Change leadership is a critical aspect of organisational success, especially in today’s dynamic business landscape. Furthermore, leading change successfully has become a mandatory skill for leaders as they continue to operate in an environment of uncertainty.

When leaders fail to demonstrate change leadership, employees become confused, disconnected and stray from the core business objectives. Leaders play a crucial role in guiding the business through change and bridging the gap between strategy and execution. According to research conducted by McKinsey - most change initiatives fail due to employee resistance and a lack of management support so it is integral to ‘manage change – before change manages you’.

What is Change Leadership?

Change leadership is a proactive, people-centric approach to managing organisational change. Unlike traditional change management, which focuses on tools and processes, change leadership views change initiatives as opportunities for growth and improvement. Here are some key points about change leadership:

  1. Visionary Approach: Change leaders envision the future state and inspire others to embrace it. They see change as a chance to enhance the organisation rather than a mere project.
  2. Agility and Responsiveness: Change leaders adapt swiftly to shifting business requirements. They understand that change is constant and are prepared to navigate obstacles.
  3. Overcoming Barriers: Successful change leaders identify and address common barriers to change. They engage with employees, empowering them to contribute rather than imposing change upon them.

What is the difference between Change Leadership and Change Management?

While these terms are often used interchangeably, they have distinct roles:

  • Change Management: Focuses on small-scale changes, using tools to control and minimise disruption. Its goal is cost-effectiveness and risk reduction.
  • Change Leadership: Drives large-scale transformational changes. It ensures quicker, innovative, and efficient implementation. Change leaders provide the vision and driving force behind such initiatives.

4 Commonly used change models

In Australia, leaders often employ several change management models to navigate organisational shifts effectively. Here are some commonly used ones:

1. Lewin’s Change Management Model:

Developed by Kurt Lewin in the 1950s, this model divides the change process into three steps:

  • Unfreeze: Prepare by analysing the current state and understanding what needs to change.
  • Change: Implement the change while providing support and communication to all involved.
  • Refreeze: Review the new processes and measure the progress against goals.

2. McKinsey 7-S Framework:

Developed by McKinsey & Company consultants, this model focuses on seven components:

  • Strategy: Define what the company aims to achieve and how it plans to do so.
  • Structure: Organisational design, reporting relationships, and task division.
  • Systems: Processes, procedures, and technology.
  • Shared Values: Core beliefs and culture.
  • Skills: Employee capabilities.
  • Style: Leadership and management style.
  • Staff: Human resources and talent.

3. Kotter’s 8-Step Process:

Created by John Kotter, this model emphasises eight steps for successful change:

  • Create Urgency: Convey the need for change.
  • Build a Guiding Coalition: Assemble a team to lead the change effort.
  • Formulate a Strategic Vision: Define the desired future state.
  • Communicate the Vision: Share the vision with employees.
  • Empower Action: Remove obstacles and enable action.
  • Generate Short-Term Wins: Celebrate progress.
  • Consolidate Gains and Produce More Change: Build on initial successes.
  • Anchor New Approaches in the Culture: Ensure lasting change.

4. ADKAR Model by Prosci:

This model focuses on individual change and includes five stages:

  • Awareness: Understand the need for change.
  • Desire: Develop a personal commitment to change.
  • Knowledge: Acquire the necessary information and skills.
  • Ability: Apply new knowledge and skills.
  • Reinforcement: Sustain the change over time.

These are just four of the common models that leaders use as a framework to guide their organisations through transformational journeys while maintaining employee satisfaction and productivity.

7 tips to become a successful change leader

There is no question that executing change successfully requires skill, commitment and excellent communication skills; but it is within the reach of leaders with these strategies:

1. Emotional Intelligence

Understand and manage your own emotions with change and display empathy with others during times of change. Acknowledge that change is an individual journey that is not easy for some.

2. Communicate Effectively:

Articulate the vision clearly. Listen actively and address concerns. Many leaders jump feet first into change, without taking a breath to focus on the ‘what’ before the ‘how’. Leaders who react to a requirement to change as opposed to investing the time to plan, engage and communicate find that they leave their teams behind. Communication is the vital ingredient in successful change management and enables employees to ‘buy into’ the change.

3. Build Trust:

Trust is crucial during change. Be transparent, reliable, and consistent. Creating authentic leadership is about demonstrating transparency and trust – and there is no better time to do this than where there is an important change in the business.

4. Collaborate: 

To be an effective change leader, it is important to engage and collaborate with your team. Leaders are encouraged to communicate early and often with their direct reports and all key stakeholders. When the information about the change flows freely, employees aren’t left in the dark and are therefore less likely to rebel against the change or develop conspiracy theories about the intentions of the leadership group. It also invites stakeholders on the change journey as passengers – not prisoners. 

5. Empower:

Involve employees in decision-making. Encourage ownership.

6. Learn from Failures:

Embrace setbacks as learning opportunities.

7. Commit by leading by example

There is nothing worse than a leader trying to ‘sell’ a change process that they are not on board with. A leader’s job is to create the plan, engage with the team, communicate and project manage the implementation of the change. Employees quickly become suspicious when they see behaviours and actions from leaders that are not in line with the desired change. If they see their leader having doubts or not supporting the change process – then why should they get on board?

Adopting a ‘change leadership’ mentality

Implementing change successfully is difficult, and sometimes leaders need to step outside of their comfort zone and personal beliefs to understand and connect to the ‘why’ behind the change. Leaders who fail to commit to change – will also fail to bring their team along for the ride and will encounter great resistance and disengagement.

There are many reasons why leaders resist change. Some leaders are fearful of the unknown and others simply don’t want to invest time and resources into something that is not a core business priority. An effective change leader must have a transformational mindset and an appetite to communicate the need for change up, down and across the organisation.

Change must always be in line with the organisation’s strategic goals and a personal preference for change is irrelevant. Gaining support and momentum in change is not easy - so it is important the change leader adopts a mindset that enables them to lead a team through the challenges by communicating the goals and influencing key stakeholders.

Be the change that you need to see

Change leadership is not just about managing change; it’s about inspiring transformation. It is imperative that leaders take the time to understand the ‘why’ behind the change and how it feeds into the strategic objectives of the business. By adopting a people-centric approach, understanding models, and honing leadership skills, change can be successfully embraced.

Leaders must focus on their own positive mindset and role model the behaviours that they expect team members to demonstrate. When leaders can effectively communicate, collaborate and commit – they are well positioned to successfully implement change by carefully navigating change fatigue, apathy and derailers.

Further information

Ai Group also offers a range of extensive training courses to support leaders on their development journey. AI Group also offers experienced HR consultants to partner with your business to devise the right strategy.  For assistance with your workplace matters, Members of Ai Group can contact us or call our Workplace Advice Line on 1300 55 66 77 for further information.

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Georgina Pacor

Georgina is Senior HR Content Editor – Publications at Ai Group. She is an accomplished Human Resource professional with over 25 years of generalist and leadership experience in a broad range of industries including financial services, tourism, travel, government and agriculture. She has successfully advised and partnered with senior leaders to implement people and performance initiatives that align to business strategy. Georgina is committed to utilising her experience to create resources that educate and engage and is passionate about supporting members to optimise an inclusive workforce culture that drives performance.