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4 must-have skills to manage change

Tuesday, March 08, 2016  
Posted by: Barbara Francella
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By James Dallas

To survive and thrive, every organization must know how to navigate change. Unfortunately, 75 percent of change initiatives will fail, according to McKinsey & Co.

When change initiatives fall flat, organizations suffer and the leaders of those failed initiatives are hit with major career setbacks. The impact includes low morale, low trust in leadership, low productivity, and, worst of all, low expectations and lack of confidence in the future. Externally, failures erode trust in management and drive stock prices down. Failed leaders are often reassigned, redeployed or removed from a company and the failure follows them until they manage a success that offsets it.

Related: 10 essential skills to be a leader in demand

Conversely, leaders who successfully reshape their organizations are sought after and respected. Their organizations leverage changes in the industry. Aside from the tangible wins — revenue growth chief among them — there’s a psychological lift when change flourishes. Like a winning sports team, employees become more confident in their individual and collective talents. The ball and the referees’ calls always seem to go their way. Over time, they develop resilience and the confidence to “see over mountains” as new challenges come along.

So how to navigate change? Here are the four critical skills leaders must develop:

1. Listen to your front-line people. Many change initiatives are doomed from the beginning because leaders spend all their time listening to each other and third parties with impressive resumes, when they should be listening to their front-line people. Front-line employees know the score, because they’re interacting with customers, suppliers and co-workers day in and day out. They know exactly what is wrong with an organization’s processes, what is frustrating to customers and what competitors are doing to take business. 

2. Play the politics of change. Every change is political because there will always be winners and losers. Losers see their control and influence diminish. To protect their own agendas, many will fight back by playing Machiavellian politics instead of bringing fresh ideas to the table. Change leaders need to understand every competing agenda and anticipate and manage politics by reducing uncertainty, brokering deals, checking their own egos and making a sincere effort to help people feel respected and heard. Doing so saves time that would be wasted by people trying to protect the status quo by any means necessary and inspires team members to bring their A-game and become partners, not opponents.

When a leader becomes known as a champion of good ideas, people with good ideas from inside and outside the organization will start knocking at the door. The leader will quickly build a following and a chest full of ideas that promote and sustain change.

3. Know the organizational priorities. Getting the trust and alignment needed to implement change is the hardest step of all, because transformational change must always span organizational boundaries. A leader has to develop a rapport with key people within each boundary by learning what is important to them as individuals and in their groups. The leader must create intersections to develop a shared culture and learn how to truly read people, instead of merely presenting PowerPoint slides and stoplight reports.

4. Ability to persevere. As a leader of transformational change, you can always count on something going wrong, whether it’s your fault or someone else’s. Your ability to course correct, rally the troops and start moving in the right direction will determine success or failure. In my experience, leaders will always face their biggest challenges when they’re closest to the finish line. I’ve seen far too many give up or make an irreversible error at that point, and the whole team’s efforts are wasted. To press on in the face of difficulty, leaders must have a North Star, a core purpose they strongly believe in that anchors the initiative and guides their and their team’s decision making. The most powerful North Stars are end-user focused and very simple for everyone to understand. Unfortunately, the simpler the North Star, the more complicated it is to implement it, because making things easy for end customers means crossing many turfs and breaking down walls within and outside the organization.

Without these skills, a leader managing change will see teams — and the organization — founder.

James Dallas is the author of the recent book  Mastering the Challenges of Leading Change: Inspire the People and Succeed Where Others Fail and an accomplished senior executive. He has been named one of the most powerful black men in corporate America several times in his career by Black Enterprise and Savoy magazines. A version of this blog originally appeared on

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.

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