In the first blog in this series, fellow Afiniti partner, Lynn White, talked about the challenges of being a change leader and how to prepare for those challenges before being able to help others. In working with leaders of change in a range of sectors and change contexts, I have seen all manner of styles in action. Here I reflect on what I think makes an effective change leader and the difference that effective change leadership can make to business.
First off, effective change leaders act by seeking the authority to lead.
Typically, this comes when there is a gap in governance, decision making or tempo. Some people point out the problems, whereas effective change leaders recognise the problems but act to do something about it and put themselves forward to create the vision, align stakeholders, make resources available or in some cases formally sponsor the change.
For me there is a difference between a leader who is intellectually engaged with the change and one who is also emotionally connected.
The second area where I have seen effective change leaders excel is how they champion the change. For me there is a difference between a leader who is intellectually engaged with the change and one who is also emotionally connected.
It goes without saying that most leaders have the intellectual grasp of their organisation, how the change fits in and how to navigate the complexity – this is good. However, leaders who can emotionally connect with the change by creating a compelling story for all stakeholders to get behind, showing creativity in how the change is planned and delivered, are able to create excitement about the future state, build trust and are less likely to encounter resistance.
As Lynn noted, the role of the change leader is easy to write down, but less easy to do in practice; it’s about being visible and authentic. Stepping back from all your competing priorities and making time to be available to your organisation can pay dividends in landing the change. Authenticity is perhaps even harder to master, and requires time to reflect on how you see the change rather than a sanitised version of the key messages. Once you can tell your story about the change, it will be much easier for you to show up as a change leader and help others through their challenges. Facing into the reality but with a firm focus on that vision that you helped to create.
Lastly comes execution, the ability to cut through organisational inertia and clear the path for delivery of change interventions at pace and with quality. The ability to remove roadblocks and provide ‘air cover’ for the team to deliver is of huge value to your organisation. If this is not coming as easily as you expected, then it is time to review your cohort or coalition of sponsors – do your peers really buy-in to your vision? Do they have the capability to manage and lead change themselves? Recognising that change is hard and often imperfect is important in building your own resilience and that of your team. Celebrate successes, learn lessons and look for opportunities for continuous improvement – what opportunities are there for developing the change capability within your organisation off the back of this change?
Some years ago, I was working on a programme of system and business process change across EMEA and saw these 3 elements come together to great effect. I remember a quote from this leader, ‘it’s better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission’ – a true pragmatist, choosing to act on challenges that she saw in front of her. There was a reality check about the challenges of the programme and she was able to convey these along with the overall business imperative to change to stakeholders – championing the change authentically. On a complex programme, the big roadblocks were removed enabling the delivery team to implement the changes and deploy the solution.
Effective change leadership differs from functional leadership
Being an effective change leader requires different skills and behaviours to functional or ‘in the line’ leadership. Some of them are complimentary but taking the time to think about how you are acting, championing and executing on your change programme will increase your effectiveness in leading change and increase the chance of a successful outcome.
Look out for the third and final blog in this series, the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of sustainable change leadership.