A few months ago, I found myself in a conversation with the CEO of a major Australian retailer who, when asked about his biggest concerns, said that the biggest challenge business leaders face today is how to stay competitive and agile amid constantly shifting consumer expectations, competitive disruption and an accelerated pace of technology change.
One of the truths of business is that most organizations that have made it past the startup stage are built around efficiency rather than agility. This creates a juxtaposition of organizational skills, where the ability to capitalize on opportunities and dodge threats with speed and confidence are offset by corporate bureaucracy and a risk averse reward system. Examples from the last few years, such as RadioShack, Staples and more, show that it is easy to identify companies that have that faced a challenge or new opportunity and tried, but failed, to align on or execute on their transformation strategy. In truth, the traditional ways company leaders are setting strategy and leading change are failing in today’s ever-increasingly ambiguous and volatile business climate.
There are literally millions of leaders, in all sorts of organizations, all around the world. No matter what type of organization they lead, however, leaders that are great at leading their organization through change are rare. These special leaders share habits and an approach that have a profound effect on their people, their customers and their organizations. These differentiating leadership habits rally the organization around a powerful vision of the future and galvanize people to action. Through decades of experience working with C-level executives across the globe, I have identified the following five specific habits of great change leaders that have proven to be the most powerful.
The 5 Top Habits of Leaders Who Are Great at Leading Change
No. 1 – Instill a shared vision.
Great change leaders realize you cannot mobilize a workforce unless there is a universally shared awareness and understanding of the new future. The power and consistency of your message and how it speaks to the possible and allows others to picture themselves in this new reality is critical. What is the cost of not achieving this new future? What are the advantages of this future for your customer? For your workforce and for your company? Powerful change leaders know the first test of their success is their ability to walk a sales floor, distribution center, assembly floor, or corporate office and when asking employees at all levels about the what and why of the current transformation initiative, hear a consistent, personal and organic message that echoes their own vision.
No. 2 – Hit the streets.
The best change leaders accept the reality that their office or the boardroom are the places furthest removed from the reality of the business. An executive’s office is usually their power center, often for good reason, but it hampers truth. The boardroom and other meeting rooms serve the purpose for collaboration and decision making, but they are hampered by isolation, politics and personal ambitions that often cloud the lens of those within. These leaders know it is imperative that they connect with those who are executing the work. They dedicate up to an hour daily to “hit the streets” and talk with those who deal with the roadblocks, cultural challenges and unintended consequences of well-meaning corporate mandates.
No. 3 – Ask Good Questions.
The most successful executives leading change understand that to learn from and enlist the minds and hearts of people across their organization, they must ask good questions and be an extraordinary listener. Asking good questions allows for change leaders to accomplish three powerful things. First, it enables them to learn the level of awareness and commitment people have for the change initiative. Secondly, the simple act of asking questions around an initiative or project reinforces the importance of this initiative for the change leader and for the organization. Thirdly, it enables the ability to influence, give recognition and feedback, and set up every interaction as a teachable moment. I once worked with an executive vice president of a major public utility company who often said, “asking questions can feel like it takes twice as much time, but it is 10 times more powerful for landing the message.”
No. 4 – Establish Expectations for Mid-Management.
The universal truth of large scale organizational change is that it happens one employee at a time. To achieve organizational success, there is always a critical moment of truth when each employee must choose to do something differently today than they did yesterday. The speed and quality of organizational change is then dependent on potentially hundreds of employees through hundreds of moments a day, making the choice to do something differently. This can sound daunting and overwhelming for most large organizations, but the most successful change leaders know that the primary influence factor for each employee’s choice in each moment of truth is their direct manager. If one’s direct manager has done the job of creating awareness and buy-in and provided opportunities for training and building new skills, then it makes it easier for each employee to choose to execute new behaviors. Therefore, as a senior level leader in the organization, they hold the responsibility to set these expectations and create the environment for mid-level management to also be successful change leaders. Their ability to transfer and coach the top habits of change leadership downward into the organization exponentially impacts their organizations speed and agility for change.
No. 5 – Establish a Clear Change Scorecard.
It is true that people do what they are measured against. Set measurable sales goals and quality standards or operational expectations, and keep score daily, and these will become important. How then, do the best change leaders measure a change initiative? Most change methodologies often get lost in the measurement of activity. They measure the number of communications or percentage of employees who have completed training and fail to measure the things that equal true enduring change. To define what to measure, it is best to start with a clear picture of the desired future. They define the five key things they would see or hear in any key environment (examples: sales floor, meeting room, corporate office, project team, or from the customer) if things were going well. They write down what they believe people would be saying and what behaviors they would expect to observe. The most powerful change scorecards include a balance of measurable key performance metrics and measurable “say and do” behavioral indicators that tell the story of execution quality.
Major organizational transformation efforts are hard and are even more difficult for organizations that lack change leadership skills. Executives who focus now on instilling these agile change leadership habits throughout their organization will be the leaders of the most successful organizations of the future.