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Leading through change: are managers up to the job?

Graham Scrivener

Leading through change - are managers up to the job asks Graham Scrivener, managing director of Forum EMEA

Change is part and parcel of everyday business. It can range from the minor such as a rescheduled meeting to the major like a change in boss, job cuts or a new learning and development initiative to change behaviour. Whichever end of the spectrum it sits, change can be costly to the business if those experiencing it are being poorly managed.

Change can lead to feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, distraction and isolation which affects performance. These people are less likely to take risks that lead to innovation to drive the business forward.

But if change is managed effectively then it can have the opposite affect and extract confidence, focus, engagement and energy as people embrace change and turn it into an opportunity. In fact, research by Bain (2013) found that 75% of companies agree that their ability to adapt to change is a significant competitive advantage (Bain, 2013).

But uncertainty is an issue facing organisations around the globe so how can you ensure that your managers are up to the job of leading their teams through complex times?

An example of great leadership through change was the US team in last year's America's Cup, world yacht racing competition. Despite being five races behind New Zealand and operating in an unpredictable climate, the US team won by keeping calm and confident despite the chaos around them. They reflected on the situation, developed a new race strategy and adapted their techniques which raised their game.

Keeping composed and self-assured amidst change is, however, easier said than done, especially when today's leader is expected to achieve more with less. However, there are three techniques mangers can learn to help them and their team absorb change and uncertainty and still maintain high levels of performance.

Act with purpose

Change can suddenly throw teams off course so it's important for a manager and their team to be able to prioritise actions based on their 'value to effort ' ratio - how much time will the action take compared to the value it will bring to the business? Teams can then quickly establish where to make trade-offs should the unexpected happen and act with purpose; remaining focused and confident in the face of adversity.

 Change can suddenly throw teams off course so it's important for a manager and their team to be able to prioritise actions based on their 'value to effort ' ratio - how much time will the action take compared to the value it will bring to the business? Teams can then quickly establish where to make trade-offs should the unexpected happen and act with purpose; remaining focused and confident in the face of adversity.

Changing attitudes

Great leaders rise to a challenge and positively embrace the unexpected but to do this managers need to know how to adjust attitudes - their own and their team's. To do this they need to ask themselves the COST (control, ownership, scope and time) of the situation.

For example, we worked with a global research company whose client shifted its focus away from research in local markets to studies in larger global markets. This change impacted a particular country manager as it meant the loss of a large account to a centralised, global team. To turn this situation into a positive one, the country manager considered:

  • What Control he had in the situation? Whilst he no longer managed the account he and his team could still influence the global studies undertaken in his region.
  • How can he take Ownership and improve things by offering the global team the advantage of his team's local expertise.
  • After considering the Scope of the situation, the manager realised that the impact to his teams' revenue was not as much as he had first thought because his team could benefit from the profit of the local element of the global study.
  • Finally, he considered how much Time would this change last for and when should the team look to replace any revenue lost from this account.

Reframing change

Reframing is about looking for opportunities in adversity. It is not false optimism but requires the skill to see things positively but realistically and in a way to move the team on from the situation. This action alone reduces uncertainty as the team is instantly more engaged.

 Reframing is about looking for opportunities in adversity. It is not false optimism but requires the skill to see things positively but realistically and in a way to move the team on from the situation. This action alone reduces uncertainty as the team is instantly more engaged.

Firstly, show empathy to others struggling to cope with the change. Then, be open and honest about the circumstances and use COST to put the situation into context. This will help to reframe the situation and help to move on to the next stage which is, exploring the possible positive and negative outcomes of the circumstances and then working out ways to address these situations.

Managers should then work with their team to use these predictions to communicate a new strategy with a new set of goals and individually allocated actions based on their value to the business. Such clarity and purpose amidst a fog of change will re-engage and re-energise the team to maintain performance and sail towards success.

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