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Change management: Leading through transition

"Progress is impossible without change"

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus is quoted as saying: “Change is the only constant in life.” We’d might want to argue there are others, but certainly in business, change has become a continuous necessity. The fallout from Brexit, the pandemic, and geopolitical conflicts, have caused us all to think on our feet and adapt quickly. Whether your staff are working from home, the office, or both, the workplace continues to evolve. And then there’s generative AI, which is bringing a whole new meaning to the term hybrid working.

With elections on both sides of the Atlantic, this year, the uncertainty has been cranked up to 11. PWC, in its latest (27th) annual global CEO survey, is labelling the current business environment the ‘age of continuous reinvention’. It reflects the finding that, without change, 45% of the CEOs surveyed don’t think their companies will be viable in 10 years’ time. To survive, let alone thrive, will mean adapting, evolving, reinventing, or transforming. As a leader, how you manage that change will be crucial.

Martin Luther King had a dream, Emmeline Pankhurst chose deeds over words, Gandhi was the change he wanted to see in the world. Where there has been great change there have been great leaders. Whether the change is forced or chosen, to be successful, today’s business leaders need Change Management as a key competency.

Poor leadership fails the business

From Blockbuster and Blackberry to Motorola and MySpace, recent corporate history is splashed by titanic businesses that have sunk because they failed to change direction quickly enough. Perhaps the most shocking is the story of Yahoo. At the turn of the century, it was the most valuable company on the planet; by 2017, it was no longer an independent corporate entity. What is all the more sobering is that the company turned down opportunities to acquire Google and Facebook along the way.

So, what can we learn from this cautionary tale? Certainly, for sustainable success, a business needs to be creating the next growth wave before the first one collapses. As such, leaders need to be futurists and horizon scanners. If Yahoo’s leaders were keeping an eye on their competition and on the startups making waves, at the time, the focus should have been on the monetisation of the gargantuan database it was building. It is easy with the luxury of hindsight, but what was lacking at Yahoo was a well-conceived, well-articulated strategy. What did Yahoo want to be? A search engine? A social network? A media streaming platform? From its random acquisition strategy, over the years, it was clear that its leaders didn’t know.

Could the ship have been turned around or was it already sinking by the time Marissa Mayer (the last CEO of Yahoo) came onboard? This is a moot point. Not only was Yahoo going toe-to-toe with Google and Facebook, at the time, it was battling new kids on the block, Instagram and Snapchat, too. What we do know, is it lost, and, within five years, Mayer’s last act was to sell the company to Verizon for $4.8 billion (for context, Microsoft made an offer for Yahoo of $44.6 billion, in 2008).

What her tenure does highlight is how poor leadership can quickly turn a culture toxic. Coming from its great rival, Google, she was hailed as the company’s saviour when she arrived in 2012. Instead of a visionary, with a clear turnaround strategy, it transpired that Yahoo had hired a data-driven micro-manager who got lost in the detail rather than seeing the big picture. A pedantic nit-picker, her way was the right way. Dismissing the opinions and publicly belittling the leadership of others led people to fear making mistakes, which, as we all know, stifles creativity and innovation. An employee survey, three years into Mayer’s tenure, showed double-digit drops in metrics such as morale and trust in the company’s executive leadership. Which brings us back to George Bernard Shaw, who also wrote:

 "People who can’t change their minds can’t change anything."

Turning strategic vision into transformative business reality

Successful change occurs when strategy, structure, processes, and people are aligned. Of these, the most important are your people, they are, after all, the ones who will be affected most. Unless your people are onboard, the benefits of change will never be fully realised.

Whether it is streamlining and restructuring, expansion into new markets, the roll out of a new product or service, a merger or acquisition, or the deployment of new technology, whatever the change, to be implemented successfully a cultural shift needs to take place – a shift in the hearts, minds and therefore behaviour of your people.

While this article has been highlighting big corporates, in practice, the scale of any change project is often irrelevant. It is the employee experience that matters – how they perceive or ‘feel’ affected by it (that said, it is far easier to change direction in a small boat than a big tanker). The lessons to be learned from Mayer’s mistakes reverberate through businesses of all sizes.

So, what does good leadership look like?

The starting point for anyone leading through change is to have a clear vision and strategic plan that is purposefully communicated across the business, aligning every effort with your overarching goals. By articulating a compelling future state, leaders help employees understand the purpose or need behind the change, fostering a sense of aspiration and direction, inspiring action, and encouraging buy-in at all levels.

However, as change often requires a shift in strategy and tactics, leaders must remain agile and adaptable. They must also listen and be open to challenge. The best leaders understand that they don’t always have the right answers. Their ability to navigate uncertainty and adjust strategies meaningfully is invaluable in ensuring that the business remains responsive to evolving circumstances.

In the current climate, businesses need to act quickly and decisively. This means becoming more agile and taking risks, without perhaps having the level of comfort in data that we are used to. You need to accept that you can’t always be involved in every single decision, and delegate responsibility to others. And we shouldn’t let ‘perfect’ get in the way of good, either. When increasingly, success belongs to organisations who are quick to respond to change, these are all positive ways of working that should be maintained.

Fundamentally, you are a leader of people

Relationships are the backbone of any successful organisation. Leaders must cultivate strong connections with employees, stakeholders, and external partners. As such, they communicate openly, transparently, and frequently to keep everyone informed and engaged. The best leaders are like coaches, curious, dedicated listeners who, knowing that they don’t have all the answers, are able to give employees a voice, learn from the bottom-up, and adapt practices accordingly.

Leadership isn't just about giving orders; it's about empowering teams to take ownership of the change process. Strong leaders delegate responsibilities, encourage collaboration, and create an environment where employees feel empowered to contribute their skills and ideas.

Change can be unsettling for employees, leading to anxiety and resistance. Strong leaders build trust by addressing concerns and demonstrating empathy. They recognise that change often involves a cultural shift within the organisation and as such are attuned to the existing culture, respecting and protecting the valuable aspects while introducing new elements. Change can often bring about conflicts and disagreements as teams or individuals struggle to find their place in a new structure or regime. To find common ground, and keep the team focused on achieving their goals, effective leaders are adept at resolving conflicts and addressing concerns to find resolutions.

“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next 10. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.” 

In Brief

Strong leadership is the linchpin that holds a business together during times of change. From visionary guidance and effective communication to building trust, empowering teams, and inspiring resilience, strong leaders are the driving force. In embracing their role as agents of change, leaders not only guide their organisations through transition but also pave the way for a more resilient, adaptive, and successful culture.

Victoria Beadle

Victoria Beadle

A director of our strategic HR consultancy, Vic is a CIPD qualified HR leader who is passionate about organisations creating cultures that empower people to be successful. She is an advocate for employee engagement that gives people a voice.

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