Change Leadership: Definition, Tips & Strategies

As the pace of change accelerates, what are the key ingredients of successful change leadership and how can you become a great change leader?

Change Leadership

“Change is the only constant in life”. Although spoken more than 2,000 years ago, this quote from Greek philosopher Heraclitus is as relevant today as it was then. The past few years have been momentous for business leaders, many of whom have realized they need to adapt – and fast.

Learn about the concept of change leadership, why it's important and what the key differences are between change leadership and change management.

Leading through change and uncertainty

Leading through change and uncertainty

With the still-evolving organizational change caused by the pandemic, followed by widespread economic shocks, it can feel as if the workplace is in a constant state of flux. In today’s disruptive business environment, change is happening at unprecedented speed.

According to a McKinsey survey, the more actions taken to transform a company, the greater its chances for success. Yet for more than two-thirds of firms worldwide, improving organizational performance (and sustaining it) is still elusive.

The pandemic has taught us that although you can’t control external factors, you can control how you lead your organization through times of change. While it’s always going to be challenging, a clear strategy and a positive mindset can go a long way to seeing your company emerge on other side stronger and more resilient.

During periods of great change, employees look to leaders to provide reassurance and direction. Traditional leadership methods simply won’t cut it in today’s diverse world of work. People want an empathetic leader who’s visionary, inclusive and, above all, has their back.

The best leaders use changing times to drive their people forward instead of retreating with fear and trepidation. Be prepared to not just survive change but to actively influence opportunities for growth from within your organization.

As advances in technology free up your time, you’ll have more capacity to innovate, think and make human connections. Don’t let change intimidate you – be excited by it so you can lead your tribe to the next level.

Watch the video

Watch the video

Simerjeet Singh is an award-winning keynote speaker, leadership expert and mindset coach who helps leaders navigate change by embracing a growth mindset. Get his take on leading during times of change by watching the full interview here.

What is change leadership?

What is change leadership?

Change leadership is about challenging the status quo and having the ability to influence and inspire action in others. It takes a proactive approach and puts people at the heart of decision-making. Leading through transition involves transforming an organization from the top down. A change leader facilitates this by working alongside managers and team members to integrate change rather than enforce it.

Change is hard, whether it comes from organizational initiatives, shifting market conditions or an unforeseen outside force you can’t control. External changes are particularly tricky as leaders need to react with agility, for example implementing hybrid working or switching providers to cope with supply issues.

Change leadership is different to change management, which is usually reactionary. Managing change to achieve short-term success only takes you so far, whereas change leadership takes a much more disruptive, long-term approach.

According to Harvard Business School, there are three clearly defined roles you should adopt while leading change that creates long-lasting impact:

  • Agitator – in this role, you stir the pot by raising awareness of individuals’ or groups’ grievances. The agitator speaks out against the status quo, convincing others that change needs to happen.

  • Innovator – while the agitator raises grievances, the innovator develops practical solutions to address them. They adopt the role of planner in this scenario.

  • Orchestrator – the orchestrator takes the innovator’s plan and makes sure it’s put into action at scale, across groups, organizations and even sectors. This is often the most visible undertaking of effective change leadership.

Successful change leaders need to play all three roles. After all, agitation without innovation is merely a list of complaints without a way forward, and innovation without orchestration is a set of potentially great ideas but without impact.

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Tips for being a successful change leader

Tips for being a successful change leader

Leading change requires a unique set of skills and personality traits. To be an effective change leader, these are some of key things you’ll need to be good at:

  • Inspiring others

    As a leader, people look to you to create a clear vision and guide them through periods of change. The process can be scary for everyone, but it’s a matter of replacing the fear around change with curiosity and convincing people to invest their time and energy in a venture they may not otherwise be on board with.

    Successful leaders set out such a compelling argument that it inspires everyone to want to be part of the change.

  • Communication

    As previously mentioned, change is likely to be met with resistance, so it’s vital to explain exactly why it’s needed to allay people’s anxieties. A transformation is over five times more likely to be successful at organizations where CEOs communicate a compelling change story, McKinsey says.

    Communication must go both ways though. Employees should feel empowered to ask questions and provide feedback on changes and how they affect them. In today’s hybrid world, it’s essential to communicate using a variety of channels, including video chats and one-to-one meetings.

  • Developing leaders at all levels

    With 83% of employers agreeing that it’s crucial to develop leaders at every level of an organization, it’s well worth investing in coaching and mentoring initiatives to nurture talent. Build an infrastructure where every department can establish their own culture and responsibilities – this then has the potential to improve everything from productivity to collaboration.

    One of the most important roles you can play as a leader is to create an environment where people and their talents can flourish.

  • Planning

    To succeed with change, you’ll need to bring your vision to life with a strategic plan. A great rule of thumb is to keep things as simple as possible. Define expectations so everyone is clear on what their responsibilities are, what the timelines are for implementing the change and how it will affect daily work patterns. That way, employees will have a better idea of what the bigger picture looks like for them and have clear goals to work towards.

  • Problem solving

    Workplaces are full of problems, whether major, minor or persistent ones. Good leaders are adept at spotting pitfalls and coming up with creative ways to solve them. What you don’t want, however, is for your employees to rely on you for all the answers. To inspire real change, you need to encourage people to think for themselves so they can deal with problems in a more agile and smarter way.

  • Implementing ideas

    Once you’ve put your plan into action, you’ll need to closely monitor how it’s going. Metrics are a good way to show concrete evidence of how the strategy is progressing and how improvements to workflow are making a difference.

    Some leaders find that carrying out pulse surveys periodically helps them keep track of how employees are thinking so they can proactively overcome challenges and resistance that may arise.

  • Providing constant support

    With change comes uncertainty, so leaders need to be on hand to support their teams with compassion and understanding. When people trust their leaders to have their back and feel they’re being listened to, they become more receptive to change.

    You can soften the impact of change by offering employees help to navigate the day-to-day and providing opportunities to share their concerns. For example, do they have the tools and tech they need to carry out tasks effectively, and how is their wellbeing being affected by the change?

Organizations that embrace change are well placed to continue to evolve and grow, whereas those that resist it are in danger of stagnating, or even failing altogether. Actively pursuing change, not simply reacting to it when it happens anyway, requires strong, bold, inspirational leadership, along with buy-in from employees who see change as an opportunity to thrive rather than something to fear.


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