Business leaders must be change-agents

Using a beach analogy, when it comes to change that you aren’t leading, are you more like:

  • Putting your toe in the water and scurrying away if it’s uncomfortable?
  • Wading in, slow to adapt, watchful?
  • Swimming in it, rolling with the current, making it happen?
  • A deep-diver, all-in?

Often the reality of change for many employees is that it’s a nasty six-letter word. “Change can be likened to a planned journey into uncharted waters in a leaky boat with a mutinous crew,” according to author Michael Fullan.

Yet there are negative consequences if your organization doesn’t change. 

What “brung” you here won’t keep you here. Yesterday’s solutions will not always solve tomorrow’s problems. And we could end up in a complacent rut. A rut (the opposite of innovation) is a “grave with the ends knocked out.”  We need discontent with the status quo.

The external world always demands change and improvement; improvement rarely comes without change. Cue the sad recent memories of Polaroid/Kodak/Blockbuster/GM/Compaq/Tower Records/Borders. You can’t steal second base without taking your foot off first base.

It’s the leader’s responsibility to initiate and lead the team through change. Change is the currency of leadership. Contrary to popular belief, “Leaders always stop change in an organization, not the followers,” said author John Maxwell. 

And that leads me to my favorite leadership quote from Maxwell: “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” 

You might question that and say, “Everything?”

And I’d say, yep, everything.

Somewhere in the past, a leader either didn’t make the decision to make a change or made the wrong decision, or, positively, made a timely decision or a bold decision to make a change, and here’s where the organization stands today.

You might ask, “Why is it important for me to learn about leading change?”

It’s one of the six traits that all peak performers share: someone who embraces change and exercises the key skills of change management: anticipation, adaptivity and willingness to respond to new opportunities (“Peak Performers,” by Charles Garfield).

In most situations, change is inevitable, so we can either watch it occur, resist it or help guide and direct it. You cannot avoid it. And without this skill, you will be doomed to only reactive leadership, putting out fires. That’s tiring!

Before undertaking a change effort, you must be sure that you have thought through and you’ve led your team into these essential elements of change:

  • Trust. Employees must believe in the messenger of change before believing their message of change. Leaders are relationship-builders, day in and day out, with their team, getting to know them as unique individuals, being vulnerable with them, following through on what they say. Without trust, your people will sabotage the change effort.
  • Vision. Employees need to see where the organization is headed in the near- and longer-term future, to better process changes that help get the team there. Leaders provide vision snapshots at all-hands meetings, though middle managers at their department meetings, within internal publications and during one-on-ones. Without vision, your people will experience confusion throughout the change effort.
  • Skills. Employees must feel like they can perform the skills necessary to implement the proposed change. Leaders equip their people through mentoring and training, walking alongside them until they feel strong and capable. Without skills, your people will experience latent anxiety, which leads to avoidance/procrastination during the change.
  • Resources. Employees need to have everything they need to implement the change. Leaders assure their people have the equipment, budget, time, and personnel needed to make it happen and feel successful. Without resources, your people will experience anger at not being able to implement your change.
  • Payoff. Employees need to understand the “why” of any change decision. Leaders explain how the change will benefit the constituents, what they have considered in making the decision, and who they have consulted to make it as smooth as possible. Without the payoff, your people will only reluctantly and sporadically make the change, usually only if they are being inspected.
  • Action plan. Employees need the step-by-step roll-out of the change. Leaders provide the strategic plan for when the change will begin, who will be doing what by when, and the milestones along the way for evaluation. Without the action plan, your people experience false starts, never knowing when the go-button gets pushed or what comes next.

You may want to reflect on the last change effort in which you led or were a participant, to evaluate what was present and what was absent.

Finally, you as a leader must remind yourself that the change is the initiative, whether it’s the new software or process or direction you are taking the team.

The transition, however, is just as important to plan because people are involved, and they get emotionally attached to the way they have been doing things. 

“The single factor common to successful change is that relationships improve. If relationships improve, (organizations)… get better. If relationships remain the same or get worse, ground is lost,” wrote Fullan in “The Change Leader.”

Said another way, if you execute the change according to plan, but the team is at each other’s throats in the process, it’s a fail, not a win. 

Create trust as you lead people into new territories. One more Maxwell quote fits here: For the leader, “they won’t go along with you unless they can get along with you.”

You will need to use all your emotional intelligence to surf the waves of change with your team.

Paul D. Casey lives in the Tri-Cities and is the owner of Growing Forward Services, which aims to equip and coach leaders and teams to spark breakthrough success. Casey has written five books and hosts for emerging leaders each month. Online at

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