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Look for a leader with a proven-record of delivering change based on these five factors.

With change and transformation, have you ever had the feeling the wrong person in your company is leading it? Everyone I have spoken to would say “Yes” to this question. The old saying about hiring executives “First, get the right people on the bus” applies equally to your change management initiatives. You have to get the right people leading those initiatives.

Gallup, a leading polling organization, recently reported that when an effective executive leads change, it has a positive effect on business results (sales up 27%). But most are not naturals for leading change (only 10% have natural talent). So the new data analytics are starting to back up the old wisdom.

So how do you find the right person to lead a major change initiative?

Look at the depth of relationships the person has
The change leader (a) has positive, healthy relationships with many people or (b) can build them quickly or ideally both. Under condition (a), the person is known in your company for having a strong network. Under condition (b), the person has a provable record of relationship building under time pressure. Promises, hopes and dreams are no good here. If there is no clear career evidence, believing that the person will suddenly develop this critical skill is wishful thinking.

Also, for global change initiatives, it is vital that the change leader has in-depth experience all dealing with people in different functions, countries and regions. (“I’ve been there on holiday / while travelling the world” does not make you very experienced.)

Look at the type of relationships the person has
It is essential that a change leader can dialog with people. If not, change initiatives are a flash in the pan: brief, intense, high-energy efforts that produce no lasting effect. The brightness lasts about as long as the external management consultants’ project! Instead, choose a change leader who communicates WITH people. Change that lasts is done WITH people, not TO them.

What holds change leaders back from a dialog? Personal fear. Change dialogs are messy, unstructured, highly-emotional discussions. It’s intellectually rough and emotionally tough. It’s easier on a (change leader’s) fragile ego to stage manage a corporate event and tell people what to do. In most cases, that is also the easiest way to fail. Employees are not part of a machine to be adapted, changed and manipulated by the mechanics, i.e. top managers. A good change leader takes time to explain, listen, understand and close the information gaps. This is where a communicating a clear purpose comes in.

Look for a person who communicates a clear purpose
A change leader must be clear on five points: what the change initiative goals are, why change, why this change is important to you, what the benefits for you are and what the risks for you are.
The right person talks WITH the people in front of him about these five points. Most change leaders don’t do this.

A large German financial institution learnt this lesson the hard way. At employee meetings, two of the three change leaders talked all the time about the benefits for shareholders and national business units. The employees switched off, then blocked the change by calling for strike action. The result: delays and under-achievement of change goals. The sweet side note is that the one change leader who did have a dialog (i.e. talked with) employees has been promoted because of the skills he showed to keep the change initiative alive.

Look for experience in second-order change of structures, systems and processes
First-order change focuses on the existing structures, systems and processes. The focus is on efficiency – by being faster or doing more or less of something. Second-order change is a working in a new, completely different way. It fundamentally changes the structures, systems and processes at work. It is often described as transformational, radical or simply major change. The right person to lead change is somebody with hands-on experience of second-order change and the complexity that comes with it.

Look for a proven-ability to align goals with desired behaviours
To make change last, the change leader must align the new structures, systems and processes with the desired behaviours. This is not done after the change. It is ongoing, which is what makes it so difficult to master. The best change leaders can set short-term behavioural goals which support the long-term business goals. Moreover, they flex the behavioural goals to achieve higher and higher performance standards.

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This process allowed people to re-appraise how this [senior team of managers] group was functioning or, rather, not functioning correctly. The tendency for each member of our group to see himself as an isolated beacon of excellence – which acted against the vital need for cooperation between members – were eased and communication is already becoming more 'normalised'.

RS Senior Director

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