How to Be a Successful Change Leader

How to Be a Successful Change Leader - Center for Creative Leadership

Great Change Leaders Focus on People & Process

Successful change is one of the biggest problems that modern organizations face. In our fast-changing world, the strategic imperative to change is often clear: Without doing things differently, our company is unlikely to succeed, or last.

At its core, change leadership is working together to create a shared understanding of change required to execute the strategy, and how to best make it happen. But change-management research has demonstrated time after time that organizational change initiatives fail more often than they succeed, despite the resources put into creating change management processes.

We know that effective leadership is essential to successful change. But we wanted to understand the differences in change leadership between successful and unsuccessful change efforts. That’s why we recently conducted a study where we asked 275 senior executives to reflect on successful and unsuccessful change efforts they’d led.

Our goal was to characterize “change-capable leadership,” define the key leadership competencies necessary for change, and better understand leadership behaviors that could contribute to change failures.

The executives we surveyed were all participants in our Leadership at the Peak program, which targets executives with more than 15 years of management experience, responsibility for 500 or more people, and decision-making authority as members of top management teams. All of them were seasoned leaders.

Our study revealed 9 critical leadership competencies of successful change efforts and change-capable leaders. The 9 change competencies can be further divided into 3 main categories — what we call “the 3 C’s of change,” leading the process, and leading the people.

Infographic: The 3 C's of Effective Change Leadership - CCL

The 3 C’s of Change Leadership

Researchers found that 3 skills provide the necessary connection between the process part of change and the people part of change. These 3 C’s unite effective change leadership:

1. Communicate.

Unsuccessful leaders tended to focus on the “what” behind the change. Successful leaders communicated the “what” and the “why.” Leaders who explained the purpose of the change and connected it to the organization’s values or explained the benefits created stronger buy-in and urgency for the change.

2. Collaborate.

Bringing people together to plan and execute change is critical. Successful leaders worked across boundaries, encouraged employees to break out of their silos, and refused to tolerate unhealthy competition. They also included employees in decision-making early on, strengthening their commitment to change. Unsuccessful change leaders failed to engage employees early and often in the change process.

3. Commit.

Successful leaders made sure their own beliefs and behaviors supported change, too. Change is difficult, but leaders who negotiated it successfully were resilient and persistent, and willing to step outside their comfort zone. They also devoted more of their own time to the change effort and focused on the big picture. Unsuccessful leaders failed to adapt to challenges, expressed negativity, and were impatient with a lack of results.

Access Our Webinar!

Watch our webinar, Leading Through Change, and learn how to become a more change-capable leader, effective in both change management and change leadership.

How to Be an Effective Change Leader

Strategic change doesn’t happen on its own. Effective leaders guide the process from start to finish. Here are the 3 key competencies that are part of leading the process:

  • Initiate. After understanding the need for change, effective change leaders begin by making the case for the change they seek. This can include evaluating the business context, understanding the purpose of the change, developing a clear vision and desired outcome, and identifying a common goal. Unsuccessful leaders say they didn’t focus on these tasks enough to reach a common understanding of the goal. Learn more about the common challenges faced when organizations are implementing change.
  • Strategize. Successful leaders developed a strategy and a clear action plan, including priorities, timelines, tasks, structures, behaviors, and resources. They identified what would change, but also what would stay the same. Leaders who weren’t successful said they failed to listen enough to questions and concerns, and failed to define success from the beginning.
  • Execute. Translating strategy into execution is one of the most important things leaders can do. In our study, successful change leaders focused on getting key people into key positions (or removing them, in some cases). They also broke big projects down into small wins to get early victories and build momentum. And they developed metrics and monitoring systems to measure progress. Unsuccessful change leaders sometimes began micromanaging, got mired in implementation details, and failed to consider the bigger picture.

Remember that, as organizations evolve over time, stability and change must coexist — which is not a problem to solve, but rather a polarity to manage. To help your organization achieve its full potential, acknowledge both poles simultaneously.

When change leaders find the sweet spot of “both/and,” they can present the change effort in a way that others can embrace.

At CCL, we’re in the business of change. Learn how a customizable Change Leadership program can help your organization ignite transformational and sustainable change.

Leading People Through Change

While formal change processes might be well understood, too many leaders neglect the all-important human side of change equation. The most effective change leaders devoted considerable effort to engaging everyone involved in the change and remembered that people need time to adapt to change — no matter how fast-moving the change initiative.

They understand how to combat change fatigue and encourage embracing change. And they exhibit these 3 crucial qualities of leading people:

  • Support. Successful change projects were characterized by leaders removing barriers to employee success. These include personal barriers, such as wounded egos and a sense of loss, as well as professional barriers, such as the time and resources necessary to carry out a change plan. Leaders of unsuccessful change focused exclusively on results, so employees didn’t get the support they needed for the change.
  • Sway. Influence is about gaining not only compliance, but also the commitment necessary to drive change. It is also about mapping out the critical change agents and defining what “buy-in” looks like from each stakeholder that will lead to a successful outcome. Effective change leaders identified key stakeholders — including board members, C-suite executives, clients, and others — and communicated their vision of successful change to them. Unsuccessful leaders told us they were more likely to avoid certain stakeholders rather than try to influence them.
  • Learn. Finally, successful change leaders never assumed they had all the answers. They asked lots of questions and gathered formal and informal feedback. The input and feedback allowed them to make continual adjustments during the change. In the case of unsuccessful changes, leaders didn’t ask as many questions or gather accurate information, which left them without the knowledge they needed to make appropriate adjustments along the way.

Build More Effective Change Leaders

Today’s leaders need the ability to address complex challenges and lead through change and disruption in new and innovative ways. Build the skills needed by partnering with us to craft a customized learning journey for your organization using our research-backed topic modules.

Available leadership topics include Communication, Emotional Intelligence & Empathy, Influencing Skills, Leading Through Change & Disruption, Listening to Understand, Psychological Safety & Trust, and more.

Lastly, leaders should recognize that leading people through complex change is difficult, and all changes, even positive ones, come at a cumulative cost. Change can drain employees — and leaders, too.

That’s why successful change leadership also requires resilience. Resilience helps people handle change’s inherent pressure, uncertainty, and setbacks. Leaders need to build their own reserves in support of their mental and physical health, and can guide others to face change in healthy and sustainable ways by learning and sharing practices to strengthen leadership resilience.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Be a change leader by building your team’s collective capacity to drive change forward effectively with our solutions for change leadership.

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November 24, 2020
Leading Effectively Staff
About the Author(s)
Leading Effectively Staff
This article was written by our Leading Effectively staff, who analyze our decades of pioneering, expert research and experiences in the field to share content that will help leaders at every level. Subscribe to our emails to get the latest research-based leadership articles and insights sent straight to your inbox.

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