How to lead in an era of dramatic change

It is one of the great truths of life: things change. They always have done, and they always will. That said, it feels like things have been changing even more rapidly than usual recently – whether it is in political, economic or technological terms. So where does that leave us as leaders, those of us who might be looking to drive transformations in our own businesses, or who are trying to anticipate the next big change to come?

It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about in recent months. Of course, throughout my career, and across the many different industries that I’ve been lucky enough to work in, I’ve seen a lot of change, and experienced the many different ways in which it is handled, both by individuals and by businesses as a whole. But it feels like a particularly pressing issue at the moment, as we go through an era of such intense change, in so many different ways. So what have I learned over the years about how we can lead in these changing times?

It really doesn’t have to be a bad thing

Change is exciting, energising and should be perceived as a good thing – but you wouldn’t believe it to talk to most people whose organisations are going through change. It’s a hassle. People lose their jobs. You have to sit somewhere else, or be a part of a different team. You’ve got a new boss. You have to come to work a bit earlier, or leave a bit later, you’re going to get paid less or have less holiday. Change is often feared, because it represents the unknown – which is why early, effective, trustworthy and inspiring communication of the change is absolutely essential. Fail to tell people what’s happening – and more importantly, why and how it will impact them – and they’ll fill in the gaps themselves. Building a positive, believable narrative about the change – early – is one of the keys to leading successfully through times of transformation.

You need to plan, and start early

If you leave the changes you need to make until late you’ll find that you will focus only on getting quick results and that you won’t look far enough ahead. Short-termism is self-perpetuating – change is really tricky, and can be difficult sometimes, so it’s easy to put off – but in my experience this is a fatal mistake.

Trying to implement change late also creates completely the wrong impression among your people – they’ll see the changes you’re trying to make as being the quick fix to a short term problem, and will probably believe that, fairly quickly, everything will go back to how it was before. The problem here is that they then don’t commit fully to the change you’re trying to make (because they think it is just temporary), and then the change fails to stick because there is no wholesale transformation in your team’s behaviour or the company’s culture to support it.

You need to inspire people with a vision that actually means something to them

Explaining your financial targets or your expansion plans might mean something to you as a leader, but I’ve found that it doesn’t ultimately have much impact on the very people who can most effect this change. And it’s not because they don’t understand what you’re telling them – far from it – but rather that it simply doesn’t move them and inspire them to want to embrace the change you’re proposing. So don’t be afraid to explain the change in emotional, human terms – it’s your chance to show your people how what they do every day has a direct impact on the direction of the business.

Some things never change

Organisational structures change. Financial targets change. Economic and market realities change. But people generally don’t – at least, not too much. As a leader, I’ve found that acting with honesty, integrity and with a clarity of purpose is almost always inspiring, whatever circumstances people find themselves in. I’ve seen that understanding the value of building strong relationships is absolutely crucial as you go through periods of change – it is more important than ever before that people trust you, not just in terms of the short term actions you’re taking, but also in terms of selling the longer term vision that you have for the business.

Rob Weider 

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