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Being a Successful Leader During Change

ski gondola over snow and trees

I've had the opportunity to work with lots of leaders over the years and I've also been the leader - the one who's initiated a change and the one who's had change imposed on me with the expectation of getting others on board. I've had success and certainly some failures. When I look back on what I could have done more, better, or differently to avoid the failures, the answer is clear - conversations. Here is an excerpt from my book - Talking Change - on being a successful leader during change. 

As a leader during change you will:

  • Not have all the answers
  • Not always agree with the direction
  • Not always know all the details of what’s happening with the change
  • Not always have your team members on side and ‘rowing in the same direction’
  • Not always have extra time in your day to ‘deal with the change’

So, what will you have as a leader during change?

  • The chance to make an impact on your team and organization
  • The chance to take calculated risks for greater rewards
  • The chance to try new things
  • The chance to inspire
  • The chance to lead
  • The chance to engage in conversations to listen, learn, and influence

This last point is one of the most important. Getting better at having the right conversations, with the right people, at the right time is a game-changer when leading change.

Yet conversations can also be the downfall of change. The conversations that are used to pit one group against another, or the ones where you keep key information to yourself, or the ones where there are so many buzz words used you're not sure what meaning to take away from it. You may have the best intentions when engaging in covert, behind-the-scenes, alliance-building, jargon-filled conversations, but my experience tells me that eventually those threads unravel and people ultimately don't commit to the change. They might comply, but they are not all-in.

Getting better at having the right conversations takes practice, like anything, and some courage. In the high-stakes game of organizational change, where funding, relationships, and reputation are on the line, conversations can feel risky. Some of the benefits of engaging in the right conversations during change include:

  • Thoughts become words - people have the opportunity to share what they are really thinking
  • Feelings are uncovered - as a leader, you can better understand how people feel about the change
  • Assumptions are eroded - making assumptions is where we get ourselves into this blog post to learn more about not making assumptions
  • Perceptions are changed - to make change, perceptions and perspectives have to change, conversation is the starting point 
  • Common understanding prevails - you get everyone on the same page 
  • Community is created - people realize they are not in this change alone
  • Decisions are reached - people decide if they are in or out of the change and how to move forward

Here are my four cornerstones for facilitating great conversations, what I call AIM Changing Conversations - the must-have conversations to lead change successfully:

  • Be present - focus only on what is happening in the conversation. In today's mostly online world it can be challenging, but if you are distracted you will miss nuances, body language (mostly facial reactions these days on video), and insights that will let you know how people are really feeling.
  • Ask great questions and listen actively - a conversation implies two-way, therefore, ask a question (preferably open-ended) then listen to the answer. My book outlines loads of questions for each conversation to give you ideas. 
  • Learn - be open to learning during the conversation, and encourage others to do the same. If you go in with a closed mind or believing you are always right, you are not in a true conversation and your chances of moving forward successfully will be slim.
  • Take action - follow up on actions, decisions, and next steps from the conversation to keep momentum. 


Are you managing or supporting a change initiative? Take the Leading Change for Project Managers course to build your confidence, skills, and toolbox to plan and manage change with ease. 

Are you leading a team through change – whether you chose the change or not? Bring the AIM Changer program to your organization – it will change the way you lead forever.