Any leader needing or wanting to lead change can benefit from understanding what these five critical skills are and developing a moderate skill level in each. The five appear to function together, rather than being five unique or alternative approaches. The importance of each one is highlighted by this fact: you need all five to make the biggest difference. If you break it down, being above average at four only gets a leader’s overall change leadership effectiveness to the 64th percentile, but then adding one more capability vaults a leader 17 percentile points higher, moving them into the top 20% of all those who lead change.
Five Critical Skills of Leading Change
What Powers Leaders to Make Change Happen?
- Foster Innovation. Innovation is one secret ingredient that makes a difficult, painstaking change move from impossible to easy. There is often a better way, but too often, leaders bulldoze forward without looking for more innovative and creative options. The leader need not personally be highly innovative. There is a big difference between being innovative and supporting innovation by others. Often someone in your organization or network has a brilliant idea that will make change much easier, faster and less painful. They need your backing and sponsorship.
- Act Quickly. We found in our research that leaders who were able to act quickly were two times as effective at making change happen. We have all had the experience of ripping off a bandage slowly and know that doing it quickly is much less painful. But it requires courage to grab one end and rip it off. Most of us can identify a change process that plodded and dithered. This increased the difficulty, resistance and pain. Leaders who increase the speed of a change process where possible will usually be more effective in the long run.
- Maintain Strategic Perspective. What is the goal? What does the organization aspire to be? Will the change we’re contemplating bring us closer or take us further from that goal? Making a change without a clear strategy is like being lost in the woods and deciding to walk faster, despite the lack of a clear path to your destination. Too often, organizations get caught up in a change process, forgetting to tie that change back to the organizational strategy.
- Develop External Perspective. What is the big picture? What are the trends? What is happening in your market or industry? One naturally occurring outcome of an organization change is that people tend to focus in on what is happening within their organization and may forget to look out at what’s going on outside the organization. People get so caught up in internal challenges, including politics and conflicts; that they fail to notice that the world is changing around them. Keeping an eye on the outside, especially customers, helps everyone understand why the change is necessary and the value that change can create.
- Inspire and Motivate. Many leaders’ first impulse is to initiate the change process with a big push. Pushing behaviors are those that focus on deadlines, timelines, accountability, direction, deliverables and orders. Pushing is helpful because it forces everyone to move forward, lacking no other alternative. Most change efforts naturally begin with a big push. But, pushing makes change a hardship with no alternatives. When leaders combine push (driving for results) and pull (inspire and motivate) the outcome is much better.
We presumed that leaders who are more effective at leading change would have direct reports that were more confident that their organization would be successful. To test this hypothesis, we looked at data from 90,185 leaders whose direct reports were asked to indicate their level of confidence that the organization would be successful. Leaders who had above average skills on the five behaviors that enable leaders to be more effective at championing change, also had direct reports who scored at the 70th percentile regarding their confidence that the organization would be successful. Leaders who had none of the five skills that were above average had success scores at the 33rd percentile.
Conclusion from Mr. Folkman:
We are confident that leaders who can perform these five skills at an above-average level will be significantly more effective at leading change, which in turn produces a higher level of confidence within their direct reports making the organization more successful.
On the ground with our clients we see that companies with employees that believe their leaders have these skills are better at being ready, willing and able to change. Overhanging these skills are the right strategies and tactics top to bottom.
About the Author Joseph Folkman:
I am the founder of two leadership development firms, Novations and Zenger Folkman. Through the years I’ve developed a unique, proven method to improve organizations and develop employees by building on strengths. My specialty lies in behavioral statistics. I have built and administered more than 500,000 360-degree assessments on some 50,000 leaders across the globe. My 30 years of expertise in survey research and change management has led me to engagements with organizations including AT&T, General Mills, General Motors, Conoco Phillips and Boeing. Additionally, my research has appeared in publications including The Wall Street Journal’s National Business Employment Weekly, CNN, Fox News, Harvard Business Review, CBS News, Training and Development Magazine and Chief Learning Officer. He is the author and co-author of 13 books including How To Be Exceptional: Drive Leadership Success by Magnifying Your Strengths, The Extraordinary Leader, Turning Good Managers into Great Leaders and The Inspiring Leader: Unlocking the Secrets of How Extraordinary Leaders Motivate, along with his newest book Speed: How Leaders Accelerate Successful Execution (McGraw Hill, 2016). Connect with me on twitter.com/joefolkman.