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Leading Effectively Podcast

Leading in Times of Transition

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Do you feel that your organization is awash in change? Do you have a hard time keeping up with the shifting demands you face as a leader? You're not alone. Unrelenting change is becoming the norm. Leaders have no choice but to adapt and to help others to adapt.

Organizational events such as restructuring, mergers and acquisitions or financial problems force leaders to rethink their work and adapt to a changing workforce. Pressure to achieve results and to satisfy often-competing demands builds the intensity. External factors - the economy, industry and market trends, globalization, political and social concerns and rapid technological changes all conspire to make leadership a complex, difficult undertaking.

"Leadership today often feels extreme and extraordinary," says Michael Wakefield, a faculty member of the Center for Creative Leadership. "Paradoxically, the dynamic of extraordinary times in organizations is becoming ordinary and commonplace for most leaders."

Rapid change and constant transition have created a more emotional dynamic in organizations. "Uncertainty can trigger all kinds of behavioral and emotional reactions from leaders and the people who are affected by the decisions of leadership," says Wakefield, co-author of the book Leading with Authenticity in Times of Transition. "Confronted by change, people go through a time of transition that is rarely easy. They adapt at different paces and in various ways, depending upon the circumstances and the individual."

People have come to accept change as a part of organizational life and are more comfortable in adapting to it. But the challenge of leadership remains a difficult problem.

The complexity and intensity of transition is a reaction to change - and the more frequent or more dramatic the change, the more complex the process of transition. Yet, organizations and leaders commonly overlook or dismiss the human side of change.

"Many managers have mastered the structural side of leading change - creating a vision, reorganizing, restructuring and so on," Wakefield says. "They are rewarded, evaluated and educated to deal with the structural issues and so have more experience with them."

The stresses and pressures generated by structural or operational change lead to an increased need to pay attention to what's going on with the people in the organization. Research at the Center for Creative Leadership shows that leading transition involves guiding people though a process of grieving, letting go, building hope and learning. In many ways, the bigger challenge for leaders is to manage the longer-term, human aspects of change: recovery, revitalization and recommitment.

Research shows that 75 percent of change initiatives fail. Why? Managing change requires leaders to deal effectively with both the structural side of leading change and the human dynamic of transition. When the skills associated with either side are overplayed, leaders destabilize the organizational culture by eroding trust. Instead of a loyal, productive and enthusiastic workforce, executives and managers must lead employees who are insecure, fearful and skeptical. By failing to gain sufficient buy-in from employees, leaders slow down and undermine their progress toward new goals.

"When leaders ignore or minimize the people side of managing change, perfectly good strategies and change initiatives stall or fail," says Wakefield.

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