By Spiros Milonas, Founder of Krataion Consulting

The last few years and while working with clients on sustainable change management, I have noticed some repeating questions that keep showing up, both from business leaders and team members. Wanting to test this overarching theme, I conducted a poll in Linkedin which essentially backed up what I was noticing.  

“What do you think is MOSTLY blocking change in an organization”?

  • 44% thinks the change is blocked when not backed up by leadership while
  • 29% thinks change is blocked when there is pressure to show results NOW (you can have a quick read in a previous blogpost on that topic)

With the term “change” we refer to initiatives that require changing the way people do things, adjusting their established patterns or acquiring and implementing new skills and capabilities. So the burning question is “what is the role of leadership in such profound change”? 

It is a fact that a change initiative cannot succeed if it is not practically supported by leadership and our experience supports this. Leaders have a special place in their organizational system: they have the primary and overall responsibility for the business. However, this does not mean that they are solely responsible for the outcome so here are 5 statements that we believe both leaders and team members should keep in mind when dealing with change. 

Leaders’ weight in change success depends on the organization’s structure and culture (attention leaders and team members)

Most companies still have a pyramid structure where there is a clear top down governance. When the need to become more agile became clear we started seeing -still far from majority- organizations with empowered high performing teams where there is real autonomy in decision making. This can practically mean  empowered cross-functional teams, a flat structure, operational pods or a culture where people have the space to propose, test and fail fast with their ideas. Leadership is part of the overall organization and therefore its role in any change success or failure depends on the overall governance. The more empowered the teams the less the dependency on leadership for making a change initiative a success.

Leaders’ role in change has to do with their actions and not their words (attention leaders)

In a change initiative there is always a new way of doing things. This might sound quite basic but it is among the most important things in change management. As a leader you might talk about inclusion but act with preferential treatment. Talk about putting people first but instead focus more on financial results. Talk about empowering teams but ultimately following a top down decision making approach. Talk about doing change with the people (co-designing) but practically doing change to the people (delegating and asking them to execute). Dear leaders, the more you bridge the gap between what you state & articulate and what you practically do, the more you can help your organization follow your vision.   

Leaders’ role in change is leading it and not delegating it (attention leaders)

In a change initiative there is often the need for a shift on how things are done in the overall business. Such change can be driven by a person or a group of people but cannot be entirely delegated to them. A hot potato such as a digital transformation or restructuring cannot be delegated while you as a leader keep on running the business practically ignoring the initiative itself. This change is part of the business and needs to be driven by some people (the project management team), practically supported by the leadership team (investing time and energy) while supported and embraced by the whole organization. Such change is not a small team’s show.

Leaders’ role in change is NOT having all the answers (attention leaders and team members)

In a change initiative there are a lot of questions regarding  the “new way of doing things” and of course a lot of uncertainty. There is an unspoken agreement from everyone that leaders are supposed to provide the answers and if they do not, they are not suitable for the role. I have also met many leaders who are afraid to ask questions they cannot answer with clarity and confidence. Well, the leaders’ role is NOT to have all the answers. Wisdom begins in wondering and there is great value for any team to have a leadership that asks questions and provides a safe space to collectively find the answers. The leader’s role is to share the direction & end goal and ideally involve the whole team in finding answers on HOW we will get there while creating an atmosphere around “this might be unclear and it is a natural process in our change process, but we got this…and we will find the answers together”. 

Leader’s role in change is not to be PERFECT (attention team members)

In a change initiative there is resistance due to known or unknown loyalties. These loyalties sit on the wider organizational system, team members, managers, leaders. Leaders are also humans. So when dealing with such profound change that requires breaking patterns that have probably contributed to what the organization is today, you can expect that leaders also have a difficulty letting go of the “old” and moving on to the “new”. Do not demand from your leadership to be perfect and flawless but rather name if you see or feel something is not serving the change initiative. “Does this support or block our journey towards ….?:”. Truth is a turn on as long as it is done respectfully.  

Change is such an interesting journey, and both pilots, flight crew and passengers play a role in this, each one from their place.