By Mo Vontz, member of faculty at Ashridge Business School

Being a leader in challenging times is tough. Constant change means managers need to oversee programmes that affect themselves and their staff. Mo Vontz offers ten top tips for success.

The challenges facing leaders today can be summed up in one not-so-simple word: change.

An Ashridge competition drew responses discussing the increasing pace of technological developments, changing perceptions, increased expectations, citizen empowerment, and a changing workforce development and environmental issues.

These challenges are still present several years later, but are now compounded by the ever-increasing instability of ongoing political upheaval and social unrest.

This overwhelming uncertainty calls for significant demands on leaders to become experts at change. And the ability to cope with such uncertainty requires that you are not only an expert at managing change, but also that you know how to manage your own experience of change while managing change in others.

To enable change in this context takes thinking about ‘change management’ a little differently. Most organisations have habitual ways of changing – whether using a well-known or an in-house change methodology. But all changes are not the same, so always using the same method or approach won’t work. Therefore, learning to flex your way of change is vital.

To give you a greater chance of effecting change, as leaders you need to make clear choices about your change strategy and become mindful of your own leadership practices that support or hinder that strategy.

Cultivating connections, being savvy about power, and designing flexibility into your change strategy and your leadership style can provide the grounding force for transformation.

Leading change is as much about conservation as transformation, about creation as destruction. Standing in the tension of those opposites is hard work. Here are a few guideposts to help you.

  1. Know your culture
    Leading in uncertain times means leading where there is often disagreement – when we don’t know what is going to happen next, it’s hard to agree on what to do. This tension pulls us towards seeking certainty. The one place you may find it is in knowing your culture deeply. As the saying goes, ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’. So, understand what makes your organisation tick – and stick. Appreciating formal and informal ways of working, making decisions and dealing with conflict should inform your change strategy so that it fits your culture.
  2. Be Mindful of Power
    Understanding your culture means understanding how power happens. This is more than basic stakeholder management of who ‘has the power’ and how to influence them – it is about being aware of how power dynamics flow throughout your organisation. When you move offices, change the parking system or re-level jobs, you are directly shifting the visible symbols of power, although the less-visible aspects of power – the deeply held beliefs of what power is – course through organisational life. Paying attention to how individuals and groups interact and respond to leaders is an important consideration. Remember to turn the spotlight on yourself, too. Noticing the impact you have on others can guide you.
  3. Provide clarity 
    The most common question during change is why: ‘Why are we changing [the process, the people, the system]?’ As leaders, we often experience the change first as we are directly exposed to strategic issues within the organisation. However, because we’ve started the change process, we often assume the rationale for change is obvious – but it isn’t always. So, challenge the need for and benefit of the change, clearly define and describe it, and be prepared to repeat that rationale often. Keeping the rationale visible and transparent helps to support the ongoing engagement you need to make the change happen.
  4. Engage early and keep engaging
    No matter how small or large, how complex or simple the change, engage people in it early on. Most research into effective change management shows that genuine engagement is fundamental to success. Yet in most cases, leaders define the change themselves, and then tell the rest of the business about it. Consider involving people in defining the problem and designing the solution instead, since not every type of change needs the same depth of engagement. Changes that are aimed at creating consistency can often be achieved with a more directive style, while cultural change requires deep, ongoing real engagement from the start. Err on the side of more engagement, and your chances of success will increase whatever the type of change.
  5. Cultivate connections 
    The connections permeating your organisation need attention, so support your change strategy with breadth and depth of engagement. To make engagement meaningful, cultivate connections between your people and your strategy, change approach, leadership style and infrastructure. Congruence is essential – if your change strategy relies on efficiency, be mindful of policies that require multiple layers of approvals. Be prepared for changes to infrastructure that will ground your strategy and change.
  6. Design in flexibility 
    The habit of planning is a double-edged sword: while it may be a requirement of effective management, most leaders know that organisational changes rarely go to plan. It’s hard to predict and plan for responses, especially in the context of larger socioeconomic and political changes. Build in flexibility and feedback to adapt your plans in real time. Adapt your strategy, depending on where you are in the change cycle – keep systemic engagement upfront, with planned execution and emergent innovations amplified along the way.
  7. Listen, Listen and Listen 
    It’s important to listen deeply and with empathy. Change is hard. When you feel your frustration rise – that voice that says, ‘I’ve told them 1,000 times already, why won’t they just do it?’ – then stop talking and start listening. No matter how strong your own convictions are about this change, not everyone will agree. Advocating your position all the time is alienating. Real engagement is about dialogue – listening and asking. Set up team listening sessions where you say and do very little. Actively listen and inquire, with the intention of understanding and learning. You will learn what needs to change for the strategy to move forward.
  8. Fail forward 
    It’s the only way. Most of us learn more when we fail than when we repeat something to perfection. If you want creativity and commitment to change, find out how you can accommodate a degree of failure. Encourage experiments and calculated risks, and take time to incorporate the learning into the change. Set clear boundaries, stay connected by spending time with your people and give them space to do something brilliant.
  9. Be visible, stay visible 
    At times of change, it’s not uncommon for leaders to become invisible. The extra work and pressure can keep leaders too busy to talk. Such a focus on task can be accompanied by little communication, leading to speculation and anxiety. ‘I’m just keeping my head down and getting on with my job,’ is a common response to invisible leaders. Notice your own tendency to disappear at times of uncertainty, and challenge yourself to stay ‘out there’. Invest in relationships, not activities.
  10. Be human 
    As a leader, you have to manage your own experience of change while helping others manage theirs. Attempting to stand out as being impervious to change only breeds alienation. Admitting change is messy can create openings for connection. Finding a way to allow space for vulnerability helps deepen relationships, build trust and create resilience. Your power as a leader can come from being human, and that can make all the difference in leading change.

Mo Vontz is a member of faculty at Ashridge Business School, responsible for the ‘Leading Change’ modules on the MBAand Executive Masters in Management programmes.

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