What does it take to successfully lead change?

Looking back to when my career as a change management specialist began 20+ years ago, I nostalgically think, ‘Change was so much easier back then!’ Sure, there were the inevitable challenges, but big changes were mostly implemented one at a time, over a couple of years.

Fast forward to today, where the pace of change is faster and more complex, I realise that

Even Change is Changing!

Even Change is Changing!

Given that organisations and businesses are changing faster and more often than ever before, you’d think we’d be better at it. And yet, research from Gartner shows 70% of change initiatives are still failing. Curiously, this statistic has remained unchanged for over a decade.

What’s the missing piece? It’s not like we need more Gannt charts, meetings or project management methodologies!

When I look back over the hundreds of clients I’ve worked with to create change, their success has been closely linked to the strength of one common element – the quality of Change Leadership.

Effective Change Leadership is the secret to
successful change

Given that leadership skills aren’t something we’re born with, what does it take to be an effective change leader?

Following is a list of the Top 10 Traits successful change leaders have and show consistently, regardless of the change they are leading.

#1. Visionary Dot Joiner – paints clear ‘Ultimate End Goal’ Picture

Leaders who paint a clear picture of the ‘End Goal’, with a simple roadmap to show how we’re going to get there, have the edge over those who can’t clearly articulate where we’re heading. This includes sharing what success will look like and why we're doing it.

Successful change leaders show their people how their work directly contributes to converting the vision into a reality. When people see why their work matters, they are more likely to support the change and less likely to resist it.

#2. Curious – asks, ‘What if…?’

Leaders who see beyond the barriers and challenges refocus their people on solutions. Hearing, ‘We can’t do that’ or ‘That’s not the way we do it’ they respond with, ‘What if it was possible…?’ and ‘What would it take to…?’

Swapping judgement with curiosity opens the door for innovative thinking. Rather than dismissing ideas (even wacky ones!), they encourage their teams to keep building on each other’s ideas until they come up with a solution that will work.

#3. Positive and optimistic – ‘Every problem has a solution’

Positivity and optimism power curiosity. This is not the rose-coloured glasses variety where concerns are ignored or flippantly dismissed. Successful leaders create perspective by believing it will all work out, even when the solution is unclear.

It is easier to be optimistic. Choosing optimism reduces stress and anxiety, and the positive effect rubs off on everyone when leaders remain upbeat. It also builds confidence in a team, knowing their leader believes they can and will succeed. Adding a healthy sense of humour helps everyone see the lighter side which is a simple tension breaker.

#4. Inclusive and Collaborative – leaves nobody behind

While it may be tempting to ignore the dissenters and resistors, successful change leaders flex their style and approach to meet people where they are at rather than where they need them to be. Patiently listening to and acknowledging concerns builds trust.

Likewise, uniting diverse teams where individual strengths and perspectives are celebrated, always results in a better outcome. Some of my fondest memories are of being in the trenches of grueling change programs with colleagues who held me up and leaders who united us around a shared goal which none of could have achieved alone.

#5. Adaptable and Realistic – assumes the goal posts will shift

The only thing guaranteed about change is that it will change. Project plans often become outdated and even obsolete as soon as they are published these days. Wise change leaders know and expect this and cultivate teams who can change direction quickly and easily without angst and resentment.

The mindset here is that ‘We’ll keep going until we’re told to stop or change the plan.’  Ambiguity is expected and successful change leaders work with what they do know without worrying about what they don’t.

#6. Reflective – willing to make, own and learn from mistakes

While it might seem counter-intuitive to pause, especially when time-frames are tight, successful change leaders do just that. They routinely take time to acknowledge what is working and why and objectively reflect on what isn’t achieving the desired outcomes. There's no blame game or recrimination.

Holding themselves accountable, change leaders are comfortable to ‘fess up’ when they’ve made a mistake and use it as a learning opportunity for everyone. This is one of the most powerful ways to build respect from your team, peers and senior management.

#7.Determined and disciplined – able to filter out ‘noise’

An extraordinary amount of time can easily be lost going down rabbit holes during major change initiatives. There are no shortage of distractions and alternatives that gobble up time and energy. Successful change leaders are skilled at quickly working out what’s important and what isn’t.

Keeping their people focused on only those actions that will achieve the desired outcome includes shielding their teams from irrelevant or unimportant tasks. While this often involves strong negotiating and influencing skills, successful change leaders are adept at keeping people ‘on side’ even when they’ve had to say ‘no’ to them.

#8. Honest and Courageous – tell you what you need to hear, not necessarily what you want to hear

In nearly all organisational changes, there will be winners and losers. Change leaders who are upfront and deliver bad news with honesty and empathy are far more successful than those who avoid truth telling and discomfort.

It’s better to be kind than nice and the kindest action will always be telling the truth.

One of my clients was once charged with telling 25 people in his team that they would no longer have a job once the change was implemented. Sam had sat on this news for three weeks during which time he lost sleep and felt increasingly sick to the stomach. He assumed everyone would be devastated.

When we explored the cost to him and his team of withholding the news, Sam realised that it was far greater than telling them the truth. Not surprisingly, many of the team had already suspected the likelihood of redundancy (cos that’s how the grapevine works!) and waiting for the news was far worse than finally hearing it.

#9. Compassionate & respectful – understands that everyone responds differently

Your job as a change leader is not to convince everyone that the change is a good thing and they should jump on board. Rather it is to acknowledge and respect all perspectives. Individual responses to change will always be shaped by individual experiences and many people who struggle have been through, or are going through, something you may know nothing about.

Being compassionate and respectful means acknowledging individual experience and providing choice which empowers people to make up their own minds. If your most talented team member can’t see how the new structure will work and doesn’t want to report to a new manager, that’s his call. Responding with ‘I understand…’ (without trying to change his mind or convince him), is one of the simplest ways to show respect.

#10. Genuine, generous and gracious

It costs nothing to say ‘Thank You’ and successful change leaders know that sincere appreciation is one of the best ways to build loyalty. It’s not surprising that someone who knows their efforts are noticed and valued will always go the extra mile.

If your change involves people leaving your organisation, choose to make this a celebration of what they have contributed and an opportunity to genuinely wish them every success.

6 months after Sam broke the news to his team that many of them would lose their jobs, he received an email from one of his former team members. It read, “Hi Sam – just wanted to say thank you and to let you know that redundancy was the best thing that ever happened to me! Your support was the catalyst to go after a job I’d always wanted but never had the courage to apply for. I’m now doing it and loving it! Thanks man – you rock!”

Perhaps the most important reminder for all change leaders is that ‘People will often forget what you said and did. But they will never forget how you made them feel.’

Key Take Away

Ultimately, as a change leader you have two choices. You can be dumped (face down onto the ocean floor) by the waves of change. 

Or you can learn how to ride each wave and then teach your people to surf.

Carpe diem

Caroline Cameron
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About Caroline

Caroline Cameron is an award winning, master certified executive, career and business team coach, workshop facilitator and speaker. Caroline is on a mission to help mid-career professionals and evolving organisations harness the power of change to achieve success in business, work and life.

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