Whether leading their own initiative, or supporting a project sent down from on high, a modern manager is almost always in the throes of some sort of change. Change is constant and change is hard. One recent study showed that only about 25% of change initiatives are successful in meeting long term objectives.
Today’s managers are not only expected to execute on the tactical elements of a project but to also be experts at meeting the human needs of their team during the transition.
Enter change management.
Change management refers to the tools and techniques used to manage the people-side of a change. The term is commonplace in business and is becoming a key skill that leadership looks for in managers.
As a change management consultant, I have worked with some of the world’s largest companies as they have navigated complex transitions. Some of these changes included M&A activity, culture shifts, and global technology implementations. As I work with different organizations, I am often surprised by the difference one person can make. I have noticed that some managers excel at leading their teams through complex changes, while others fail spectacularly. When I looked closely at the managers that lead the way, the ones that I label “change rockstars”, I noticed they all exhibited three key traits that contributed to their success. These traits don’t tell the whole story but they are interesting guidepost for effective change leaders.
1) They become the change
When leading a change, nothing undermines success more quickly than saying one thing and doing another. As a manager or leader of a transition, others look to you to represent the change. Ghandi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” This is an inspiring quote when thinking about making the world a better place, but it also applies to changing your organization. When leading a change, the best managers embody the change. They become a living symbol of the desired outcome.
I once worked with a director that was trying to improve the work-life-balance of his team. He instructed his direct reports to set goals to leave the office earlier, work from home, and spend more time with their families and on their hobbies. After a few weeks, he was stunned that nothing had changed. When he came to me for suggestions, I pointed out that he was still in the office working twelve-hours every day. He wasn’t modeling the behaviors of the change. It wasn’t until he started leaving early, working remotely, and celebrating his hobbies, that his team felt empowered to follow suit. He had to live the change before they would. Managers that excel at change ‘walk the talk’.
2) They build employee engagement ahead of time
Frequently while working with an organization’s change, I will see two teams experience the transition with very differently. One team will take the changing conditions in stride and quickly adapt and develop processes and solutions for the future state. The other team will resist the shifting landscape and fight to keep the status quo. Often the difference between the teams can be traced to their engagement prior to the introduction of the change.
One of the best things leaders can do now to prepare for future change is to build employee engagement. This is especially effective among managers. Helping a team, group, or company make a change requires extra effort. Managers are almost always expected to absorb this extra work along with their regular responsibilities. An engaged manager is willing to use their discretionary effort for the good of the company.
When the extra work associated with a change comes along, they take it in stride and keep their eyes (and the eyes of their team) focused on the big picture. They are willing to set aside skepticism and get to work to make things happen.
An engaged manager also brings authenticity to the change. They find a way to personally identify and find meaning in the initiative. When they promote the change to others, this authenticity shines through and gives them credibility. On the other hand, when disengaged managers attempt to promote a change, they often come across as propaganda machines. They’re repeating the party line, and often can slow the momentum of the initiative.
3) They invite and involve
Business leaders often express the need to manage people through a change. The leaders that truly excel at driving change have a different approach. They manage the change through their people. They invite and involve others to participate. They bring their teams with them. They share information, ask for feedback, and then share the team’s insights and concerns with leadership.
During a recent change project, I worked with a manager that excelled at involving others. She managed a team of fifteen people. She enlisted each of them in every step of the change. She shared project updates, sought feedback, and then share her teams input with the project leadership. I was so impressed by her results that I asked her to tell me more about her approach. She said, “My team is important to me and I want them to be successful…they’re smart people and can help make this project more successful.” By involving her team she gave them a sense of ownership and involvement. They became invested in the project’s outcome.
These three traits aren’t a comprehensive list of what’s needed to make a change successful, but they are important things to look for in those leading the change. Remember, one person can have an amazing impact on making a change successful.