Greek philosopher Heraclitus is famous for saying, “change is the only constant in life.” He could not have foreseen how true this sentiment would be millenniums later, especially as the Covid-19 pandemic challenged leaders in ways never thought possible. Those who have successfully navigated the past two years in the workforce have done so by accepting and reacting to change – and quickly. The rollercoaster of change has not slowed even as we have moved through the worst of the pandemic, and leaders have continued to navigate disruptions with regularity. Understanding and embracing change leadership has become a critical skill of all leaders looking to make an impact on their organizations, their teams, and themselves.
What Is Change Leadership?
Yvonne Ruke Akpoveta, Founder and CEO of The Change Leadership describes it as “the ability to influence and inspire action in others and respond with vision and agility during periods of growth, disruption or uncertainty to bring about the needed change.” Employees will look to leadership of all kinds – executives, team leads, and perceived leaders – to provide a path forward in times of uncertainty. Leaders must first become adept at identifying the need for change and working collaboratively to develop plans to address it. They must then get comfortable with ambiguity and accept that not every decision will lead to success. Owning the prospect of failure and leading the charge through change despite potential consequences is both brave and necessary.
A Change Leadership Framework
The Center for Creative Leadership developed the “3 C’s of Effective Change Leadership” framework to define success as illustrated in the graphic below.
Effectively communicating with colleagues, direct reports and even customers will ensure all stakeholders are supportive of the change and participating in its success. Leaders who clearly and deliberately communicate the reasons behind a proposed change and connect it to a broader purpose will reduce opposition and avoid assumptions on intent.
Engaging your stakeholders and promoting collaboration is a crucial component of change leadership. Enacting change independently and without input from others breeds discontent and disengagement. Successful change leaders actively request input from stakeholders when making a change, while maintaining ownership of the decisions and the outcomes. Embrace collaboration and success will follow!
Finally, a leader’s commitment to following through on proposed changes is critical to ensuring stakeholder support. There is no easier way to disengage employees than to go all-in on change only to forget about it a month later. Being persistent and patient, even when you experience inevitable challenges will demonstrate your true belief in the change as well as garner support – and respect – from those around you.
Becoming an Effective Change Leader
Now comes the real work – honing leadership skills to support effective change. So – what exactly makes an effective change leader? There are many characteristics, but those who study change leadership often identify the following:
- Flexible thinking – get comfortable with approaching problems and proposing solutions in a different way. Effective change leaders seek to stray from the norm and test new approaches to problem-solving.
- Ability to adapt – hone the ability to approach a problem with one plan and adapt that plan as you gain more information. Change itself changes – what you once thought might work may not a few weeks later. Being able to adapt your thinking and solutions to manage disruption will promote a successful outcome.
- Clear vision – get clear on your vision and the outcome you expect. What does success look like? What changes will this success affect? How does it affect your stakeholders? Communicate your vision so all involved are working toward the best result.
- Maintain focus – keep your goals and your strategy at the forefront of your work. It’s easy to become distracted by minor details that can send you off track. Discern when minutiae warrant consideration and when it distracts from your broader mission. Your time is an invaluable commodity – use it wisely.
- Empower others – leadership comes in all forms and does not always sit on an executive team. Engage colleagues of all levels in the change and involve them in the execution.
- Encourage diverse perspectives – encourage and actively seek out diverse perspectives. Create space for open dialogue. Employees who feel safe and empowered to share ideas will be motivated to support you. Encourage those same employees to be involved in implementing their ideas as well.
- Communicate – as referenced in the 3 C’s framework, communicating early and often is critical. If an initiative does not work out, own it. Celebrate successes. Actively deliver and request feedback.
Becoming an effective change leader will not only shape the future of a leader but will ingratiate the leader within an organization. Change leaders are considered visionaries, as proponents of a growth mindset and as willing to fail in the spirit of making an impact. Change leadership is not easy, but when done right, is incredibly fulfilling.
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