Change your opinions, keep to your principles; change your leaves, keep intact your roots. (Victor Hugo)
Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment. (Proverbs 18:1)
Leading change is the test of your leadership
The ability to drive needed changes in a team or organization is a skill that all leaders must nurture. Understanding the strategic need for change is very different from the art of leading change. Many leaders are adept at the former but stumble at the latter. It’s not unusual for teams to become cynical regarding change because it’s often handled poorly. Change is a necessary part of leadership, so what are the principles for leading a healthy change process?
Seven Principles for Leading Change
One | Understand with clarity what will change
Before entering a change process, a leader must understand precisely what needs to change, why it needs to change, and what things will look like on the other side of the change. It’s tempting to enter change processes prematurely, knowing that change is needed without knowing what changes need to happen. The method of leading change is complicated, so don’t complicate it further by operating without a clear vision of what will change and what will be unchanged.
Two | Prepare people emotionally for the change
Most people are naturally resistant to change. Thus, it is critical to prepare your team for the change and secondary changes that will follow. They need to understand why change is necessary, and you need to build a case for how that change will help the organization better accomplish its mission. In his book Leading Change, John Kotter suggests that if you can create a need that enables you to build a case for change, do so. Unless there is a cause compelling enough to change, people will naturally resist it for ease, comfort, and status quo.
Three | Always connect change to your mission and vision
Change for change’s sake does not market well. You enter a change process so that you can meet the new challenges in a new environment to accomplish your mission and deliver on your brand promise. In many cases, a change is long overdue. The world has changed, but you have not. Your rationale for change must always be anchored in the mission and vision of the organization. After all, your mission is the reason for your existence. Always remind people of why your organization is changing: to ensure that together you accomplish your mission and vision in today’s market.
This is one of the areas where a leader can defuse a crisis by explaining the implications of failure to change. What’s at stake? The jobs of staff, the viability of the enterprise, and the future health of the company. In the end, you want to have convinced a majority of your team that this must happen and that the status quo is not an option.
Four | Recruit a team to guide the process
Before you enter the change process, ensure that you have the right people who will support the proposed changes. This is your support network that will guide the transition. There will inevitably be resistance to change along the way, and you need the right people with you to not only support the change but to be proponents for that change. That coalition needs to be strong enough to overcome the resistance that you will encounter in the process. Don’t move forward without it.
Five | Provide ways for input
As you make a case over time for the coming changes, give your team the opportunity to weigh in and make additional suggestions. One of the best ways to do this is to dialogue over time with as many staff as you can. Explain when necessary, listen to issues they are encountering, invite dialogue on opportunities for adjustments, and listen to input, regardless of how it’s delivered.
Remember that although you understand the need for change and what it will look like, many others will not. Even if you’ve spoken about it or written about it in a memo, this does not mean that constituents understand the change or the impact of the change. The more significant the change, the longer it takes for people to make the paradigm shift in their minds; many will not make the change until they see what life looks like on the other side of change. Be patient. Above all, listen and explain.
Six | In the process, overcommunicate
One cannot communicate enough in the process of change. Often, change is not just a different way of doing things but a significant paradigm shift. Communicate your case in as many different ways, settings, and communication modes as you can. Never assume that you have communicated enough. In your communications, find ways to keep the inevitable anxiety over change as low as possible. Your confidence in the process will give others confidence as well. Your communications, comments, and presence with staff will bring a needed level of stability to the process.
Seven | Persevere as you face resistance
You will encounter resistance to change. This may be active or passive resistance. You may have cynics on the staff. Some might even suggest that you are fixing something that isn’t broken, giving you all kinds of grief and reasoning as to why this change is a bad idea. When such resistance comes, what your staff needs to hear you say is “We’re resolved,” and they also need to know you’re not closing the debate out of stubbornness. You’re acting out of a thoughtful resolve, fully aware that change is hard but is going to happen. You’ve committed to a direction you all need to go in together. And you are committed to completing the transition alongside your team, no one left behind. All too often, change stalls when resistance comes because leaders are intimidated and therefore question themselves. But if you have addressed the previous six points above, you don’t need to harbor doubt. The resistance you’re encountering is normal, and if you are clear on the what and the why, you will move forward, and hopefully others will too.