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Leading Change - What Leaders Need To Do Part 1

In the last episode, we looked at how we as individuals experience change and the process we go through.  In this episode, we are going to start to look at what we need to do to lead others through this process with us.

Are you ready?  Its time to get curious and make some choices!

Leading Change Is Our Only Certainty

About the only certainty, we have in our working worlds at the moment is that we are going to be operating amid rolling waves of change for the foreseeable future.

Part of me finds that really scary, I love to plan and to know what’s going to happen and like most people that means having a degree of certainty in my world, but a bigger part of me is excited to see where people decide to go with all these changes - how we can make our worlds a better place.  

We have this amazing opportunity to make our lives and our work better and we can do that by making a series of choices, some small, some large as we design our way out of the current situation.

And that is going to take a concerted effort and great leadership to stop us just falling back into old ways.That’s where you as a leader come in.  

But what do we as leaders actually need to do?

Leading Change Is Hard

Firstly we need to acknowledge that it’s hard and we are going to be doing something difficult and that it’s OK to ask for help.  Change isn’t easy and it’s inherently full of emotions because we are human - and that is a wonderful thing and something we need to consider as we plot our course. 

We also have to keep in mind that we are experiencing the changes as well as leading them.  And since we are experiencing them, we are going to have good days and less good days.  That’s going to act a bit like a multiplier effect when we are interacting with our teams - when we are having a good day we will find it relatively easy, but when we are having a bad day the effort required to lead and support others is exponentially higher.  That’s why understanding and managing our reactions and emotions is so critical.

Some Of What You Do Stays The Same

And yes, spoiler alert - all the things we do as leaders we still need to do while we are leading change. 

We still need to shape an exciting and aspirational vision for people, translate that into a plan that we then make happen.  We still need to review our progress and make any adjustments to what we are doing as we are going along.  We still need to model what we want to see from others and we still need to create a working environment where people can add value and feel valued. And we absolutely need to support and serve our teams and maintain the relationships and trust we have with them at a time where all that is challenged by the very process we are going through.

What Changes When You Are Leading Change

While all that stays the same, what’s different about leading change is that where we focus our energy and effort needs to be different, and there are some specific things we need to focus on doing as we, and our teams, progress through the change we are dealing with.

We know that adapting to change is a process people go through from panic back to performance.  And it’s not realistic or even sensible to expect a team going through change to perform at their best.  Part of their capacity is going to be taken up by the change process and by thinking about what is happening.

To help us work out what we need to actually do to help our teams process the changes they are experiencing it’s helpful to break the change process into three phases, as we need a different focus in each phase.  When they first find out change is coming people will avoid acknowledging change is happening and will do everything they can to hold onto the status quo.  A bit like the band there is an easy familiarity about how things are that we find comfortable even if we don’t actually like it.  

Once people have accepted that changes are coming they plunge down through anger and frustration to despair and onto bargaining where they are trying to work out what the change means for them.  We tend to spend some time spinning around in this part of the process almost like we are in a washing machine.  This is the messy middle of any change process.  Only once people have started to work out what the change means for them and that there is no going back can they move on to becoming a fully productive team again.

If you want to know more about this do check out the last episode.

As you would expect with a complex process like this there are some things we need to do throughout the process and some which need to be adjusted with the different phases.  In this episode, we are going to focus on the things we need to do through the whole process, and in the next episode, we will look at what we need to do differently through the different phases of change.

Focus On Relationships When Leading Change

Underpinning everything that we do will be maintaining and building our relationship with each of the people in our teams.  Keeping this in mind each time we interact with them, will help us have good and productive conversations with them, to know when they need a bit of extra support and to help them move through the change process. 

Being curious about them and their experiences as you all work through the changes will enable you to make great choices together.

We never know what someone else is thinking and it’s very easy to end up in a bit of a pickle when we do, for example, I used to manage a lady with a gorgeous smile who always listened attentively, so when I was talking to her about some changes we were implementing and that smile disappeared I assumed that she was really not happy about them.  Turns out she was actually really excited about them and busy working out how the changes could help her solve a problem she was having with a piece of work and I will leave you to imagine the very confusing conversation we had until I worked that out!  

I’ve also found that most times you talk to people about a change that is happening, what is worrying them is not something you thought would worry them or even something that has particularly been considered.  To help me stay curious when I’m having these conversations I now play a game with myself to see how many people can surprise me with their reaction.

How well we listen to people is the other key factor in this, we need to be careful we are not just listening to hear certain things that we then reply to or correct, we need to be listening better than that, we need to be listening to really understand the other person’s perspective.

As well as providing us with valuable information on how to help someone progress through the change process and maybe giving us some insights and things to think about that we had not previously considered, listening to understand will deepen the relationship we have and build trust.  Feeling understood is a very powerful thing, even when what we want can’t happen or the other person doesn’t agree with us. And it’s a great way to help someone else through change.

When You Are Leading Change Talk About What's Changing And Why

One of our key roles as leaders is to shape an exciting and aspirational vision for people to work towards, sharing what we are aiming to achieve, why that is really important and the things we are going to do to get there. 

When it comes to change we need to double down on this.  People need to understand what is changing and why, they need to understand what you are moving towards.

If we think about the changes that came with going into lock-down for Coronavirus, for most of us the why was pretty clear and shared very consistently - to save lives.  We also heard lots of messaging about what was going to change - it varied depending on where in the world you are but for example, here in the UK we had to stay home, our workplaces would be shut, non-essential retailers were to close, and we could only go outside once a day and in very specific circumstances.  Since every part of our lives was impacted we needed our leadership to keep giving us those messages very consistently and in lots of ways for everyone to understand the changes.

It was further complicated by the fact that we didn’t know, and still don’t know the endpoint for these changes.  And while hopefully most of the changes we end up leading won’t be this extreme there will be a parallel - we often won’t know the full picture and all the details when we first introduce the changes.  

We will, however, know why we are changing and what we are moving away from.  We should be able to outline the key things about what to expect after the change we are implementing.  As you describe the new vision for people you need to push them away from how things are by highlighting all the things that are wrong and at the same time describe how things can be after the change creating a pull in that direction.

While change is happening, more than at any other time, you are going to find yourself not knowing all the answers, so it’s time to get comfortable with not knowing and with the uncertainty that brings. 

It may not feel great but as you do you should start to find some benefits that will far outlast the change.  The uncertainty will help you keep an open mind and keep learning, it will keep you open to new and potentially better ideas, it will build the respect & trust of your team and if you have ever had a tendency to micro-manage or control everything it will help you break that habit!

Summary & Taking Action

In this episode, we have covered

OK, so in this episode, we have started to talk about what we as leaders need to do as we lead through change.  We have talked about how much of what we do as leaders stays the same, how some of the skills like how we build relationships and how we listen become even more important.  We’ve looked at how through the whole process we need to bring the vision of what it’s going to be like at the end of the change process to life for people, and that in doing that we need to be comfortable with uncertainty. But by it’s very nature the change process requires different things from us at different stages and we are going to be digging into those in the next episode.

The things I share are based on my experiences and some will be more relevant to you than others - it’s up to you to decide what you take and apply from this podcast.  That’s what Curious Choice Leadership is all about - getting curious and building our understanding then evaluating what we find and making choices about what’s right for us and our business.  

And the questions I would like to leave you with are which of the key things we do throughout change are strengths for you, and which are you going to work on either for the change you are leading at the moment of ready for the next time you find yourself leading change?

And the questions I would like to leave you with are:

Which of the key things we do as leaders throughout change are strengths for you and which are you you to to work on either for the changes you are leading at the moment or ready for the next time you find yourself leading change?