Is there any difference between leading change and leading business as usual these days? In many cases probably not. There’s not many organisations that aren’t going through some sort of change. The important thing to realise as a leader is that not all change is equal, and therefore you can’t lead every change in the same way.
In my experience, these are the four questions I think every leader should ask themselves in order to understand the change and lead it successfully.
1. What type of change am I leading?
Rather than asking ‘is anything changing?’ the more interesting question to ask is ‘what kind of change are we going through?’ Considering both the pace and scale of the change can help you decide on the best way to lead.
Take communication for example. When leading rapid, transformational change, communication needs to be frequent. Things will be moving quickly and people need to be engaged and kept up to date. If the change is small, steady and incremental, communication is still important, but it won’t need to be quite so frequent.
2. How good are my own communication skills?
Be honest with yourself about this. For some leaders, verbal communication comes quite naturally to them. I always thought that Justin King did a fantastic job of communicating change during his 10 years as CEO of Sainsbury’s, particularly during the turnaround. He was extremely articulate, made himself visible and he wasn’t afraid to give and receive feedback.
It’s just as important to notice if communication is not your key strength, too. Along with developing your own skills of storytelling and communication, consider whether you can draw on the strengths of other people around you. Is there someone on your leadership team that’s great on their feet and people engage easily with? Have good awareness of your communication skills and use your effort wisely.
3. How open am I being about the change?
There’s often a great deal of uncertainty that surrounds change, and so it’s important even when you don’t know what’s going to happen, to keep communicating and be as transparent as possible about it. You don’t need to have all the answers. But, if you leave a communication void, people will fill it with guesses and assumptions, fuelling the level of uncertainty. I thought that the executive team at Safeway did an excellent job of this during their acquisition by Morrisons back in the early 2000s. Whilst dealing with huge amounts of uncertainty about their own futures, they focused on maintaining the value of the business and running it well. The leadership team were consciously open, and they maintained a flow of dialogue throughout the company about what was going on.
4. How am I ending things?
Change can often mark ‘the end of a chapter’ and it’s important to recognise that everyone has a psychological attachment to what they’ve been doing previously. When letting go of the past, people can feel a sense of loss so it’s crucial for engagement to recognise that people need to mark the end of one chapter, so they can embark on the next.
Leading change successfully can be tough. There can be a lot of emotions to navigate and communication is vital. One of my top tips for leaders who are communicating change is to get what you’re trying to do onto a single piece of paper. Be prepared to repeat yourself many times using it and communicate relentlessly. It will become the most valuable tool in your entire change efforts.