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Leading Change

I’ve been reading about leading change recently. You understand why, right? Our culture has long been one of constant change. But our current culture of COVID crisis and racial riots and struggles to change systemic injustices have calls for change at a high volume.


A critical aspect of effective leaders today is the ability to lead change. In fact, many would argue that the distinguishing difference between people we identify as good managers, versus those we deem to be great leaders, is that leaders are adept at bringing about change. An organization that is unable or unwilling to change is most likely facing a very grim future. Organizations need leaders to be skilled at leading change efforts, but the reality is that most have no formal training or experience on what it takes to make a change effort work well. Senior leaders are expected to know how to lead change.


We must be able to lead vital change and lead it well. I have a few thoughts that I am pondering, and I think they will help you too.


Be sure to communicate urgency. Why does the change need to happen? Why does it matter? Why does it matter now? What will happen if the change does not occur? You have to get personal clarity on these answers, and then share the need for change over and over again, painting a picture of the future.


Resistance to change is universal and 100% normal. Don’t take it personally. Constantly reassure people that change won’t be easy but it’s possible and necessary. Find out exactly who is against the change and why. Address it directly. Don’t let rumors swirl. Sometimes people need more information; sometimes they just need more time.


Recognize that your tolerance for ambiguity is likely higher than the people you are leading. Create as much certainty during uncertainty as possible. The human brain craves certainty. Leading well means that you “hear” the alarm bells going off in people’s minds. You won’t have all the answers for them, but share all you can and provide milestones for them to be able to track as you move forward.


Connect the dots for people. The first thing to consider is the who. Who are you speaking with? What matters most to them? Then connect the dots between what they want/need and the change. Explain as best you can how it all fits together. John Maxwell, a great leadership hero, is famous for saying “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” As you connect with them, use language that communicates understanding and care for their concerns.


Prioritize building trust. If people don’t trust you, nothing else will matter. Trust is the most essential ingredient in leading change effectively.


Remember, it takes time. Change and transition are not the same. William Bridges said, “Change is situational…. Transition is the psychological process people go through to come to terms with the new situation. Change is external, transition is internal.” You can create lots of external change, but the transition is something you cannot accelerate unless you apply excellent change management. People operate at different speeds.


Do NOT exceed a person’s capacity for change. Each human being has a limit to the amount of change he or she can absorb. When you put more change into the system than your people have capacity, you cannot successfully complete all the changes or achieve the intended benefits. You have to know your people and spend time in communicating and building that trust level, or you will not know when you are pushing too hard.


Forbes magazine shared that these are five critical skills in making change happen, and that when a leader masters all five of these, there is a dramatic upswing in his/her effectiveness at leading change.


Foster Innovation. There is often a better way that can make a needed change move from impossible to easy, but too often, leaders push forward without looking for more innovative and creative options. A leader may not be highly innovative. That’s not a problem because often someone in your organization or network has a brilliant idea that will make change much easier, faster, and less painful. You will lead well if you back and support them.


Act Quickly. Leaders who act quickly are two times more effective at leading change. Tearing off a bandage is less painful if done quickly. But it requires courage to grab one end and rip it off. Slowness will increase the difficulty, resistance, and pain. Leaders who increase the speed, where possible, will usually be more effective in the long run.


Maintain Strategic Perspective. What is the goal? What do we want to do and be? Will the change we’re contemplating bring us closer or take us further from the goal? Making a change without a clear strategy will only get you lost. The change must have a direct tie to the organizational strategy.


Develop an External Perspective. It’s so easy for leaders to get stuck in a cocoon of just what’s happening in their own place. What is the big picture? What are the trends? What is happening in your market? It’s vital to not simply focus in on what is happening within their organization and forget to look out at what’s going on outside the organization. People get so caught up in internal challenges, including politics and conflicts, they often fail to notice that the world is changing around them. Keep an eye on the outside. It will help you know why the change is needed and the value it can create.


Inspire and Motivate. Typically, when leaders become aware of the needs for change, their first thought is to initiate change with a mighty push. They focus immediately on deadlines, timelines, accountability, direction, deliverables. Pushing forces everyone to move forward, lacking no other alternative, so it is helpful. Most change efforts naturally begin with a big push. But, pushing easily makes change a hardship with no alternatives. When leaders combine push (driving for results) and pull (inspire and motivate) the outcome is much better.

“The times, they are a’changin’!” They sure are. And we have the privilege and responsibility to lead in these changing times.

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