If you ask any leader, “What has been one of the most defining moments in your career?” most likely, the answer will be related to leading a significant organizational change. This is not surprising: our brains are wired to remember peak moments more vividly. These are experiences that capture us at moments of achievement or courage; or moments that change our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.1
Organizations place a lot of value on leaders who can effectively lead others through change. In fact, effective change leadership is a common competency used to identify and develop high potential employees.2 However, despite the importance that both leaders and organizations place on change leadership, many organizations lack an intentional strategy to help their leaders become effective change-makers. Many of us are guilty of having used the ‘sink or swim’ approach disguised as ‘on the job learning’. Intentionally or not, we throw our up-and-coming talent into leading changes in an environment that is increasingly complex and unpredictable without the benefit of a foundation to help them along the way.
For on-the-job learning to be effective, it needs to reinforce the behaviors we are looking to shift or embed. This means that we need to define the guiding principles of how we should lead through change and the experience that we want to provide our change-makers, employees, partners, and clients. The benefit of talking about ‘how we lead change’ goes beyond leadership development. It sets clear norms of behavior and common expectations of how we will measure success while empowering our change-makers to ask for what they need.
How can we best prepare our current and future change-makers?
It’s useful to think about the actions that we can take preemptively, through more structured leadership development, coaching, and resources. We should also consider the ‘just-in-time’ support we can provide to help leaders navigate a change event.
The good news is that there is significant overlap between what makes an effective change-maker and what makes an effective leader. Development activities (such as training and coaching) that encourage leaders to increase their self-awareness and growth mindset and help them become more resilient, inclusive, accountable, and collaborative, will also help them be better change-makers. In addition, change-makers need to be good at storytelling, influencing, and systems thinking. To maximize impact, we need to be intentional in helping them understand how they can apply these leadership skills in a change situation.
As they get ready to embark into a large-scale, high-impact change, we can support change-makers in two dimensions:
- Change acceptance – In order to lead, change-makers need to be willing to move. In many situations, we ask leaders to take on new initiatives on top of their current responsibilities. You can increase their willingness to lead by creating a space to intentionally discuss how this initiative fits into the broader organizational picture and what’s in it for them personally. When they intentionally set their personal goals – whether it is to accelerate their development, build their network, gain a broader enterprise view, learn new skills, or do something with impact – they will feel valued and more energized to take on a new challenge.
- Change-related skills – Leaders need to feel able to lead the change. Beyond the resources and information needed to execute the ‘what’ of the change, they also need access to practical, ‘just-in-time’ change management guidance and tools. Instead of providing theoretical change toolkits and training that few people will use, employ a design thinking approach to uncover what would be most useful for change-makers as they navigate large-scale change. This may include practical tools, like a change playbook tailored to your organization, and targeted coaching/advice to discuss ideas and overcome challenges.
Our change-makers can survive a change event, or they can consciously experience and lead the change. This will not make the change less complex or challenging, but it will help them approach the experience with a different mindset, less fear, and a higher level of confidence. It will also help advance the business goals that the change is looking to achieve and help build organizational agility and resilience.
- Doll, Karen. (2019). What is Peak-End Theory? A Psychologist Explains How Our Memory Fools Us.com
- Fernandez-Araoz, C., Roscoe, A., Aramaki, K. Turning Potential into Success: The Missing Link in Leadership Development. Harvard Business Review, November–December 2017 Issue