Are you managing change – or leading it?

by Greg Taylor

Successfully transforming a business is a challenge that requires a strong focus on people. Change management practices can provide the underlying foundation for getting people to buy in to change, however they won’t unlock the true potential for transformational change. Here we explain the importance of leading change rather than just managing it, including four ways leaders can play an active role in achieving enterprise-wide transformation.

The complex nature of transformation demands a highly evolved approach to help people at all levels of the enterprise deal with change. A well-implemented transformation program will normally involve a portfolio of initiatives, which are often intertwined and will require a reinvention of the business model.

Thinking beyond change management

The scope of true enterprise transformation will be visionary – extending beyond systems and processes and usually demanding changes to underlying culture and behaviour. Traditional change management approaches focus on applying structured tools to control the process of change and, while this may work well for a well-defined shift, it does not help organisations deal with the reality of transformation.

How weak leaders fail the change agenda

Many organisations will embed change management disciplines into their transformational program, but very few allocate the right level of attention to building the capability for change leadership. This often leads to change let-down, where people feel energised in the early stages of the transformational pathway but gradually lose focus and become cynical when the implementation doesn’t yield immediate benefits or seems harder than initially imagined.

“Organisations don’t make change happen – people do.”

Greg Taylor; Principal, Organisational Change - Blackdot

Four skills for change leadership success

Blackdot’s extensive experience with enterprise transformations shows us that building the change leadership capability within organisations is a critical success factor.

Leaders who want to help people confidently adopt transformational change should focus on the following four key areas:

1. Establish a sense of purpose

The scale of change, the way changes will impact people and the time it takes to shape new behaviours and capabilities mean it is crucial to have a clear and shared vision for what success looks like. 

As well as articulating why changes are needed, change leaders can help by describing a genuine and compelling direction that engages people in a sense of purpose. Using narrative about what success looks like can help people make sense of what may otherwise be an ambiguous future. There will always be constraints and compromise during the transformation process, but leaders who are optimistic about moving forwards and who can manage the realities along the way will be able to build trust in the message.
 
2. Energise and mobilise people

Since transformation is not an end-state, the pathway to success is less defined than for smaller scale change initiatives. While this ambiguity can be a powerful tool to help people challenge the status quo, it can also lead to higher levels of anxiety and fatigue – particularly at the frontline – an outcome which can cause people to get bogged down in problem thinking, rather than making positive progress towards the opportunities presented.

Change leaders can help by being visible, tuning-in and engaging people in dialogue about the opportunity for change. To build trust and rapport, leaders will provide opportunities for people to come together to check in on awareness about the changes, discuss how they are feeling about the future, and elicit ideas about how to help people successfully make the transition. Active, two-way engagement can energise people in positive ways while bringing issues and concerns to the surface that may have otherwise manifested as resistance to change.

3. Role model the change

Transformational change often means people need to focus hard to learn and gain confidence in the new work environment. It is easy for people to revert to their old ways or introduce “workarounds” which may reduce the intended benefits of this change.

Change leaders can help by ensuring their own behaviours and actions mirror the desired change. The underlying realities of change mean that to help people stay on track, leaders should stay positive about the future and help people demonstrate resilience. Showing people examples of positive progress and rewarding early adopters can help celebrate small wins and show that change is possible and beneficial. Success also comes from learning from mistakes and applying lessons to the future.

4. Demonstrate commitment

Transformational change can be messy. As change happens, people uncover what was previously not well known or understood. This can create opportunities to adjust the trajectory. Because the uncertain nature of change also introduces the risk of wavering commitment, organisations that lack the capacity to adjust can falter.

Change leaders can help by setting clear goals and objectives, holding people accountable for staying the course, and challenging people to do their best. By adopting a coaching mindset, they can offer support for people who may be struggling to adapt. Identifying and managing risks early on can also help maintain momentum, keeping focus on the vision and purpose behind the change.
 
Leaders as the embodiment of change

Organisations don’t make change happen – people do. Organisations that embark on a transformation pathway need leaders to engage people in a way that drives ongoing learning, adoption and commitment to a purposeful vision. The good news is that change leadership isn’t just something that is only exercised by the top team – it is a capability that can exist at all levels within an organisation, accelerating success and helping people adopt change with confidence.

Find out more

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