What Is Leading Change? The Basics, Steps, and Beyond

What Is Leading Change?

As leaders, we are faced with decisions every day regarding the future of our companies. Sometimes we are met with a crossroads and need to choose a path: Do we continue as we have always been doing, or do we implement change?

Recognizing the need for change is only the first step. Leading change needs to be thoughtful, planned, and collaborative.

Change is often met with resistance, and we need to guide our employees through the uncomfortable parts. The vision for change needs to be understood at all levels. At the end, everyone can celebrate success together.

Why Are We Called to Lead Change?

Organizations need change for many reasons. Sometimes longtime structural issues catch up with us. Sometimes external factors force us to make changes that we were not expecting.

Responsiveness can be the difference between company success and failure. Not only do we need to formulate a plan, but the change needs to happen smoothly. A chaotic approach will result in disruption, unhappy employees, and ultimately be counter-productive.

Change impacts the whole company, whether it is a different procedure, better service, a redesign, a merger, or a new product. It is essential to understand the impact on every role. 

If this sounds like a lot, it can be. Change leaders must have vision and agility and also inspire change across the organization. It requires strategy and the right team to turn that vision into reality.

The Characteristics of a Change Leader

Change leaders tend to have certain skills. These characteristics guide the change strategy. At the highest level, these leaders:

Identify: They recognize that change is needed.

Adapt: They constantly build and transform. This includes both self-awareness and what they want from others.

Act: They plan the change needed and surround themselves with the staff that can make it happen.

Strategize: They design the workplace around the change that is needed. They put the necessary improvements in place.

Communicate: They are clear in communication. They use language that reduces anxiety and uncertainty.

Commit: They don’t back down from knowing that change will ultimately benefit everyone. 

Understanding The Basics of Leading Change

“Be the change you want to see” may sound cliché, but as leaders, it begins with us. We need to know how to lead change and take the steps necessary to make it happen.

Dr. John P. Kotter is an internationally known speaker on change within a business. His thought leadership centers around how organizations act on change. Kotter developed an 8-Step Process for Leading Change based on more than four decades of observing leaders and organizations. 

From those that were successful, Dr. Kotter identified the factors that led to success. They are:

  1. Create a sense of urgency
  2. Build a guiding coalition
  3. Form a strategic vision and initiatives
  4. Enlist a volunteer army
  5. Enable action by removing barriers
  6. Generate short-term wins
  7. Sustain acceleration
  8. Institute change

This pragmatic approach offers a guide for leaders to follow. But how can we put these principles into practice within our own organizations? How can we move past the barriers and meet our goals for change?

Taking The Steps to Lead Change

Change often involves something that doesn’t even exist yet. It can be exhilarating to build something from nothing. Along with this, we can also feel overwhelmed by not knowing where to begin.

Our plans for change need to involve measuring success. How will we know when we get there? Once we have defined success, we need to look at the steps involved along the way.

Company Culture

It is widely known: people don’t like change. It forces them to move out of their comfort zone. Failure will most certainly occur if we do not consider the existing culture.

Emotional intelligence includes skill in perceiving, understanding, and managing emotions and feelings. We need to tap into emotional intelligence to foster the necessary culture for change.

Start by identifying what will be critical to change. Does it involve structural changes, attitude changes, or both? Know what behaviors can make this happen, and put them front and center in everyday business.

Involve Everyone

Organizational change does not happen when only the executives are involved. Of course, it starts at the top with well-aligned strategy and support, but it doesn’t end there. Leaders need to understand the impact on every role and job function.

This involves consulting people at all levels. Don’t assume that management knows the day-to-day logistics and how they will be impacted. Change will also occur more seamlessly when people feel included in decisions.

Change needs to occur in days or weeks, not months, to fuel momentum. While the details are important, getting too focused on the details can cause us to lose sight of the big picture.

Communication

The message of change is important, but so is the implementation. People may not innately know what the change means or how it impacts their roles. The communication needs to be constant and consistent.

The more that change is communicated from within and the more people that begin to promote change, the more nay-sayers will change their thinking and actions. 

Some people may never adapt to change and leave the organization, and that’s ok too. Once you have decided the change is essential, you need employees that will continue to move forward.

Assess and Adapt

Plans for change may include some structural motivators, such as rewards, internal training, or other support for the employees. These are fine as they can help to change the mindset of employees.

Along the way, we need to recognize what works and what doesn’t. By putting milestones in place, we can evaluate how people are adapting to the change. Inconsistency will deprive the organization of information needed to determine how to best support change.

How to Lead Change

While we may know the steps for leading change, implementing change takes strong leadership and the right skills for success. We need to not only be able to identify change but act quickly and with innovation. Leaders must ensure the strategy for change is in place while also keeping eyes on the big picture.

But where to start? Do you know what needs to be done but need some advice on how to lead change?

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