often much more likely to meet their goals.
Defining the role of a leader during change
There is no one form for successful change leadership. Rather, it can take on many guises, depending on the needs of the organization, the extent of the change, and many other factors. That said, the following three roles can serve as a general guide to some of the roles a change leader can take on:
- Agitator: This type of change leader brings the need for change itself to the forefront. They do this by describing the problem or challenge, voicing the frustrations of other employees, and pushing the organization toward action. Leaders in this role are comfortable with conflict because they know it is a prerequisite for growth.
- Innovator: This type of change leader takes the problem or challenge identified by the agitator, then comes up with a solution to address it. Assuming this role requires a talent for strategic thinking, an ability to anticipate challenges or obstacles, and a good deal of creativity.
- Orchestrator: This type of change leader turns the proposed solution developed by the innovator into a reality. They do this by coordinating resources, assigning roles and responsibilities, and overseeing any implementation. Leaders in this function must be highly organized, excellent communicators, and unifying individuals.
Leading others through change
Change leadership, like the larger practice of change management itself, is something that can take some practice to get right. But to help you out, let’s start by looking at what makes up effective change leaders before diving into some actionable tips.
Characteristics of effective change leaders
What makes a good leader during change? The following characteristics should give you a good idea:
- Strategic and forward-thinking: The best leaders guide their organization through a change initiative by providing them with a vision to strive for, as well as a plan to follow. They are good at analyzing the state of the current situation, then developing strategic, long-term plans for achieving the desired change.
- Firm, but flexible: During a change initiative, there is going to be a lot of uncertainty. A good change leader will understand both when they should stick to the path they’ve chosen and when they should adjust their approach as needed based on feedback or circumstances.
- Excellent communicator: Change is often complex, which means the ability to communicate information, instructions, and other details is important. But leaders also need to be able to listen to the concerns of others, address their issues, and be able to offer continuous feedback as needed.
- Empathetic: Good leaders also understand that change can be difficult for many people. They should show that this impact matters to them by working closely with individuals and teams to address these challenges, as well as showing a good amount of empathy toward anyone affected along the way.
- Inspirational: Although firm and authoritative leaders can have an impact, good change leaders should also know how to motivate and inspire their employees. They should do this by first building trust and credibility with their team, then laying out a set of goals or a vision that they can aspire toward.
- Lifelong learner: An implicit reason for organizational change is to keep the company on the cutting edge. In order to do this, the best change leaders will be constantly trying to keep themselves informed about the latest industry trends, best practices, and new technologies. They will be lifelong learners and will encourage others to be as well.
- Comfortable with risk: Successful change invariably means venturing into the unknown. An effective change leader won’t shy away from embracing the risk inherent in this process. Instead, they will know how to take a calculated risk that drives innovation and progress.
- Skilled delegator: A good change leader doesn’t do everything on their own. Rather, they know how to hand off tasks and responsibilities to others on their team. This will empower them to contribute their skills and expertise to the change process, while also increasing buy-in.
Tips for becoming a successful change leader
Although successful change leaders can vary greatly, they will all usually possess a potent mix of leadership skills, mindsets, and strategies. Here are some tips you can use to take on these traits and more effectively lead your organization through change:
- Take the time to understand the need for change. You won’t be able to lead your organization through change if you can’t properly explain why this change is necessary in the first place. Be sure you can clearly articulate this, as well as show how any proposed change aligns with organizational objectives. This way, you’ll be more likely to convince others of the need for change too.
- Build up a vision for inspiring individuals to action. A big reason why so many resist change is because it can be hard to imagine anything other than the status quo. As a leader, you need to break people out of this habit by creating a clear and inspiring vision they can see. Do whatever it takes to communicate this to them, whether that means telling a story, showing an example, or even building a prototype.
- Make change an inclusive process. Although you should be leading the change, part of this should be ensuring that you are involving employees at every step of the change process. From building up the plan for change to its implementation and monitoring, encourage team members to share their input, ideas, and feedback. This will help make them feel valued and more invested in the change itself.
- Practice open and transparent communication. In order to assuage any fears and keep the change process running smoothly, good communication is key. Give frequent updates on the progress of change, openly and honestly address concerns and challenges, and be transparent about the entire process. Most importantly, listen to employees when they have something to say back.
- Lead by example. Even when change is underway, it can be difficult to maintain. As a leader, people will therefore be looking to you to set an example in the face of frustration. The best way to do this is to demonstrate your commitment by embodying what you want to see in everyone else. Through your own actions and decisions, model the desired change.
- Set clear and measurable milestones for progress. In order to maintain healthy progress and give people evidence of the hard work they’ve been putting in, establish some kind of key performance indicators (KPIs) that measure the progress of your change initiative. As you regularly assess them, your team will be able to easily and clearly see the impact of the change they’re putting in place.
- Celebrate wins. Whether the win is huge or whether it’s small, take time to recognize the work that went into it and the achievement that it is. Doing so is an easy but effective way to boost morale and reinforce the more positive aspects of the change process.
- Seek out feedback and make adjustments. Even the most seasoned leaders understand the importance of always asking what they can do better. That’s what makes them so good. You can turn this into a habit by encouraging employees to submit feedback on decisions, processes, or anything else on a weekly or monthly basis. Use this to inform future decisions, make adjustments to strategy, and ensure the change process remains aligned with organizational goals.
Benefits of change leadership
Adopting and mastering the role of change leader is a smart way to streamline your change management process. Here are a few benefits that can come along with that:
- Increased innovation: When done right, change leadership encourages an inclusive and welcoming culture where people are free to share new ideas. It also places a high value on continuous innovation, helping the organization stay competitive in a rapidly evolving business environment.
- More engaged employees: Good change leaders include their employees in every part of the change process. This gives them a sense of ownership and engagement in how the organization is transforming, which can help lead to much more involved employees.
- Greater flexibility and resilience: By making change an easier, more accessible process, change leadership is a key way organizations can quickly respond to changing market conditions, adapt to new customers needs, and bounce back from setbacks and other challenges.
- Higher morale: Although change can be hard, effective change leadership can help shepherd the organization, its teams, and even individuals toward their goals. This kind of success can’t help but produce more satisfied employees.
- Continuous improvement: With strong change leadership in place, individuals and teams alike will be constantly looking out for ways to improve their processes, products, and services. Learning, growth, and collaboration will be encouraged, helping to foster a more dynamic workplace that is getting better all the time.