Building change leadership from the ground up

As change accelerates and disruption abounds, leaders across all organizational levels need support to adapt faster, better and stronger. Here are key areas of focus when building change leadership.

As employers and employees grapple with the wake of a global pandemic, new models of working, advancing technology and growing talent shortages, change leadership is more challenging than ever. Building change capabilities is cited as the No. 1 development priority for HR given concerns that today’s leaders and managers “aren’t equipped to lead change.”

In fact, DDI’s 2021 Global Leadership Forecast suggests only 3 in 10 leaders are effectively prepared to handle the complexity and speed of change today. In short, leading change is not easy. Organizations are turning to talent managers for support in rallying teams during crisis, reducing team burnout and improving virtual leadership skills with a hybrid workforce. 

For talent managers, building and sustaining change leadership amid explosive change patterns can seem much like trying to change tires on a moving car. While the effort might seem daunting, consistent focus on the following key elements will strengthen both individual and organizational change capabilities from the ground up.

Continuously improve leadership development

Many change initiatives flounder because leaders aren’t clear about their role and lack the skills to manage both the people and process side of change. In addition, the shift toward a more remote workforce raises new challenges for identifying and developing talent and leading virtually. To close skill gaps and move beyond a growing shortage of leaders to fill critical roles, talent managers must ensure the characteristics and competencies needed to drive change are well-defined and the methods and processes for developing change capabilities are in sync with dynamic business needs. 

To that end, high quality development experiences include the combined use of self-reflection, action learning, stretch assignments, coaching, mentoring and game-oriented simulations in which participants are placed in real-world scenarios where they must lead change. 

Coaching is an especially effective way to build change leadership from the ground up, with leaders across all levels saying they want outside coaching and developmental assignments to improve their interaction skills. Telus, a Canadian telecommunications company and 10x ATD BEST Award winner, restructured its corporate coaching program to involve all employees in providing coaching and feedback, not just leaders. In addition, Telus prepared 70 percent of its workforce to work virtually through use of cutting-edge social channels that emphasized self-directed and peer-to-peer learning with easy access to relevant learning content and learning groups.

Prioritize communication skills

Talent managers must help leaders understand that employees prefer to hear change messages directly from their manager and that how change is communicated has a major impact on how well change is embraced and adopted. Teaching managers to be intentional and proactive about communication should include the following guidelines: 

  • Repetition is good, communicate often and regularly
  • Use a variety of methods (town halls, stand ups, lunch and learns, check stuffers, ask an-expert websites, games, wikis, blogs)
  • Keep it simple
  • Have a clear vision that appeals to both hearts and minds
  • Be inclusive. Create opportunities for mid-managers, frontline leaders and individual contributors to engage
  • Give people a voice to express what they think, feel and experience 
  • Clarify expectations for new behaviors

Finally, emphasize the role of two-way communication and the simple power of listening as a means for building change commitment, creating an inclusive environment, coaching for growth and being actively sensitive to employees’ “pain points” and diverse needs. 

Create communities and networks

Change capability is about more than the actions of a single charismatic leader or stand-alone leadership development programs. Change networks, change academies and communities of practice are strongly linked to change management success and are effective approaches for building change-ready teams from the ground up. Developing the change capability of high potentials who are frontline leaders or individual contributors also increases access to future talent.

For example, a manufacturing client with operations in 47 states shifted from viewing change management as a series of isolated events to viewing change capability as a constant strategic imperative. To build internal change competencies, the OD team embedded more than 50 change management tools and templates into existing Six Sigma frameworks. They also provided enterprise-wide training in problem-solving, process improvement and change management principles, tools and skills, which were immediately applied to projects. The company leveraged a change network across three levels of leadership — the senior executive team, managers, and a group called “change champions” — to help integrate change capabilities and increase change readiness.

Shift mindsets and expectations

Shaping mindsets and expectations is just as important as shaping skillsets. Companies that take time to identify deep-seated mindsets are much more likely to rate their change initiatives as successful. Consider Microsoft: A growth mindset was a critical focus of its transformation to a more agile and adaptive organization in 2014. Microsoft’s culture change strategy included the use of education and training programs, conversation guides, town hall meetings and revamped talent management processes promoting a growth mindset. Since then, the value of the company has more than tripled.

Talent management professionals can also shape mindsets by leveling beliefs and expectations that 

employees can “turn on a dime,” quickly produce behavior results, and juggle all old and new responsibilities without missing a beat. Most employees experience a “performance dip” once new processes or behaviors are introduced and many are anxious about meeting change expectations. Fully remote workers tend to be less confident and more uneasy about meeting expectations than on-site workers. 

To minimize anxiety and increase confidence, talent managers should work with leaders to remove on-the-job barriers, improve incentives for performance improvement and provide more up-front training at the time and place of need during change efforts. It’s also important to help managers embrace risks and mistakes as a natural part of the change process. Internationally acclaimed executive and former CEO of WD-40, Garry Ridge, frames mistakes as “learning moments” to reduce risks associated with performance anxiety or fear of failure.

Monitor change fatigue

Change fatigue is a major risk to change success and one of the biggest barriers to change readiness. Change fatigue sets in when people feel pressured to make too many transitions at once or when change initiatives have been poorly thought through, rolled out too fast, or put in place without adequate preparation. Studies from Prosci suggest over 70 percent of change participants are near, at or past the point of fatigue and saturation. 

Talent managers must alert leaders and managers to the impact of constant change on employees’ motivation, risk of burnout and overall capacity to perform. With rates of fatigue and burnout at all-time highs, talent managers can encourage leaders to conduct periodic “temperature checks” with their teams during times of change or crisis. Emphasize the value of taking time to recharge. Mozilla shut down the entire company for a “Wellness Week.” LinkedIn, Cisco, and SAP established weekly “Mental Health Days” for global teams to recharge. Managers who demonstrate they care about employees’ wellbeing are 2.3x better prepared to prevent employee burnout and resulting turnover. 

It’s also important for talent leaders and managers to continually monitor their own levels of fatigue since managers tend to be at higher risk of burnout. Encourage leaders to serve as effective role models by sharing their own change challenges and experiences and making it safe for others to do the same. 

Building change leadership from the ground up has many moving parts and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Growing enterprise change leadership is best viewed as a multi-faceted, holistic strategy that requires a dedicated commitment to the long haul. Organizations that commit time and resources for building collective changeleadership are much more likely to have outstanding business, organizational and people results such as:

  • on schedule, on budget projects
  • improved engagement and change adoption
  • increased confidence in leadership
  • increased customer satisfaction
  • improved innovation in products and services

As talent managers, we play a vital role in helping leaders and teams gain the confidence, capabilities and insights needed to drive and sustain change in this fast-paced, turbulent landscape. Change is everywhere, the pressures for change leadership are real and disruption is here to stay. How are you heeding the call and stepping up to leverage your role as a strategic change agent?