Leading change is one of the most critical skills a leader can master. Why? Because we live in times where change is constant (intentional oxymoron!). Also, successfully leading change can yield tremendous dividends, while failed change efforts can wreak devastation in the workplace. The great news is that the ability to lead change has little to do with your DNA—it is an easily learned skill.
My 20+ year career has covered the spectrum from small, entrepreneurial companies to a large, multi-national organization. It has included working for the Federal government and volunteering at a non-profit agency. Throughout those experiences, I have found that effectively leading change is a 4-step process. By following these steps—the 4 C’s—you dramatically improve the odds that:
- Your efforts to instill change will be met with less resistance.
- The change you make will have greater staying-power.
- The change you institute will result in better outcomes.
The first C: Create a sense of urgency
Human beings are change-averse by nature. Change can be difficult—you have to learn something new or some new way of doing something. Change can be risky—it might not work or could end badly. Therefore, the first thing leaders must do is create a sense of urgency as to why change is necessary.
Recognizing that people instinctively view change as difficult, leaders must invest in ways to minimize the hardship and show folks the steps taken to make change easier. Recognizing that people instinctively view change as risky, leaders must create a compelling vision of the desired end state and demonstrate why remaining “as-is” is far riskier.
Change efforts that are communicated and led by decree or directive are doomed to fail.
The second C: Collaborate to secure widespread support
The second step in any change effort is rallying the troops and building consensus for change. Once your change initiative is announced, some (small) percentage of the population will automatically “get it” and jump on board. Likewise, some (hopefully small) percentage of the population will instinctively oppose the change. The vast majority of the population will be wary—their skepticism isn’t necessarily dissent, but it’s not support either.
Leaders must collaborate to secure widespread support—engage the supporters, address the skeptics, and neutralize the detractors. Change cannot be done successfully by an organization’s management alone. It requires buy-in and commitment at all levels.
The third C: Clear the path
Nothing is more frustrating than a change effort that is started for all the right reasons and is met with enthusiastic support from the masses, but fails because the organization can’t get out of its own way. Leaders must identify obstacles and clear the path for execution.
Things I’ve seen derail change initiatives throughout my career:
- Actors not empowered—successful change doesn’t start and end in the corner office. People at every level of the organizational chart play a role and must be given some level of authority and ability to act.
- Policies not adapted—it’s unlikely you can do one thing differently if everything else is business as usual. Leaders must look at existing policies and procedures that intersect with the area of change and ensure that there are no conflicts.
- Mistakes not tolerated—when asking people to do something new and different, you have to expect mistakes will be made. Rather than blaming folks when they occur, praise them for embracing the change and trying in the first place. What is intolerable is making the same mistakes over and over.
- Successes not celebrated—the skeptical masses will wait and see if the change is real and worth the risk. Give them the courage to embrace the change by showing them what success looks like. No one wants to be left behind.
The fourth C: Cement the change
The fourth step is where most change efforts fail. Too many leaders declare “mission accomplished” prematurely and turn their attention to the next project or initiative without ensuring that the change has been fully institutionalized. Successful change is measured by whether or not the new process (or procedure or policy or whatever) becomes “the new norm”; failed change occurs when, within a short period of time, old habits return and people resort to “business as usual”. Therefore, the last thing leaders must do is cement the change within the company’s culture and standard operating procedures.
Most leaders today who declare themselves masterful “change agents” are really good at the first three steps, but never stick around long enough to execute step 4. Throughout my career, I have witnessed countless change initiatives undone within 6 months of “completion” due to lack of institutionalizing the change.
What do you think? What have you found that works (or doesn’t work) when trying to institute change? Leave a comment below! Adding to the conversation and helping others is great Karma.