Change leadership is complex, and so much more involved than just checking items off a list! If you’ve ever been involved in organizational transformation, you know that change doesn’t follow an exact formula. Rather, it is a style of leadership that involves everyone in the pursuit of a clear purpose. Change leaders depend on softer skills – creating a culture of trust and collaboration, encouraging innovation and embracing risk, nurturing communication and feedback, and setting goals that are both recognizable and within reach. Really, the 10 best practices of change leadership are all about cultivating the powerful relationship that enables teams to roll with change.
To understand change leadership, you may first need to adjust your ideas about how change works. Traditionally, organizations relied on a top-down, leader-knows-best approach. Managing change often involves a scripted plan, budgets, measurement and anticipated solutions. It is expected to work in a predictable and straightforward way.
However, advances in technology, influences from across the globe and diverse perspectives mean that a pre-planned approached doesn’t encourage lasting innovation. Meaningful change is much more complex, and involves multiple stakeholders and many moving parts.
A new leadership model has emerged – one that is organic, fluid and adept. Instead of seeing an organization as an assembly line with fixed parts, imagine an octopus – a flexible, intelligent being that is able to juggle multiple priorities.
With this in mind, what are the best practices for leading change? While clarity of purpose is important in any change initiative, focus on developing relationship which is essential to support such a transformation.
1 – Understand that change begins with you.
Model the qualities you want to see in others.
Leading change in the larger world requires first leading it within yourself.
- Commit to reflective practice, so that you begin to understand how you interact with and affect those around you. Who are you now, and who do you want to be? As we grow an awareness of who we are as leaders, we can be at choice about our own impact.
- As Daniel Goleman writes, moods are contagious. Be aware of the energy you bring into your interactions, and adjust it as needed. Amy Mindell’s concept of metaskills can support you in this work.
- Conscious and authentic leadership requires us to continually unfold what lies within ourselves. It is in examining and accepting the light and the shadow within that we develop leadership maturity.
2 – Build a strong team.
Foster collaboration and trust.
You know you have good players, and believe that they have the skillsets your organization needs. Yet the group is not clicking the way you hoped that they would. While some teams naturally have great chemistry, others lack relationship skills and need support in learning how to communicate and collaborate.
- Change leadership uses a professional coaching approach to engaging teams and develop solutions together. A coaching approach to leadership encourages open communication and honours diverse opinions.
- Teams can often be hampered by what John Gottman calls the four horsemen of toxic relationship. Contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling and blame signal significant problems with communication. Fortunately, antidotes exist.
- Ask yourself these questions – does the culture of your organization foster competition or collaboration? Does it favour power and status rather than sharing information and ideas? While a little friendly competition can be healthy, the overall focus should be on what you can achieve together. How can you as a leader model the values you want your team to emulate?
- Involve your whole team in a conversation about the way you want to work together. This is about envisioning how the team might function at their best, deciding ahead of time how to relate to each other during challenges, and thinking through the atmosphere you want to co-create. CRR Global’s Designed Team Alliance is a great model for defining the ground rules of the relationship.
- Just like team coaching, change leadership does not come with a script but adjusts to meet what is needed in the moment. Expect uncertainty and ambiguity as part of the process.
3 – Establish a clear and compelling purpose.
Identify your shared vision.
Imagine that your team members are racing a boat – but instead of gliding smoothly through the water, the boat is spinning in circles. Some are rowing forward, others backward, and still others are dragging their paddles or don’t have them in the water at all. How on earth can you move ahead, yet alone cross the finish line? Your organization’s purpose is the compass that encourages everyone on the team to start paddling in the same direction.
- Think about what would motivate you to make a significant change. Rather than being handed a blueprint, chances are you’d want to be involved in developing ideas and giving feedback. Offer the same opportunity to your team.
- Challenge those in your organization to identify their individual purpose, and then support them to see how that purpose and their role is connected to organizational purpose. This brings meaning to work.
- While developmental and transitional change may have a clear vision, transformational change does not. When change is transformational, support the system to see the big opportunity for change as well as the threat if there is no change. Have them keep noticing what is emerging, as together they dream into the big opportunity. Eventually, the vision will be co-created.
4 – Embrace innovation.
Encourage creativity and risk-taking.
Great ideas can come from anyone, not just from the top leaders. Often it’s those on the front lines who see opportunities others do not. Change leadership makes the most of any good idea, wherever it may originate.
- Make a regular practice of seeking input and gathering ideas from everyone in the room. Are you hearing from those who might be heard less often, as well as those that are naturally quiet? Or are the same voices dominating the conversation?
- Recognize that failure is just the first step on the road to success, and encourage a higher level of risk tolerance in your team culture. Take a note from Agile practice, and expect to keep tinkering with and improving what you create.
- Build rather than block. In live improvisation, the golden rule is to keep evolving an idea rather than shutting it down. What wisdom might other team members offer that can help make an unconventional idea fly?
5 – Monitor progress and notice what’s working.
Establish metrics and key performance indicators.
At its heart, change leadership is about coaching people and organizations to work collectively on a common purpose. While Return on Investment (ROI) can be calculated, the real story of what change leadership achieves is much more complex than what can be presented to stakeholders in an assessment.
- What would a successful transformation look like for your team? Outline expectations for specific initiatives, and decide on what key performance indicators would mean that the initiative is successful.
- Measurements might include a summary of inputs and activities, such as how many individuals and teams were involved and the amount of time dedicated to the initiative.
- Tie input to impact where possible. For example, how did activities directly related to a change initiative perform? You can also weight how the benefits of the change initiative compare to the cost of implementation.
- Work together to lay out clear agreements about expectations for plans and goals. While undoubtedly there will be shifts during the process, designing goals, actions and accountability together makes a huge difference.
- Keep in mind that change leadership is about organic evolution. It is normal to see differences between the way that you anticipate the process will occur, and the inevitable adjustments that come along with realizing a shared vision.
6 – Co-create a courageous, nurturing climate.
Cultivate an open atmosphere where everyone can thrive.
When are you at your best? Most of us excel when we feel safe, encouraged and free to bring ideas and issues forward.
- Consider whether your team climate nurtures the psychological safety that is so necessary to innovation. Are people playing it safe instead of being courageously vulnerable? When security is placed before honesty and creativity, innovation can also be lost. Watch what happens in interactions between team members, and take action to cultivate a safe environment.
- Remember that failure is often a first step on the road to success. Consider it as part of development rather than a catastrophe.
7 – Empower employees.
Delegate authority and responsibility.
Once upon a time, it was possible to make an adjustment in one area and know exactly what would happen further down the line. Now, we see that the more complex the work, the greater the need to take a collective approach. No leader can be everywhere at once, or know the intricacies of an entire organization. Change leaders must rely on those around them, and strong relationship becomes the most effective tool in their skillset.
- Again, ask yourself a few questions about your organization’s culture. Is it directive or collaborative? Are team members scolded or rewarded for taking the initiative? How might you adjust the mix of oversight versus independence?
- Outline roles, so that everyone understands where job functions overlap. Agreeing on who will be responsible for what function helps to avoid misunderstandings and conflict.
- Identify where buy-in from leadership is expected, and what decisions can be made by those directly involved with the work. Empowering those on the front lines allows you to pivot quickly as a system.
8 – Communicate effectively.
Embed communication in your routines.
When we think of a change initiative as a shared responsibility, the need for communication becomes obvious. The trick is to make communication part of your organization’s culture, and part of an everyday way of functioning.
- Schedule regular time to connect as a team and evaluate where you are in the present moment. Advise each other of progress that’s been made and where you are encountering road blocks, so that you can devise strategies together.
- Think about who needs to be involved in the conversation, even if it’s only to provide feedback or to know what’s coming down the pipe.
- Allow time for informal conversation, and be aware of what’s happening for team members on an individual level. Research shows that water-cooler conversations encourage colleagues to connect. What’s more, they create space for the casual interplay of ideas, brainstorming and problem-solving which leads to innovation.
9 – Celebrate success.
Recognize and reward achievements.
Change leadership revolves around intangible factors such as better relationship and connection.
- As you complete projects or initiatives, be sure to debrief. Reflecting on what went well and what could be improved is critical to continued innovation.
- Consider the experience from your colleague’s point of view. Is the courage it takes for your colleagues to be authentic and engaged rewarded, even when there are conflicting or jarring ideas?
- Celebrate large and small wins along the way.
10 – Become comfortable with change.
Change is a never-ending process!
Cultivate an organizational mindset that anticipates and welcomes transformation.
- Understand that people approach change in a variety of ways. Some leap into change, some hold back, and some bridge the gap between the two. Each approach has benefits and drawbacks.
When it comes right down to it, all of these best practices for change leadership have one thing in common. They are about embracing change as continuing and expected. Leaders and organizations will always need to pivot to adjust to a world in motion. Effective change leadership continually reaches toward possibility, using powerful relationship to tap into our collective strengths. In leading change, we consciously shape the future.
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Why has leadership changed?
Traditionally, we thought of organizations and social systems as machines that could be set in motion and left to work in linear and predictable ways. In the age of management for production, we could pull a lever in one place and anticipate what would happen further down the line. Change could be controlled. In contrast, today’s leaders realize that organizations are more organic than mechanical. These complex adaptive systems are networks with multiple interrelating parts. Everything is connected and the system is greater than the sum of its parts. Leadership itself has changed in response, moving away from control and toward influence.
What is the difference between change management and change leadership?
Change management leans toward control. It is about organizing, measuring and solving, and often approaches change with a fixed plan to be implemented using a hierarchical structure. In contrast, change leaders engage, align, and inspire team members. The approach is collective, with everyone contributing their ideas and abilities. As a system, team members recognize what needs to happen and develop strategies to achieve common goals. Both change management and change leadership are required in transformation. However, the more complex the change, the more important change leadership becomes.
What are the different types of change?
Developmental, transitional and transformational change each work in slightly different ways. Developmental change gradually improves what is already in place. It adjusts to what you are currently doing, rather than creating something completely new.
Transitional change is planned and occasional, replacing what is known with something different. For instance, transitional change might be a reorganization, or installation of new technology that doesn’t require a major change in mindset or behaviour. The goal is identified before change begins, so the transition can be managed.
Transformational change is the emergence of an entirely new way of being, one so different than the current state that the people and culture must change to implement it successfully. Following transformational change, the organization’s structures, systems, processes, culture and strategy will look very different. Examples of transformational change include implementing major strategic and cultural changes, adopting radically different technologies, and reforming product and service offerings to stay ahead of the competition.
Where is transformational leadership used?
Transformational change situations require transformational leadership. Unlike developmental or transitional change, the vision for the future emerges rather than being laid out in advance, and requires the involvement of the whole system in supporting innovation. Rather than seeing change as a one-time event, we recognize that it is continual and self-renewing. Since transformational leadership empowers those within the system to lead change together, it becomes a way of being that is part of the culture of an organization.
What is a change leader?
A change leader has the capability and capacity to lead self and others through transformation. They challenge the status quo to be in integrity to purpose, while bringing compassionate wisdom to systems that often feel the emotional threat of volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) change. They reflect and act with integrity and courageous authenticity, and are willing to take the risk of speaking to what might not yet be seen by all.
How does leadership change at different stages of organizational development?
Change leadership itself is an evolving process which must adapt to the type of change – developmental, transitional or transformative – as well as to the leadership maturity of an organization. It begins with assessing the change climate within the organization, working with the emotional processes of change and developing change capability. It continues on to assess the leadership maturity and specifically the change mindset within the organization. Frequently leaders and teams are coached to develop powerful relationship within and between teams and stakeholders, as systems develop the capacity to be in and work with emergence.
As director of Novalda,Kerry Woodcockdevelops core, collective and change leadership capacity in leaders, teams and organizations.