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4 must-have skills for leaders to manage change

October 22, 2015, 2:49 PM UTC
Image by Andrew Baker—Getty Images/Ikon Images

To survive and thrive, every organization—from for-profit to non-profit to governmental—has to know how to navigate change. But sadly, 75% of change initiatives will fail, according to a recent study by McKinsey & Co. That means organizations will inevitably suffer, and the leaders of those failed initiatives will get hit with major career setbacks.

Internally, the impact on organizations includes low morale, low trust in leadership, low productivity, and worst of all, low expectations and a lack of confidence in the future. Externally, failures erode trust in management and drive stock prices down. Failed leaders can be reassigned, redeployed, or removed from a company, and their failure follows them until they manage a success that offsets it.

Conversely, leaders who successfully reshape their organizations are sought after and respected. Their organizations aren’t crushed by changes in their industries; rather, they find ways to leverage those changes. Aside from the tangible wins—revenue growth chief among them—there’s a psychological lift when change flourishes. Like a winning sports team, employees become more confident in their individual and collective talents. The ball and the referees’ calls always seem to go their way. Over time, they develop resilience and the confidence to “see over mountains” as new challenges come along.

So how to navigate change? Here are the four critical skills leaders must develop.

Listen to your front-line people

Many change initiatives are doomed from the beginning because leaders spend all their time listening to each other and third parties with impressive resumes when they should be listening to their front-line people—if they did, they’d hear exactly what needs to be done.

Front-line employees know the score, because they’re the ones interacting with customers, suppliers, and co-workers day-in and day-out. As a result, they know exactly what is wrong with an organization’s processes, what is frustrating customers, and what competitors are doing to take business. Making your front line an active contributor to mapping a path forward ensures that everyone has bought in and is working together toward change.


Play the politics of change

Every change is political because there will always be winners and losers. Losers see their degrees of control and influence diminish. To protect their own agendas, many will fight back by playing defensive Machiavellian politics instead of bringing fresh ideas to the table.

Change leaders need to understand every competing agenda and figure out how to anticipate and manage politics by reducing uncertainty, brokering deals, checking their own egos, and making a sincere effort to help people feel respected and heard. Doing so saves time that would be wasted by people trying to protect the status quo by any means necessary, and it inspires team members to bring their A-game and become partners instead of opponents.

When a leader becomes known as a champion of good ideas, people within and outside the organization will start knocking at his or her door with more good ideas. The leader will quickly build a following and a chest full of great ideas that promote and sustain change.

Know the organizational priorities

Getting the trust and alignment needed to implement change is the hardest step of all, because transformational change must always span organizational boundaries. A leader has to develop a rapport with key people within each boundary by learning what is important to them as individuals and as a group within their respective cultures.

The leader then has to create intersections to develop a shared culture and learn how to truly read people—instead of PowerPoint slides and stoplight reports—to determine how things are really going and how people are really feeling.

Ability to persevere

As a leader of transformational change, you can always count on something going wrong, whether it’s your fault or someone else’s. Your ability to course correct, rally the troops, and start moving in the right direction will determine success or failure. In my experience, leaders will always face their biggest challenges when they’re closest to the finish line. I’ve seen far too many give up or make an irreversible error at that point, and the whole team’s efforts are wasted. What a disappointment that is to see!

To press on in the face of difficulty, leaders must have a North Star, a core purpose they strongly believe in that anchors the initiative and guides their own and their team’s decision making.

For example, when I was vice president and chief information officer at Georgia-Pacific, our IT department was fragmented, making it difficult, time consuming, and expensive for clients to do business with us. Our North Star became “OneIT,” meaning that we were going to tear down the departmental walls so we could build stronger, more trusting partnerships with our customers and meet their needs faster and at a lower cost.

The most powerful North Stars are end-user focused and very simple for everyone to understand. An unfortunate paradox is that the more simple the North Star is, the more complicated it is to implement it. That’s because making things easy for your end customers means that leaders have to cross many turfs and break down their walls within and outside the organization. Without that level of change, an organization will flounder and so will its teams.

James Dallas is the author of the recent book: Mastering the Challenges of Leading Change: Inspire the People and Succeed Where Others Fail and an accomplished senior executive. He has been named one of the most powerful black men in corporate America several times in his career by Black Enterprise and Savoy magazines.