Change leadership is a topic with a lot of existing commentary. It is also a subject with many models that provide maps for the change process – many of which are very helpful. But when dealing with change, the very essence of it can be volatile. There are some subtle and significant imperatives that need to be considered when steering a course through change.
I recall a few years ago being interviewed about my views on change management. I probably rather flippantly suggested that change management is just packaged terminology for good leadership. After all, leadership at its best has to deal with ambiguity, engage multiple stakeholders, chart a course to clear outcomes and manage processes. Effective disciplines to lead people and organizations through change are essential. At the same time, change management can take on a life of its own and become a beast rather than a beauty. Much the same way that processes like performance management, talent management and employee development have evolved over the years in some organizations to become onerous and costly processes. Having the courage and candor to validate how effectively change leadership is working for everyone is something that many leaders should give attention to.
I am suggesting three imperatives that will help to ensure change leadership is delivering and not debilitating:
1) Test your vision
One of the first actions of a change initiative is to spell out a vision for what the future looks like – what is the desired outcome and goal. This then becomes the measure and validation of everything done to move from the present to the vision of change. Leaders can get hung up on all of the activity required to fix the current situation, and not keep measuring these activities against the value they deliver against the goal of the initiative. Perhaps more subtly, leaders can fail to continually validate the vision. Time changes things, and this can include the vision. It’s not a failure to reimagine and review a vision. It’s actually about leaders understanding that change management is all inclusive. Continuing to re-affirm the vision and keeping it alive rather than enshrined, is essential for change leadership.
2) Read the signs
Leading change is often a series of processes to map, test and transform existing processes. There is also a massive element of leading the people who are impacted by this change. Organizations who understand the role that culture has on people, are better at reading the signs of change impact and implications. Leaders need to be able to read people and the organization throughout the change process in order to determine commitment, morale and motivation. Many years ago I was asked to establish an internal communications infrastructure that included ‘contact employees’ in each department. The jargon now would be ‘change agents’. But these were people whose role was not just to be the catalysts of local change, but who were the eyes and ears of the heartbeat of the organization. We collaborated regularly to build our intelligence and awareness of how the change process was progressing – we continually read the signs and sought to learn from them.
3) Stay connected
Large-scale change initiatives can often be led by a crack team of experts including consultants. This team can have a war room or a program office. They issue branded communication. They hold daily briefings. They pull in resources with a powerful mandate. Membership of the team can become exclusive and admirable. The first agenda item for senior leadership meetings is always to hear from this team. Whilst such a team and many of the actions of this team may be essential to deliver a successful change program, these teams can create a surreal and alternative reality for an organization. Leaders need to stay connected to all employees, respect their views, appreciate their contributions, and understand the psychology of change on everyone. Organizational change is about “we’re in this together”, not “the SWAT team are doing this for us”.
Leading through change is a test of leadership wisdom, empathy and insight, as well as leadership intent, drive and energy. Developing leaders in the subtle and significant can often add greater value than the obvious and essential aspects of change.