By Maureen Vontz, Ashridge Business School
The challenges facing most leaders in business today can be summed up in one not so simple word… change. Challenges they face include increasing pace of change, technological developments, changing perceptions, increasing expectations, citizen empowerment, a changing workforce, the changing environment.
These are all compounded by ever-increasing instability surrounding us in ongoing political upheaval, social unrest and escalating numbers of wars throughout the world. This, at times, overwhelming degree of uncertainty and change calls for significant demands on leaders to become experts at change. And importantly, the ability to cope with uncertainty and change requires that not only are you expert at managing change but that you also know how to manage yourself and your own experience of change whilst your are managing change in others.
To enable change in this context takes thinking about ‘change management’ a little differently. Most organisations have habitual ways of changing—whether that’s using a well-know change methodology or one developed in house. But all changes are not the same, so always using the same method or approach won’t work.
Learning to flex your way of change is vital. To give you a greater chance of affecting change, as leaders you need to make clear choices about your change strategy and become mindful of your own leadership practices that support or hinder that strategy. Cultivating connections, being savvy about power and designing flexibility into your change strategy and your leadership style can provide the grounding force for transformation.
Leading change is as much about conservation as transformation, as much about creation as destruction. Standing in the tension of those opposites while you lead change is hard work.
Here are a few guideposts to help you stand your ground and move forward at the same time.
1. Know your culture deeply
Leading in uncertain times means leading when there is often disagreement—when we don’t know what is going to happen next, it’s hard to agree on what to do. This tension pulls us toward seeking certainty. The one place you may find it is in knowing your culture deeply. As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. So, understand what makes your organization tick—and stick. Appreciating formal and informal ways of working, making decisions and dealing with conflict should inform your change strategy so it fits your culture.
2. Be Mindful of Power
Understanding your culture means understanding how power happens. This is more than basic stakeholder management of who ‘has the power’ and how to influence them. It is about being aware of how power dynamics flow throughout the layers of your organization. When you move offices, change the parking system or re-level jobs, you are directly shifting the very visible symbols of power. The less visible aspects of power, the deeply held beliefs of what power is, course through organizational life. Paying attention to how individuals and groups interact and respond to leaders is an important consideration. Remember to turn the spotlight on yourself, too. Noticing the impact you have on others--when your leadership inspires compliance, defiance or connection—can guide your adaptive abilities. Take time to understand how you define power, how you use it and how that approach fits with the culture and the type of change you want to achieve. A belief that power is about control leads to a change approach full of directives and deliverables, with little room for creativity and relationships. If you are aiming at complex transformation, such an approach is not likely to work so you may need to reframe power as connection.
3. Provide clarity
The most common question during change is why. Why are we changing—the process, the people, the system? As leaders we often experience the change first as we are directly exposed to the strategic issues alive in the organization. However, because we’ve started the change process, we often assume the rationale for change is obvious. But it isn’t always. So challenge the need for and benefit of the change, clearly define and describe it and be prepared to repeat that rationale often. Keeping the rationale transparent and readily visible helps support the ongoing engagement you need to make change happen.
4. Engage early, keep engaging
No matter how small or large, how complex or simple the change, engage people early on. Most research into effective change management shows that genuine engagement is fundamental to success. Yet in most cases, leaders often define the change themselves and then tell the rest of the business about it. Consider involving people in the problem definition and the solution design of the change. Not every type of change needs the same depth of engagement. Changes that are aimed at creating consistency can often been achieved with a more directive style whilst culture change requires deep and ongoing real engagement from the start. Err on the side of more engagement and your chance of success increases whatever the change.
5. Cultivate connections
The connections permeating your organization need attention, so support your change strategy with breadth and depth of engagement. To make engagement meaningful, cultivate connections between your people and you strategy, change approach, leadership style and infrastructure. Congruence is essential. If your strategy relies on efficiency, be mindful of incongruent policies that require multiple layers of approvals. Be prepared for changes to infrastructure that will ground your strategy and change.
6. Design in flexibility
One double-edged habit is planning. Planning is required for effective management. But planning change rarely works. Most leaders know organizational changes rarely go strictly to plan. It’s hard to predict and plan for responses to change especially amidst changes in the larger socio-economic and political contexts. Build in flexibility and feedback to adapt your plans in real time. Adapt your strategy depending on where you are in the change cycle…systemic engagement upfront, planned execution and amplifying emergent innovations along the way.
7. Listen, Listen and Listen
You need to listen deeply and with empathy. Change is hard. When you feel your frustration rise--that voice that says I’ve told them 1,000 times already, why won’t they just do it--then stop talking and start listening. No matter how strong your own convictions about this change, not everyone will agree. Advocating your position all the time is alienating. Real engagement is about dialogue—listening and inquiring. Set up team listening sessions where your role is to say and do very little. Actively listen and inquire with the intention to understand and learn. Through this you can learn what needs to change in the change and keep moving forward.
8. Fail forward
It’s the only way. Most of us learn more when we fail than when we repeat something to perfection. If you want creativity and commitment to change, then find how you can accommodate a degree of failure. Encourage experiments and calculated risks, take time to capture the learning and incorporate it into the change. Set clear boundaries, stay connected by spending time with your people and give them space to do something brilliant.
9. Be visible, stay visible
At times of change, it’s not uncommon for leaders to become invisible. The extra work and pressure can keep leaders too busy to talk. Such focus on task can be accompanied by little communication, leading to speculation and anxiety. “I’m just keeping my head down and getting on with my job,” is a common response to invisible leaders. Notice your own tendency to disappear at times of uncertainty. Challenge yourself to stay ‘out there’. Invest in relationships, not activities.
10. Be human
As a leader you have to manage your own change whilst helping others manage theirs. Attempting to stand out as impervious to change only breeds alienation. Admitting change can is messy can create openings for connection. Finding a way to allow space for vulnerability helps deepen relationships, build trust and create resilience. Your power as a leader can come from being human and that can make all the difference in leading change.