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This article was first published in the April 2017 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Is every change management project different? It might seem so on the face of it. There is a wide range of reasons as to why change may be needed: the speed and elapsed time from beginning to end will be unique to each situation; and how the change is implemented will depend on the characters responsible and the culture in which the whole change sits. And we all know just how idiosyncratic we human beings can be.

So while it’s true that taking a cookie-cutter approach to planning and executing change is not going to yield success, we know that particular themes will crop up time and again, no matter the nature of the change.

Certain components of change management projects are common to all: the need for a robust business case, the articulation of tangible benefits, a realistic change management plan with a shared set of tools and metrics, and a compelling vision. Get any of these wrong and potholes will appear fairly quickly along the change journey. 

But there are also more elusive components that might be harder to control, such as leadership buy-in. If this is missing, the change team might just as well pack up and go home.

Commitment to the change – both public and private – by all the senior leaders is key. We know that employees rarely follow what a leader says; they follow what a leader does – what is prioritised, how resources are allocated, and the way that decisions are made. If a leader is inauthentic in their commitment, not only will it be obvious to those around them, it will act like a warning signal, indicating to others that they should avoid committing to the change too. When faced with a leader who lacks belief in the proposed change, wait until they are convinced, or move them aside or out.

Going soft

Beyond their innate belief in the proposed change and their commitment to it, leaders need a battery of soft skills if they are to lead change successfully. The good news is that most of these skills can be learnt. And there’s no better training ground to hone and develop new leadership muscle than during a change programme. In fact, getting real-time feedback from colleagues and others gives a coach the perfect setting to help a leader apply new learning to increase their influence and effectiveness.

The so-called soft skills that leaders need can be divided into two broad categories: ‘outwards’ and ‘inwards’. The outwards skills are the observable behaviours, including, for example, being visible to employees at all levels, being open to ideas in conversations (as opposed to shutting down ideas that run counter to the direction of the change), speaking with inspiration and being real.

Being authentic with others and learning how to communicate clearly using compelling ideas is achievable by even the most extreme of introverts. If big, staged events don’t bring out the best in a particular leader, then perhaps a smaller and more intimate setting with employees might be a better option. 

Most leaders don’t have a ‘be inspirational’ switch that they can turn on when they need it. But with support, any leader can create the context or situation in which they can be the best version of themselves. And that is all that employees ask for – leaders can leave the superman or superwoman costume at home.

The ‘inwards’ skills are just as important but are less immediately observable and are typically honed over time. They include resilience and humility – perhaps the yin and yang at the heart of emotional intelligence. Arguably, these are skills that any senior leader needs in any situation, but they are particularly important during periods of intense change when employees – often devoid of concrete next steps or certainty – need to trust their leader. The leader then has a key role to engender trust and so help employees move towards a future that may seem somewhat unclear. 

Manager’s role

But it’s not only the leader who needs soft skills; the manager plays an important role too in translating the bigger change messages and overall direction of travel into the here and now. 

Against the broader narrative of change, managers make a significant contribution to the change effort in creating clear team and individual goals, providing consistency and staying on message without being dogmatic. They also need to nip in the bud any resistance to change, but equally challenge the change team when proposed new local processes simply won’t work.

These change skills are critical: they help create a safe and meaningful context for individuals and teams who may be struggling to make sense of the changes going on all around them. Furthermore, managers play a key role in helping their people through the day-to-day emotional journey of the transition to the new.

No change will be successful without hefty doses of soft skills from leaders and managers. If leaders are found to be lacking in certain areas, managers may be able to fill in the gaps to keep their team’s energy focused and correctly channelled. 

Training and development needs to be baked into the change plan and valued as an important investment, rather than reached for as an afterthought only when resistance is becoming evident. It is as critical to commit resources to the development of soft change skills as it is to systems or technology. 

Supporting leaders and managers too little and too late is not only a threat to the financial success of the change investment, it can cause irreparable damage to individuals and to the culture of the organisation or department.

But the final word must go to employees themselves who need their own skills to navigate the uncertainties and ambiguity of change. Without their resilience, their ability to be curious and open-minded, or their willingness to take responsibility and to speak up, perhaps no change would take place at all.

Alison Young is a consultant at change management specialist EchoChanges.