In today’s accelerated business environment, the ability to anticipate and actively lead change on a daily basis is essential for leaders.
John Kotter wrote the books (literally) on how to lead change. He laid out six important areas for effecting change: creating a sense of urgency, creating a compelling vision, forming a guiding coalition, communicating widely to gain alignment, gaining short-term wins and momentum, and integrating the changes into the culture. His advice is invaluable for understanding the process and leadership of change.
To successfully direct change, you must also, as a leader, understand your own personal reactions to its transitions and adaptations, because your own actions are viewed as symbolic and inspire emotion and action in others. If you want to lead change, try doing the following four things:
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Put leading change on your to-do list. Many change initiatives fail because leaders treat them as events rather than as processes. You must manage change continuously. Leading change should be a category on your to-do list. Write out the daily actions you will take toward change, and update the list every week. Kevin Reddy, the chief executive of Noodles & Company, leads change every day. Noodles & Company is one of the fastest-growing restaurant chains in the United States. Reddy and his team keep disciplined growth, innovation, and execution at the top of their to-do-lists. Reddy notes, “It takes an incredible amount of effort to keep all of your talent moving in the same direction with change efforts, and it is important for leaders to make this a priority.” He would know. Since he took the helm in 2007, the chain has grown from 100 stores to 290, with continuous positive sales trends in all units. That hasn’t happened by accident. It is a progressive expansion that Reddy aggressively manages.
Check your own reaction to change. Leaders must constantly engage in new activities and thinking as part of change. This often requires them to break habits, change behaviors, and adjust attitudes themselves. People’s responses to change vary. Identify your own. Are you a proponent? Are you an advocate? Are you a passive resister, not leading change as you should? Leading others is difficult if you don’t embrace change yourself. Recent research found that leaders who don’t love change increase their employees’ resistance to it, and that transformational leaders, who focus on creating a positive vision, lower their employees’ resistance to it. You must tell a compelling story and share what is changing, what is not, why change is urgent, and why employees should change. And as a leader, you must show that you believe in that change.
Recognize that the pace is fast. Rapid change is the new normal. All leaders must keep track of trends that affect both their industries and business in general. As those trends accelerate, so does the pace of change. To adapt quickly, you must constantly look ahead. You need to ask what’s new and what’s next. Don’t hunker down with a day-to-day mentality. Rapid change can be overwhelming, but actively look around the corner to spot trends. Think about the future and what it might hold. Pradeep Bobba, general manager of Le Meridian Hotel in San Francisco, says that much of his job now involves examining data on fast-paced trends that may alter hotel use. He notes, “There are a lot of data and information coming at you quickly. The key to success is to not get buried in the fast pace but to rise above it and detect trends to help your business change and thrive.”
Create a network of change enablers. Leading change is not the exclusive responsibility of an organization’s top people, so change occurs easily only when the organization has a strong network of change enablers. Leaders should recognize that informal followers and advocates of change are quite powerful. Listen to what they have to say, and let them help drive the change. Launa Inman, the new CEO of the surf-wear company Billabong, uses this technique. The company is currently suffering from a drop in profit and flat sales. Inman, formerly with Target Australia, has long advocated asking people within the company for ideas that may solve problems and lead to success. She listens to everyone—senior leaders, middle managers, sales staff, customers, operations partners—and everyone has a chance to weigh in and help lead the change. Inman is counting on this network of leadership to revitalize Billabong. Research supports this approach, documenting the fact that front-line opinion leaders help create positive change within organizations.
Managing yourself through change is essential to leading others through change, and leading change should be a top priority in your own activities. Making it so will help others foresee and embrace the coming changes that will help your organization thrive in an accelerated environment.
his article is by Christine M. Riordan, the dean and a professor of management at the Daniels College of Business.