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Change management and change leadership

Traditional change management approaches often leave the design of the changes to management personnel and/or external consultants. If the changes are incremental in nature or even transitional, a more linear change management approach that is aligned with project management practices, engagement and communications activities, supported by adequate training, may be sufficient.

However, as our world gets more and more complex, dynamic and volatile, (COVID-19 being a good example) traditional change management usually falls short. Many of the changes the public service has had to deal with in recent years have so many moving parts and unknowns that we underestimate their complexity and the pressure that they can exert on the leadership group and staff responsible for implementing them.

Because of this, a long overdue focus on change leadership is emerging. In change leadership, greater emphasis is placed on developing and preparing leaders for the kind of complex changes they face and to orient them to the kinds of values, principles, commitments and mindsets they will need to successfully lead their organization through change.

How to get into a change leadership mindset

A change manager is someone with responsibility for various aspects of a change process. They usually have some sort of training in various methodologies and are adept at using these approaches to support people through a change. They are often there for a particular project or series of projects.

On the other hand, change leadership is a mindset and series of actions focusing on encouraging and leading people during a time of change. It includes developing a vision of a future state, sometimes through a co-creative process, and generating the necessary energy to get people moving toward that future state. It also includes articulating and advocating for the rationale for change and requires being both forward-thinking and responsive in an uncertain work environment. It is all about engaging, listening, supporting and raising the level of energy for the change.

While anyone in the organization benefits from cultivating a change leadership mindset, it’s absolutely essential for the leadership team and the change team to have these qualities if we want to be successful at leading change.

A great change leader:

  • Is empathetic. To lead individuals through change it’s important to be able to recognize the validity of people’s fears, concerns and motivations. Without empathy, it’s incredibly difficult to secure engaged support for the change.
  • Supports the growth of others. A Change leader will support and encourage the professional growth of others. By taking a broad view of skills development, a change leader is able to get the best out of his/her staff, including new and different ways of thinking and operating. It’s also a way to encourage people to be part of the change by taking ownership of the new skills and attitudes they need to develop.
  • Build’s trust. A change leader is open, honest and authentic about the change, both the positives and negatives. By following these types of behaviours we can send the signal that we are committed to the change and that we are all in it together.
  • Is able to navigate uncertainty. Change, especially transformational change, is inherently uncertain. It’s important that a change leader can adapt as we go throughout the change process.
  • Understands the system. A change leader views the risks, impacts and interdependencies related to the change through a system-wide perspective. This is critical to the success of a change taking place in our complex organizations.
  • Supports creativity and calculated risk-taking. While a change leader is likely to take risks to help support a change (i.e. leading by example), they also gain by encouraging creativity and calculated risk-taking in staff and other leaders involved in the change. A key aspect of this is creating a safe space for people to learn and grow from their decisions. Keeping in mind the distinction between the outcome and the act of taking initiative can help us have discussions with staff to help them learn how to achieve better outcomes, while still preserving their confidence in showing initiative.
  • Knows how to bring people together. The ability to motivate staff around a cause is essential for a change leader. It’s also important to be able to identify and bring the right people to the table at any given point during a change, whether this is creating a vision for the future, shaping the change as it unfolds, or taking stock on completion of a project to help improve organizational learning.

Continuous personal and professional development will always make us better leaders. We can refine our change leadership skills through proven training (including through some of the companies who developed the methodologies identified in this document) and continue to shift our mindsets and behaviours. Fostering these characteristics is a great way to instill a culture of empathy, growth, honesty and courage

Next steps

Once we understand our type of change, and how to employ change management and change leadership, we will want to get acquainted with the basics of some of the change methodologies.

There are a lot out there, but we don’t need to fully understand or know them all. That being said, it’s helpful if we familiarize ourselves with more than one of them, as they often serve different purposes in supporting a change. Which tools we use and when will depend on the complexity and difficulty of the change we are undertaking. This will inform the level of effort required.

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