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Take me to your (change) leader

Mark Methven

‘Change leadership’ means different things at different times, but generally speaking a ‘change leader’ is someone tasked with leading and motivating others to embed and sustain change.

Regardless of the exact size and shape of your organisation or the transformation being undertaken, here are my recommended three steps when delivering change at the front line.

1.      Identify the change leader role

Most change in complex systems is delivered at the front line. So, when we first start working with an organisation on a change process, one of the first things we ask them is ”who are your change leaders?”. Who will work with us to co-produce new ways of working, tackle and manage resistance, and ensure the sustainability of the change?

It is important to think this question through carefully, and not just go for the obvious individuals based on seniority, knowledge or experience. It is also important not to focus just on those who are the most charismatic or who you think would be the most receptive and ready to step into the role.

It is vital that success is seen as everyone’s responsibility, which is why it is better to identify the most suitable roles – rather than individuals – for change leader positions. For example, in our ‘Better Lives’ transformation programme for Adult Social Care in Ealing, we identified the Team Manager role as being critical. It was important to avoid the temptation just to focus on those who immediately “got it” and were up for change, but to work across the grade to ensure change was embedded across the service.

A change leader role does not automatically have to be the project manager or sponsor, a subject-matter expert or a Head of Service. It should be the person best placed to uphold the vision of change, particularly at the front line.

2.      Equip and invest in your change leaders

Those who have progressed their careers in front line roles in local government have often done so because they have been recognised for their skills and expertise. However, it is often the case (as it is in other sectors and industries) that subject-matter experts are promoted into wider management positions without being given the training and support needed to make an effective transition.

After identifying the roles that are best positioned to lead change, the organisation should consider if there is a need to invest in training and support for this group. Key areas include:

a.      Practical skills – with time pressures and competing demands, getting the basics right can sometimes be the difference between sinking or staying afloat. Dealing with an overflowing email inbox is just one example of the type of a practical skill that can boost effectiveness and help ensure success.

b.     People skills – it is often said that there is a difference between managing and leading, and that these require different people skills at different times. Your change leaders need to know the difference and understand how and when to use these different skills, particularly when working across boundaries either within or across organisations.

A simple model that I have successfully used with change leaders is Situational Leadership. Gaining skills and experience using models like this enables leaders to effectively consider and adapt their management and leadership styles – both to the maturity of their teams and to the contexts they are working in.

c.      Emotional and cognitive resilience – change is hard and can take its toll on us emotionally and mentally. None of us are immune from feeling fatigued. Ensuring that your change leaders have effective strategies for remaining resilient is critical if you want to see change all the way through to new business as usual.

An element of resilience that I have explored with change leaders is their own cognitive view of themselves and their abilities. An example of this is self talk – what we tell ourselves about our performance, abilities or fears.

3.      Provide space for reflection

Introducing protected time and space for change leaders to reflect on their individual and collective experiences, and to problem solve with other leaders, allows them to explore what is working well and what is not. During change there is often a reluctance to take your foot off the pedal – but group reflection enables that opportunity, and in turn brings the chance to set ambition, review tactics and change them if needed.

Selecting change leaders with care and equipping them with the right tools, techniques and frameworks to be effective and confident in their roles will give change the best chance of success.

Written by

Mark Methven



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