In fact, our work with clients also continues to show us that change leadership is in fact central to successful change management. But if we take that as a given - are there any specific characteristics we can identify in effective leadership and change management scenarios that identify qualities, behaviors or beliefs that are common to these situations?
We consistently see two building blocks which successful change leaders appear to be reliant on during major change:
- on a personal level of change resilience, executives own in-built coping mechanisms during change;
- a set of beliefs that these leaders hold about what makes change successful. These beliefs usually build up over a period of time and are based on experience.
Together these elements form a framework for adaptive change leadership. A topic that we covered in more depth recently.
Personal change resilience
A key determinant of implementation success is personal change resilience – the resilience with which individuals are able to navigate the disruption of change successfully. And this is increasingly important in highlight disruptive times when organizations increasingly need to take a more agile approach to delivering change.
People vary in their ability to do this; some can cope with the stresses associated with change better than others and can thrive even during periods of extreme turbulence. This adaptability appears to be both genetic and learnt. And leaders are no exception, but they need higher adaptability levels than others in the organization because the innovation and transformation they need to deliver can also affect them personally.
Top-line indicators of highly resilient and adaptable people (not least of all leaders) are:
- Optimism – upbeat about the future, learning from situations, not allowing problems to dampen enthusiasm.
- Self-assurance – high self-esteem, confident about own abilities, feeling a sense of control over important events.
- Focus – a clear understanding of priorities, resulting in a disciplined approach to goal achievement – even in the face of adversity.
- Openness to ideas – looking at problems in a fresh, unconstrained way, avoiding preoccupations, actively exploring alternative insights and approaches to aid decision making.
- Seeking support – drawing on other skills and experiences to solve problems collaboratively, encouraging open exchange of options and ideas.
- Structured approach – organized, methodical approach, mapping out what needs to be done in advance with enough flexibility in the plan to cope with shifting situations.
- Proactive outlook – stepping out into the unknown, thinking and acting rapidly, taking the steps necessary to make change happen. Being able to draw on these characteristics as and when the situation requires it, and in the right combination, is what brings personal change resilience that contributes to adaptive leadership.
Leadership change beliefs
The other contributors to the framework around leadership and change management are the change beliefs and mindsets of leaders.
In the last 10 years we have worked with hundreds of change leaders and observed a myriad of beliefs being manifested. Despite the number, we could categorize nearly all of them into four stages as follows:
We call stage 1 ‘rational’ because the predominant belief we see from leaders at this stage is that people will change once they understand the rationale of the case for change. As a result of this belief, leaders tend to rely on written business cases to communicate change successfully. Because ‘staff are rational’, leaders focus on providing very clear communication of data-driven change information.
Rational beliefs can be reinforced for leaders in roles that place a premium on:
- communications which are systematic, well organized and rational in content;
- facts, well-documented conclusions
- and specifics
Stage 2 is labelled ‘symbolic’ because of a strong belief among leaders that people are changed through the use of powerful symbolism in communication. As a result, change planning will focus on techniques such as large group meetings and the use of branded change symbols such as T-shirts and videos.
The idea behind this approach is that symbols can represent compact and efficient images, systems and even single words that can embody complex ideas. Take the word ‘freedom’ for example – just reading the word conjures up dozens of ideas and images like choice, security, safety, pursuit of one’s desires, even insanity. This last association highlights the challenge with the use of symbols in change communications. Symbolic reasoning is a double-edged sword. It makes communication more effective, but it can also lead to gross misinterpretation of the intentions and goals of major disruptive changes.
Stage 3 is the predominant belief ‘specialist’. The feeling here is that change is about people and people are control-oriented and risk-averse, rather than change-ready as the literature would have us believe. People’s primary focus during the disruption of major organizational change is on finding a way to re-establish that feeling of control they felt before the change; this process, which can often be a struggle for people, requires specialist psychological skills and support. This propels leaders to enlist specialists in HR functions to help them lead major organizational change.
Unfortunately, in many cases HR does not bring the skill sets and tools needed to think through, build and deploy the people side of a project plan. In addition, internal specialists also have a day job and their involvement in change is very dependent on their ability to juggle other responsibilities.
The final stage, which we call ‘adaptive’, relates to the leadership belief that effective change planning requires an understanding of the whole system of change that will impact people and their performance. They believe that change success is not only determined by the ability to manage resistance, but also the ability to effectively balance people’s capacity for change with the aggregate demands of multiple projects and initiatives placed on people.
As a result of this mindset we observe that people change becomes an integral part of organizational planning. Leaders are actively involved in agreeing the plan and will actually be devoting their time and energy to tailoring and developing it for different groups affected by the change. Measures of implementation success take account of the legacy and adaptability levels that people are able to contribute to future changes are key in this stage.
If you are interested in learning more about for adaptive change leadership.
You can read more about this in Chapter 6 of our book, Enterprise Change Management – How to prepare your organization for continuous change. Also, if you would like to get a flavor for the book, then you can download a free copy of Chapter 1 here.
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