The Mindset of Change Leaders

Having spent over 20 pragmatic years creating and leading change in organisations and also having studying it academically I believe I have a good take on it by now!

I’ve learnt that there is a difference between change management and change leadership. There is more sustainable success when our mindset is focused on leading it as well as managing it.

Bear in mind the definitions of Change vs Transformation.

Change resolves the past

Change requires becoming familiar with the current situation, and working to make things better, faster, cheaper. The past is the fundamental reference point and actions are intended to alter what has already happened. Success is judged by efficiencies and economies that are realised at the end of our effort, compared with when you started. When you choose change, your future is a reconditioned or improved version of the past.

Transformation creates the future

Bringing your preferred future to life requires transformation – revisiting your purpose, the beliefs that drive your decisions, and the impacts of your products and services. It is important to acknowledge the past, complete it and let it go. Create and move to the new.

Leading change is different from change management

Change management is a well-thought-out set of approaches and tools that support change, often at a project level. It happens in parallel to the project to make sure the business solution is implemented and that people adopt the new behaviour’s associated with it. It focuses on understanding the difference between the current state and future state, creating communication and training plans, identifying early adopters and resisters and paving the way for the business outcome to be reached. The change management toolkit is a very important one that should be part of projects that introduce change — but it’s not enough.

Leading change is something very different. Fundamentally, it’s about creating and communicating a vision for change not directly tied to a project or initiative. It’s about making change part of your culture’s DNA. Where it really rocks is when the organisation is consciously and intentionally defining and building the culture it desires and recognises that change leadership and management is a critical element.

It is transformational, envisioning and driving the business solution, not simply implementing it.

Change leadership creates a mindset across the organisation that focuses on what could or should be different, rather than asking people to simply adopt an already determined solution.

It removes the shackles of how we do things and asks people to truly engage in the change: to become part of creating a solution. It enables others to think differently, moving change along more rapidly and more efficiently, even while it creates a sense of upheaval. It is what makes people say “I have to be part of this,” creating momentum and a desire to continually move to the next phase or next level.

To lead change, don’t just behave differently — think differently

The great change leaders I’ve known have a different mindset than change managers. They aren’t trying to contain change. They’re trying to make it contagious, embedding change thinking into everything from the most fundamental daily interaction to the most complex strategy. To make change contagious, you start with a compelling vision.

A great example: A COO was consolidating eight sales and service support functions into a single shared services organisation. Rather than having a small team of executives determine how to integrate the organisation, he identified cross-level change teams to redefine processes, pull out redundancy and build new relationships. The only direction he gave was to deliver the vision and meet the timelines that many considered impossible. They met those requirements and more.

In addition to the vision, great change leaders hold up examples of people who are igniting change within the organisation. That same COO led a two-day offsite session for the 300 people who made up the new division. He shared success stories, including the highest score in the company’s recent engagement survey and wins that occurred with customers and individuals who embodied the vision, and engaged everyone there in conversations about how to continue to adapt and change the organisation to deliver the customer experience. The energy in the session was palpable.

Talking and sharing examples every chance you get, from the most casual conversations to the largest events, builds belief, confidence and engagement.

Focus on building trust, the bed-rock of alignment, engagement and high performance. According to Edelman’s Trust Barometer for 2013, one of the largest studies of its kind; only 18% of people trust their business leaders to tell the truth.

Change is about asking people to follow you into the unknown. If there isn’t trust, no one is going with you. Research by Donald L. Ferrin and Kurt T. Dirks showed that the greater the uncertainty the greater the impact of trust on outcomes and results. To lead change, the table stakes are that you’re credible and reliable.

In addition to the vision, great change leaders hold up examples of people who are igniting change within the organisation. That same COO led a two-day offsite session for the 300 people who made up the new division. He shared success stories — including the highest score in the company’s recent engagement survey, wins that occurred with customers and individuals who embodied the vision — and engaged everyone there in conversations about how to continue to adapt and change the organisation to deliver the customer experience. The energy in the session was palpable.

Talking and sharing examples every chance you get, from the most casual conversations to the largest events, builds belief, confidence and engagement.

Focus on building trust, the bed-rock of alignment, engagement and high performance. According to Edelman’s Trust Barometer for 2013, one of the largest studies of its kind, only 18% of people trust their business leaders to tell the truth.

Change is about asking people to follow you into the unknown. If there isn’t trust, no one is going with you. Research by Donald L. Ferrin and Kurt T. Dirks showed that the greater the uncertainty the greater the impact of trust on outcomes and results. To lead change, the table stakes are that you’re credible and reliable.

To be a great change leader, connect with people authentically and be real with them about what change means and how it happens.

Be comfortable with the discomfort of change but work to increase others’ comfort with it. When change gets bumpy or goes badly, it can be frustrating and scary. Change leaders know that not everyone will experience the same emotions — that, across the organisation, the emotions will run the gamut. Don’t allow it to become the elephant in the room. Notice it, steer into it, leverage it and maybe even embrace it.

Always create a ‘listening zone’ – a session focused on open discussion about the current changes — how are they going, how are people feeling about them, and what can be adapted to address negative emotions and accelerate change. Even small change puts us into the change curve (Kubler-Ross) either consciously or unconsciously – it is a skill to recognise this in ourselves and others. It’s this emotional element that often blocks the pace of change – where the resistance exists.

So, a change leader’s emotional intelligence and resilience is a vital aspect of their capability.

Finally, great change leaders know that change is not an event. It’s a dynamic that ebbs and flows but never goes away. Sometimes it’s large; sometimes it’s small. It’s a continual part of life in the organisation.

Above all else, change leaders hate the status quo. But, they don’t just change for change’s sake. They change to take advantage of opportunities and stay ahead of the competition. If you want to stay ahead, assess your mindset.

Take a step back and look at your attitude towards change.

Are you trying to constrain change or make it contagious?

Have you done the groundwork to make that happen — creating and communicating a compelling vision, leveraging every conversation and building trust?

Do you have the change leader’s mindset or the change manager’s mindset?

Do you think it’s possible to develop a change leader’s mindset?

Do you want to?