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.
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 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, the full results of which are available in a new white paper, revealed 9 critical leadership competencies of successful change efforts. 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 people.
The 3 C’s of Change Leadership
These 3 C’s are the most common themes that 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.
Leading the Process
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. 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.
- 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.
While formal change processes might be well understood, too many leaders neglect the all-important human side of change. The most effective leaders devoted considerable effort to engaging everyone involved in the change effort. 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. Effective 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.
Besides the 9 change-capable leadership competencies, our study also identified leadership traps and change derailers that characterized failed change efforts.
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