What makes a good leader during a change initiative?

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There are two types of leader. Those who are good at running systems and operations, and those who are good at changing things. It’s rare that you find a leader who can do both because they require a different approach and different skills.

During a change initiative, the focus has to be on energising people about the vision so they buy into the change programme. You need to show them just how good the promised land could be to ignite that passion and get them excited about wanting to join you on the journey of making that vision a reality.

In my experience, there are three capabilities that enable a leader to guide their organisation through change:

  • The ability to articulate change through a vivid vision.
  • The art of active listening to be aware of what is/isn’t being said.
  • The need for effective communications to overcome fear.

The ability to articulate change through a vivid vision

In the UK, more than half (52%) of employees can’t recite their organisation’s vision. While most businesses have tried to encapsulate their vision in a catchy one-liner, very few of those statements articulate what change is necessary and why. Take a look at these examples:

  • Apple: “To make the best products on earth, and to leave the world better than we found it.”
  • Starbucks: “To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, and one neighbourhood at a time.”
  • LEGO: “Children are our vital concern.”

They fail to provide clarity and detail: how will we know when the vision has been achieved (assuming it’s achievable in the first place)? What do we need to execute? How long will it take?

And they fail to really inspire because they haven’t let the individual know how they contribute to that vision of success.

Great leaders know that to be meaningful, the vision can’t be a clever one-liner that’s simply written on the wall. It needs to have a detailed and well-defined business strategy behind it so that people can understand why it’s necessary and believe it’s achievable.

A vivid vision will consider change through different lenses and at different stages of the journey. It means that anyone in the business could articulate what the impact would be on the business, its employees, customers, partners, suppliers…etc, and get them excited about how your change positively affects their future too.

Creating this vivid vision isn’t just going to help ensure your change is a success, over three-quarters (76%) of employees believe it helps cultivate a positive work culture, since it centres the workforce around a professional purpose. In turn, this is going to motivate your team, because you’ve given them a great place to work, which is going to reduce staff attrition, and push nearly a third (30%) of your team to become high-performers.

The art of active listening to be aware of what is/isn’t being said

We all know that the majority of communication is non-verbal — studies show that body language and tone of voice account for 93% of communication cues.

Imagine you’re presenting your change initiative to the Board. Everyone is nodding along and agreeing with what you’re saying, but someone’s sitting quietly thinking, “But what does that mean for my job.” It’s that unspoken, questioning doubt that will derail your change project.

During periods of change good leaders will use deep listening, where they’re listening intently at what isn’t being said, as much as what is. For your doubter in the Boardroom, it could be a micro-expression, or a slight inflection at the end of a word, but a good leader will spot it and address it.

I’ve been on the receiving end of active listening and it can feel a little disconcerting at first because you feel like the other person is really getting inside your head. But it’s all technique. Mirroring, using playback, or repeating your name are all ways of helping the person to feel heard and understood, and to confirm the unspoken conversation that’s being had in the room.

But there’s another side to active listening.

Great leaders know when to step back so they don’t lead other people’s thinking. They are humble and know that even though they’re the ‘leader’, with the job title, salary and status to match, they don’t have all the answers. They know that the best ideas often come from people working on the frontline because they see where systems are broken, they know why certain processes need to be done a certain way in your business, and they understand what your customers value most. Great leaders empower their people and allow their ideas to emerge. They then make them accountable to execute on their ideas by giving them everything they need to succeed.

The need for effective communications to overcome fear

As senior business leaders it’s easy to forget just how much we know about what goes on ‘behind the scenes’. We sit in a privileged position where we have access to sensitive and confidential information about the company, its financial situation and the changing market conditions. We’ve come together to discuss strategy and probably have countless separate discussions with people across the business.

We can’t assume that people are viewing change within the same context as us.

When we communicate, the message has to be very clear and give people all the facts they need to understand what change is necessary and why.

Another big reason that change projects fail is that people are naturally very nervous of change. Imagine you’re on a plane and it’s hit turbulence. Your knee-jerk reaction to the plane shaking is fear because you don’t know what’s going on and whether you’ll soon be plummeting to your end. But then the cabin crew makes an announcement to say everything’s fine, it’s just a bit of turbulence, and asks you to put your seatbelt on.

Great leaders understand this inherent fear we all feel, and provide constant reassurance. They set the expectation that at times things might be bumpy but in the end everything will be worth it, before realigning their assurance back to the vivid vision.

They also understand that some of this fear is born from not wanting to miss out. When some people feel like they don’t have control over the change, they can go out of their way to put barriers in place to de-rail that change. Great leaders know how to involve people within the change process so they help rather than hinder progress. They do this by sharing WHY change is necessary, WHAT needs to happen, but then leaving it to individuals/teams to work out HOW to do it.

Join us!

On Wednesday 21st April at 5.30pm we are hosting a webinar on the ‘Secrets of the 16%’. Join us as our panel of experts discuss people, strategy and leadership, and how you can affect change with each to ensure your future success.

Register for free here…



AJ Circle Crop
Written by Adrian Stalham
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