I am well into the third decade of my career and as I look back on the roles that I held I see a common theme; the roles have required me to be an agent of change. My jobs have been either doing a “new thing” from scratch (new product launch, new department creation, new grant implementation, new research to perform) or “fixing a thing” that is broken (a department, a process, a system, or communications). Whether I was doing a “new thing” or “fixing a broken thing” along the way, I became a confident “leader of change” because the skill was germane to success in my career.
Every leader should have the ability to lead change (and do it well) because the only constant…is change. Both the number of changes we are experiencing in business and the pace at which the changes are happening are only going to increase. It can be argued that in today’s world, a leader is defined by how well they lead change. If we, as leaders, are developing up-and-coming leaders, let’s make sure to focus on this important skill – leading and influencing change in our organization.
If someone asked me how they could get better at leading change I would give them the advice that I learned from experience (AKA School of Hard Knocks) but that I wish I had received as development advice earlier in my career.
- Develop a Sense of Urgency
What I do NOT mean by this is rushing around like a chicken without a head. A sense of urgency is a disposition in an individual and in an organization, it is the culture. It is acting promptly and with the intention to make the next thing happen efficiently and effectively. It is about using positive momentum and a proactive mindset. It is about knowing the goal and respecting the timeline. It is about being nimble and agile. Without a sense of urgency, change cannot happen.
In this context, the opposite of urgency is not being slow, it is being complacent. Complacency is a business killer because it sends your high performers looking for a new gig, they do not want to work for complacent leaders.
- Communicate! Communicate! Communicate!
Communicate the changes from the top. Communicate the changes from the middle. Have peers at all levels discuss the changes. Choose staff members on the front lines to be your “champions of change”. Be loud in your communication, meaning use multiple channels (email, Teams, voicemail, meetings, the Intranet, even snail mail if the change is big enough), and message the change multiple times. People are distracted and the world is loud and shiny so when you think you have communicated it enough…you have not…do it some more!
Check for understanding. Communication has multiple parts: source, message, channel, receiver, feedback, environment, context, and interference. After you (the source) have communicated (the message), through multiple methods (channels), you need to gather feedback from the receiver to ensure the message was received. I like calling a couple of people on the frontline and asking them to explain the new program to me, I ask the leaders to “pitch” the new program to me to check for understanding. Formal learning checks (quizzes) can also work to check the learner’s understanding of technical products and programs. There have been times I crafted an email outlining the new process, to me it was crystal clear, but to the staff, it was not. Having a couple of “beta readers” in different roles read it before sending it out, makes all the difference. They have pointed out ways to make the communication piece more relevant, ways to use examples from their job to make the point stronger, and they have also provided a point of view on the interpretation of the message.
- Project Leadership
There is nothing worse than coming to a meeting and the project leader asking, “So where did we leave off last time?” We are too busy to have unproductive meetings. Meetings should have agendas. Agendas should be followed. Action Items should be noted (with deadlines) in the minutes/project plan update and assigned to a specific person. Action Items then become a point of accountability in the next meeting.
Think about your last five project meetings, did each one “move the ball down the field”? Is the leader on top of the project? Is the team engaged? Did the team meet the deadlines? I would say that mastering the skill of project management is critical to leading change. If you cannot lead the project yourself, choose a strong project leader to work with you. Without organization and accountability, change cannot happen.
I have absolutely loved my career of leading change. It has been an exciting one – seeing new products launched, new programs designed, departments revamped, processes re-mapped, new departments started, new teams created, and new partnerships formed. I am so grateful that my path has taught me to lead change. Complacency is a kryptonite to any organization. Our superpowers need to include a sense of urgency, communication, and strong project leadership.