Change Thinking

Despite all the business change knowledge uncovered during the last 50 years, many seasoned change management professionals still aren’t adequately prepared to serve those trying to navigate their way through today’s turbulence. Change Thinking is an effort to have an exchange with, and be part of, a community of practitioners committed to raising the level of their game and that of the field of change execution.

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What Behavior Characteristics Do the Best Change Leaders Exhibit?

In this two-part series, I am discussing the importance of being prepared when called upon to help assess senior-level leaders for change roles. Continuing with my “reservoir” of change leadership characteristics, here are the behavior attributes that I feel should be considered. You may add others based on the particular situation.

  • Approaches change as a process rather than an event

-   Recognizes that people have to disengage from their current state and transition through an unstable period before they can establish a new equilibrium

-   Knows that people’s heads can sometimes move through change faster than their hearts and that mixed signals and contradictory feelings are common

-   Does not assume change is accomplished through good communications—that careful orchestration of the unfolding dynamics in play during transitions is imperative

  •  Pursues important changes with a sense of urgency

-   When necessary, pushes people past their comfort zone to reach realization

-   Assumes risk and conflict are necessary elements to achieving realization

-   Is tenacious and unrelenting about accomplishing change goals

  • Is unequivocal about guarding the most important change priorities

-   Requires an assessment of any new initiative on the organization’s ability to fully realize existing projects deemed essential

-   Delays, reduces the scope, or won’t approve projects that might compete for mindshare and resources required by the most important changes

-   Ensures that people understand and remain aligned to the true purpose behind the intent of the changes

-   Maintains a vigilance on the ultimate desired outcomes and avoids the tendency to be pulled off course during extended implementation efforts

  • Applies meaningful consequences

-   Doesn’t hesitate to reward or bring pressure to bear regarding the way people perform their assigned roles during the change process

  • Has a quick, thoughtful, and decisive manner when making decisions

-   Responds quickly to events/circumstances

-   Bases assessment of situations on input from others as well as on his or her own experience and intuition

-   Reaches conclusions after expedient but thorough deliberation

-   Has zero tolerance for non-compliance/support once a decision is announced

  • Strikes the right balance between inviting participation and making unilateral decisions

-   Is clear with subordinates when decisions have been delegated to them, when a determination will be reached jointly, when advocating for alternative solutions is welcomed, or when the leader will make a unilateral decision

-   Provides unqualified support to those who are delegated to him or her and rewards diverse perspectives from those who are asked to provide input

  • Demonstrates the willingness to make and carry out unpopular decisions

-   Listens to and values as many perspectives as is feasible during deliberation, but once the decision is made, he or she has no patience for anything except full support from those who advocated a different conclusion

-   Knows his or her role during major change is not to make people happy; it’s to help them succeed despite their discomfort

  • Matches responsibility with authority when assigning change-related tasks/roles

-   Selects people for key positions who will exercise a strong will when pursuing their assignments

-   Ensures people have the political clout to get their jobs done

  • Communicates directly

-   When faced with critical changes, he or she considers it unconscionable for people to be anything less than straightforward, explicit, and unreserved when conveying key messages

-   Ensures people understand that surfacing obstacles and addressing risks are inherent to successfully managing change

-   Instills a culture where problems that are surfaced and mitigated early are seen in a positive light, rather than as something to be hidden

  • Has an aversion to “dabbling”

-   Once a task has been delegated to a subordinate, the leader might function as a coach/advisor but doesn’t dive in to rescue people or situations when tough challenges arise

-   Understands the specifics taking place within his or her area of responsibility well enough to “feel” when things are (or are not) moving as they should, but refuses to be drawn into tactical problems that divert attention from strategic issues

  • Shows a talent for teamwork

-   Demonstrates strong self-reliance regarding his or her area of expertise, along with exceptional teamwork skills when collaborating with subordinates, peers, and superiors

-   Establishes and leverages common goals and interdependence when working with others

-   Fosters trust from others; people rely on him or her to deliver when commitments are made

  • Is loyal to long-standing players, but still demands high performance at all times

-   Is supportive of those who have proved themselves critical to success in the past but has a low tolerance for anyone not contributing at exceptional levels to the current endeavor(s)

-   Has an aversion for people who rely on politics rather than performance to sustain their place on the team

-   Does not allow the personal loyalty of long-standing players to supersede the need for sustained commitment to the success of the change

  • Leverages strong relationships with internal/external change agents

-   Ensures skilled agents are available who know how to provide the proper guidance to secure realization of the desired outcomes

-   Relates to these change agents as true partners, relying heavily on their perspectives and recommendations

  • Displays change-related courage and discipline

-   Demonstrates the courage needed to

-   Face what accomplishing fundamental change truly requires…what it really takes to fully “realize” intended outcomes

-   Take the appropriate actions to accomplish those outcomes, despite whatever fear, concern, opposition, or adversity, etc. is encountered

-   Has the discipline to live up to the standards of what must be done each and every time they are called for (“no timeouts/no substitutions”)

I hope this list of mindsets and behaviors will help you when you are asked to aid the selection process of a change leader. It may also prompt you to recall change leadership traits you may have recommended in the past. Please consider sharing what you will from characteristics you rely on so we can pool our collective experience around identifying what it takes to be a well-rounded candidate for key sponsor positions during major change.

Go to the beginning of the series.

Posted on: March 20, 2012 01:10 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Assessing Leaders for Change Roles

“If you seek to lead, invest at least 50% of your time in leading yourself—your own purpose, ethics, principles, motivation, conduct. Invest at least 20% leading those with authority over you and 15% leading your peers."

— Dee Hock

What to Look for When Assessing Leaders for Change Roles

From time to time, both internal and external change practitioners are asked to help select key leaders who will have critical roles as an organization embarks on a vital transition. Such requests may involve:

  • Providing selection criteria that reflect leadership characteristics necessary for the successful execution of major endeavors
  • Conducting interviews of candidates and/or existing incumbents to assess how well they match the change-related selection criteria
  • Creating developmental plans for anyone chosen who lacks certain characteristics considered essential to that organization’s change success
  • Serving as a trusted advisor or coach as part of a selected leader’s development plan

Unfortunately, many practitioners don’t give enough thought to what might be included in a change leader’s selection criteria. They toss something together quickly or access a generic list someone else has published that doesn’t take into account the particulars of the organization, the demands of the changes at hand, and the personalities involved. Leader appointment is an important aspect of change success and, as professional change facilitators, we are obligated to be as prepared as possible when asked to participate in the selection process.[1]

Over the years, I have acquired a list of criteria I consider when asked to provide parameters for change-related leader selection. The list provided in this series is extensivebut by no means inclusive. There are many more qualities you might add, based on the goals and constraints of a particular situation. At the same time, you should think of the list as a reservoir from which you could draw certain attributes after considering the particular circumstances of each client situation. I have never used all the items at the same time.

Reservoir of Change Leadership Characteristics

My work with clients usually centers around senior-level leaders who have responsibility for the execution of large-scale, complex change initiatives. As such, the list of leader characteristics I focus on is heavily weighted toward predispositions associated with strong sponsorship of enterprise-level endeavors.

Specifically, I help assess and place leaders who have a significant role in implementing initiatives that meet three qualifications:

These criteria are applicable to the recruitment and selection of new leaders, as well as to the evaluation of leaders already in place. When a leader is selected, the results can also provide a sound basis for a change-related development plan.

The ideal senior-level change leader displays as many of the following mindset characteristics (that match the situation) as possible:

  • An unequivocal commitment to the changes at hand

-   Has a profound resolve toward the specific shifts the organization has identified as essential for its future success, and not just a generic interest in change

-   Grasps the logic behind the change but also has a deep and personal emotional connection to its full realization

-   Relates to the change as more than an organizational commitment; it becomes a personal promise—“On my watch, this will succeed”

  • An understanding that execution of transformational change is a strategic competitive advantage

-   Believes it needs no less attention than other critical assets that senior officers are responsible for building and protecting

-   Understands how essential it is to orchestrate the human landscape around change and that effective implementation is at least as important as making the right decision

-   Is highly invested in building a cadre of people below him or her that see creating and maintaining a nimble work environment as central to their personal success and that of the organization

  • Change-related scar tissue

-   Past experience has left a deep impression about the importance of addressing the human landscape associated with strategy execution

  • A belief that fundamental change affecting many people does not occur by consensus

-   Assumes too much or too little leadership guidance is a main cause when change falls short of its objectives

-   Assumes strong, definitive leadership must be exercised, but only after being influenced by as much valued input as possible

  • The knowledge that resistance is an ally if approached properly

-   Views resistance as inevitable and healthy, and encourages its open expression

-   Treats the doubts and concerns people have as essential elements necessary to developing devotion and resolve for the change’s success

-   Displays zero tolerance for people “covertly opting out” (going underground with their concerns or resistance)

  • An appreciation of the importance of fostering commitment

-   Believes commitment throughout the whole organization is too important to leave to chance

-   Understands that sustainable commitment is tied to people believing there are:

-   Problems/opportunities that are prohibitively expensive if left unresolved (the pain of the status quo)

-   Solutions that are both attractive and feasible (hope)

-   Is willing to invest the necessary time and effort to ensure momentum; is capable of creating a critical mass of commitment throughout the organization

-   Sees the need to sometimes shift long-standing and widespread patterns of organizational mindsets and behaviors to ensure initiatives are properly supported

-   Demonstrates a healthy respect for the cultural implications of the impending  transformation

  • A value for diverse thinking

-   Encourages people to see disagreements as a natural and helpful part of the change process

-   Ensures peers and direct reports are willing to be frank/straightforward when expressing views and ideas

-   Listens to and incorporates “out of the box” approaches on a regular basis

  • An understanding that changes which are transformative, realization-based, and business imperatives must be viewed as journeys, not trips

-   Knows that not everyone will finish the voyage

-   Understands that those that do will experience one or more fundamental shifts in how they think and act

-   Knows it’s impossible to accomplish a paradigm change in others without undergoing one yourself

  • A value for balancing structure and flexibility

-   Understands that too much creativity is just as counterproductive to operational agility as too much predictability

-   Knows there is a zone where order and chaos intersect, and that operating in this zone offers the greatest possibility for people to adapt to changing circumstances

  • A value for the paradoxical nature of fundamental change

-   Adheres to the importance of slowing down (to do things right the first time) in order to move faster

-   Fosters unity and cohesion for a change by encouraging people to express their anxieties, fears, and misgivings

-   Reinforces for people that synergistic teamwork thrives on open, healthy conflict

-   Recognizes that what seems static is actually part of an ongoing process and what appears to be changing is following well-established patterns

-   Reminds people that within present victories are the seeds of future destruction

  • A high level of comfort and effectiveness when dealing with complexity

-   Rejects simple cause-and-effect explanations and seeks an understanding of events within a larger context

-   Looks for the relationships between apparently separate actions or outcomes

-   Explores how a single occurrence impacts the rest of the organization

  • A high tolerance for ambiguity

-   Considers the new norm to be ongoing disruption, rather than stability punctuated by infrequent change

-   Understands that transformational change is filled with confusing signals, compromises, and the need to make key decisions with insufficient information

-   Demonstrates strong resilience when faced with ambiguity and adversity

  • The ability to think vertically and laterally

-   Is able to focus down into his or her area of responsibility and across functions to address change dynamics/issues from a strategic, enterprise perspective

-   Sees the interdependencies across the organization that are key to effecting the change

  • A bias toward seeing mistakes as learning opportunities

-   Recognizes that missteps are inevitable in effecting major change

-   Helps people counter the tendency to hide mistakes and instead encourages surfacing them early so learning and corrective action can take place

-   Discusses mistakes he or she and others have made during past implementation efforts in terms of lessons learned rather than failures committed

  • Self-assured without appearing presumptuous

-   Has gained self-confidence from leading past major initiatives but assumes there is much left to learn about implementing change and is eager to do so

-   Is proud of past change accomplishments without needing to defend them when new demands lessen their effectiveness

In my next post, I will provide a list of behaviors that are characteristic of the ideal senior-level change leader. 

[1] If you are not being asked to support the placement of leaders who will carry significant change responsibilities, it may be an indication that you need to strengthen your profile with key decision makers. Either they don’t know enough about change execution to turn to you or they are aware of needing assistance but don’t consider you skilled enough or positioned well enough politically to add real value. Either scenario is cause for concern and requires your attention if you are to function as a valuable change resource for the organization.

Posted on: March 13, 2012 05:46 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

If we do not succeed, then we run the risk of failure.

- Dan Quayle



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