With over 23 years in the technology business, one thing has become very obvious to me; the leaders that succeed are those that not only handle change well but fully embrace it and inspire others to it.
The world of technology is changing at unprecedented speed. Hardware is being commoditised, the window of competitive advantage is always closing and companies have to relentlessly innovate and constantly seek the ‘next new thing‘ or be replaced. It’s a tough world if you are in the business of creating or selling technology, but it’s also a fast-paced exciting one.
But companies themselves don’t lead and effect change, people do! So when I talk about change together with leadership in this blog, don’t confuse this with change management because “change management” and “change leadership” are two very different things and quite often, people are good at one or the other, but generally, not both because they require a different skillset and mindset. Change management is much more operational, tactical and tools/process driven. It’s about getting specific changes over the line on time and on budget whereas Change leadership is more strategic. It’s about creating a vision, changing a culture and driving transformational change on a large scale. There’s a good article by John Kotter in Forbes about the fundamental differences of both.
The good news is that the world of technology needs both. The bad news is that finding people who are truly great at change leadership is rare so what do change leaders look like?
They inspire – They present a positive vision of the future (“end-state”) and a realistic roadmap to achieving it. People will want to go the extra mile, give the extra effort and work harder to go on the journey with them and be part of the success they know is coming because they have confidence in this person’s ability to achieve it. They don’t inspire to visions that are unattainable or set unachievable goals. They create an affinity to the business, a pride in the work and they take time to thank people and celebrate success.
They lead by example – In order to create a culture of embracing change, leaders must walk and talk the culture they envision. They must become the person that people aspire to be. They do this by being fair, truthful, ethical, empathetic and courageous. They listen and solicit/value feedback. They think team yet they embrace difference. They encourage balance in work, life and health. They drive the behaviours in themselves that they expect in others; they roll up their sleeves and they get stuck in with the best of them. They are optimistic and enthusiastic, even when times are tough because they know negativity is contagious but so is optimism!
They balance optimism and realism – They have the ability to motivate both themselves and others because optimists see things differently. Where others see uncertainty, they see opportunity. When others see a door closing, they see two opening and they see big picture when others get caught in the reeds. In times of great change, optimists will ground themselves and others by communicating what is not changing in order to understand the extent of what is. They favour solutions, not problems. They know the days to walk around smiling and the days to be quiet and empathetic. They help people let go of the past by demonstrating the right balance of optimism and realism.
They calm fear and promote courage –Unfortunately, fear of change is still widespread in organisations and also highly contagious. Left unchecked it can create a toxic environment with negativity. Change leaders know how to lead teams in times of uncertainty; they calm fear through effective communication. They know over-communication in times of change is better than under-communication. They find opportunities to explain why change is necessary and to help employees prepare for it. They empathise with staff and try to understand the source of those fears in order to be in a position to address them. They promote courage and resilience in the face of fear.
They see failure as just another possible outcome – Change leaders encourage teams to see failure as a possibility on the path to success. They discourage blame and finger-pointing and encourage collective problem solving and thinking forward. They inspire teams to understand the reasons for the failure, learn from it, dust themselves off and get back in the saddle so to speak. They know success doesn’t come from perfection, it comes from perseverance.
They take smart risks and make tough decisions – This one is as much about trust as it is about risk. In times of change, change leaders surround themselves with great teams and then they trust those teams to present the facts and alternatives, risks and outcomes in a way that helps them make data-driven decisions. They are also prepared to make and deliver the tough decisions even when it rocks the proverbial boat.
They retain top talent – Holding on to top talent in times of change is crucial. It stables the ship and inspires others to stay. But you can’t forcibly hold on to top talent; they must be inspired to stay. Change leaders invest in people, in training and they empower people with the tools they need to be successful in a changing environment. They help them to navigate the new landscape, to understand their new stakeholders, to understand how success will be measured and how to be successful in the new environment. Change is tough and people handle it at their own pace. A change leader will have patience with those who take longer to see the light at the end of the tunnel and will personally commit to helping them get there. They teach resilience, lifelong learning and big picture thinking. Change leaders look around corners and up-skill teams in time to seize opportunities. They give credit where credit is due.
They drive accountability from the top down – Driving transformational change must be a united effort. The most senior leaders in the organisation must individually be all in or not in at all. There is no half-way or spectrum here. Great change leaders will ask their people managers to not just be all in but visibly all in. There is a difference!
They keep energy up – Driving change over long periods is exhausting and employees can eventually become weary; weary of either fighting change or weary of driving it. Great leaders can spot when teams are getting weary and they position time, budget and resources to re-energising them. Consider them like a portable power bank; they know when to plug in and when batteries are getting low.
Effective change leadership is tough, there’s no doubt about it and being everything above seems almost super human so a sense of humour is another must for change leaders. No one gets it all perfect and there are some days where there are only two options, laugh or cry, and I’d rather see laugh any day of the week and twice on Sundays.
Great change leaders are rare and hard to find but the good news is when you see it, you’ll know it. They stand out.