Change leadership skills: 12 critical attributes of great change leaders

Change leaders: change

Leading change is hard.

But good change leaders are essential if any kind of change – organisational or otherwise – is going to succeed.

In the context of organisational change, Kotter’s change model emphasises the need for leaders to:

  • create the climate for change,
  • create the conditions for change, and then
  • implement change in a way that will make it stick.

But in order to do this, what are the change leadership skills that are needed?

12 essential skills for change leaders

Here are 12 critical attributes of change leaders.

1. Nous

As a change leader, you need to know your way around the organisational system. You need to be a bit political and you need to know who you can rely upon when needed. This knowledge will help you navigate through the system and identify key stakeholders who can support or hinder your efforts. You need to build relationships with these stakeholders and gain their trust and support.

2. Knowledge

You need to know what is happening and when, who will be affected and how. You need to keep on top of these facts as changes emerge. You also need to be a continuous learner, seeking out new information and insights that can inform your decisions and actions. You also need to be able to communicate this knowledge to your team in a way that is clear and concise.

3. Self-awareness

You need to know what your values or guiding principles will be through the process of change and stick to them. You need to be able to recognise when your personal preferences may be influencing your decisions and be willing to challenge them. You also need to be able to communicate your values and principles to your team, so they understand what drives your decision-making.

4. Honesty

Be truthful and straightforward at all times. Admit what you don’t know, find out what you can and transmit that information to your team. If you make a mistake, own up to it. By being honest, you demonstrate your integrity and build trust with your team.

5. Own your decisions

Make decisions and own them. Be mentally tough enough to admit when you are wrong, and when you are, change what needs to be changed and move on. Be open to feedback and willing to adjust your course if necessary. If you need support for decisions, use your nous to get stakeholders onside early and before critical deadlines arrive.

6. Do what you say you’re going to do.

Follow through on your commitments and your decisions. But make sure you have planned effectively in advance so you don’t put your credibility at risk by failing to deliver what you say you will.

7. Give credit

Acknowledge the efforts of others. Celebrate successes and small wins. Don’t show any favouritism and always give the credit to your team. A simple ‘thank you’ goes a long way in building loyalty and commitment in the people around you.

8. Be empathetic

Provide psychological safety, allow your team to express their fears and frustrations to you. Hold in confidence whatever is shared with you confidentially. This means creating a safe and supportive environment where your team can feel heard. By being empathetic, you build trust and rapport with your team and help them feel more comfortable with the changes that are happening.

9. Interpret

Present the vision of change that makes sense to your team and your stakeholders. Great change leaders interpret the big corporate view in a way that enables their team members to recognise their place in it and what the future reality will be for them. Show the end goal and the pathways that will get everybody there. If you can do that successfully, you will engender hopeful progress.

10. Persuade

Change is almost always met with resistance and skepticism. Use the platform that the other attributes give you to bring people along on the journey. Use facts and reason to show others the benefits of change and the disadvantages of inertia.

11. Engage

Involve your team in the vision of the future state. Tap into the team’s emotions to create enthusiasm and motivation to change. Engage your team in the change process and involve them in decision-making and problem-solving. This means creating opportunities for collaboration, feedback, and participation.

12. Be an agent for change

Make sure your team is resourced for change. Do they have all the information they need? Do they fully understand what is required and what the future benefits are? Do they have any needs that are not being met? Champion the end state and give your team the tools and resources they need to get you all there.

Interpreting change

Of course, the values-based attributes, such as honesty, doing what you say and owning your decisions are critical. But, looking back over this list, I am beginning to think that number 9 – interpret – might be the most important and perhaps the most difficult change leadership skill for change leaders to master and deliver on.

The point here is that at any given time during a process of transition and change not everybody has the same understanding of what is happening, not everybody has the same perspective on the change and not everybody will be responding to what is happening in the same way.

It is therefore critical to keep open your channels of communication with your team, collectively and where possible, individually, so that you can gauge what you need to do boost understanding and help manage the inevitable anxieties that arise.

There will be elements of repetition in this, because change can be complex with multi-layered implications arising from it and therefore the process of understanding can be gradual and emergent.

The important thing is to realise that just because something has been said, it hasn’t necessarily been understood. Checking understanding is therefore vitally important for change leaders who want to succeed and bring their teams with them.

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