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Stop Managing Change and Start Leading Change

Updated: Aug 24, 2023

How to make transformational change successful

People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision.

– John C. Maxwell – Leadership Expert

High-performing leaders move fast and believe that when they have shared information once, that’s enough. It’s perplexing when the change they communicated hasn’t been implemented. When we speak, we must take into consideration that not everyone listens, learns and adopts change at the same pace. A one-time communication just isn’t enough.

Who is a change leader?

A change leader is a leader with a strategic, proactive, and people-centric approach to change management. They step in with an intentional leadership presence that leverages inspirational influence, high-performing teams, and communications. Their style of work maintains a disciplined focus on successful change.

Successful change isn’t a race, it’s a pace

When implementing change, speed isn’t always the answer. Many times, you have to slow down to speed up.

Successful change involves strategy, planning and execution for people and process. But it also needs to involve pauses to gauge the adoption by the team. I’m a results-focused leader, so this lesson wasn’t initially in my leadership DNA. My biggest learning around the importance of pauses happened when I was implementing sales culture and process into a professional services firm. I was a new leader brought in to lead bold growth. I was confident that I had what was needed to be successful: enterprise sales experience, a successful track record growing markets and teams, internal executive sponsorship, and use of the firm’s proven sales process.

I was surprised, and frustrated when the implementation and execution didn’t go as planned, and the sales processes weren’t being adopted. With help, I learned that I hadn’t communicated enough, and I hadn’t paused to measure the gap between where I was, and where the team was. I was racing ahead on a path familiar to me, but not to them.

Pause to measure the gap

Help came from a conversation with the firm’s change management SME. She put the change situation into perspective for me. She helped me realize I hadn’t read my audience, nor done enough communications work with them. Her advice was that a messaging strategy could take up to 13 times and needed to be delivered in three different mediums. She encouraged me to keep reading the team and intentionally confirm their buy in, over and over. With that, I adapted my communications approach and paused to let others buy in, and be a part of setting the pace of change. The hardest part was getting comfortable with what felt to be repetitive messaging and too slow a pace. That’s what it took to read my audience properly and get change adopted.

The most unpredictable variable of change

The case for change isn’t what you would expect as it’s not a business case, nor a use case. It’s a personal case for change, and I think it’s the hardest part because it’s connected to human behaviours, including changing human behaviours.

Each of us are uniquely hardwired in our personalities, therefore making each of us unique in how we learn, and adopt change. Talking about making and planning the change is the easy part. It’s the executing and performing, week after week, in changed conditions that gets uncomfortably difficult.

A multi-year, large-scale service delivery transformation is where I got my people change learning skills. The change was a dramatically different operating model. What had been heard from the leadership team during the lead up was different than what was seen in their behaviours when implemented. Several of them were unsettled, and not doing their best work. They were struggling with the change, and it was affecting them personally.

There was no undo button.

We’d missed assessing change adeptness and building the personal change for each leader. We hadn’t taken the time, nor given them the space, to reflect on what change meant to them personally.

Know your case for change

Our experience allows us to see the traits that support successful change leadership.

What type of traits does a successful change leader possess? The best change leaders will:

  • Hold a strong and consistent growth mindset

  • Be accurate in their self-knowledge and self-awareness

  • Own an unwavering belief in their personal abilities, i.e. self-confidence

  • Be comfortable with making decisions in conditions without precedent

  • Be neither an extreme introvert, nor extreme extrovert

  • Easily handle massive amounts of new information

  • Be hardwired and disciplined to focus on the right things over a long-term period

  • Possess well-developed awareness skills to accurately read people and situations

If these aren’t a leader’s natural abilities or style, they’ll need to prepare and support themselves for a long period of flexing and practicing their preferred way of working. Being flexible is essential. And being flexible is the hardest when you’re stressed or under pressure.

The hard work on soft skills

Soft skills are no longer soft, nor optional, when managing employees and leading teams. Research shows that the inner work on soft skills and self-awareness are core in leadership development, and key to driving successful change.

Check your blind spots. If we don’t have accurate self-awareness, we may not be accurately reading people and situations.

This is a dramatic change from what we knew to be success, which was all about knowing the answer and direction forward. We believed the process would get us to the outcome. And while process was the way forward, conditions have now changed. Results can’t be derived from mechanisms, role clarity, and meeting outcomes.

Successful change boils down to how we connect as people and work together as a team.

The work a leader does within themselves helps them communicate how a vision is shared, enhances the trust within their team and enables a more responsive, and less reactive, reconciliation of team problems. This is all essential to successful change leadership.

People performance + process equation

Pivotal Growth’s diagnostic methodology is anchored in people performance plus process. Solving the people performance equation is why I did my coaching certification, and subsequently started this business. From my leadership experience and extensive executive coaching work, I’ve been able to experience and study change leadership.

If 50% - 70% of planned change efforts fail, how are you improving your odds of success?

Many executives lead change using a lot of resources allocated to the systems and process of change. There is less focus and fewer use of resources to understand the change adeptness of their team (i.e., the change behaviours of their team).

Just because you know the destination doesn’t mean you know the journey. People will always be an unpredictable variable.

We believe that successful change leadership requires soft skills and a people-centric approach.


Lisa W. Haydon is a business leader and entrepreneur with over 30 years of operational experience leading teams in banking, capital markets, technology and professional services. Lisa’s instinct for sorting through business complexities, understanding distinctive leader personalities, and realizing results compelled her to leave a corporate career and become an entrepreneur. Her company, Pivotal Growth, introduced a technology tool for leadership development assessment and planning. The suite of tools offers diagnostic capabilities to synthesize and accelerate people performance.

Lisa’s skills and the Pivotal Growth product help companies enhance their performance and support leaders achieving greater confidence and success.

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