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How Business Leaders Make Change Happen

Based on research of over 500 business leaders and the people who work for them, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman write in the Harvard Business Review about the 7 things they’ve found that a CEO can do to drive change in their organization.

“The direct reports rated their managers on 49 behaviors and also assessed the leaders on their effectiveness at leading change – specifically, the managers’ ability to influence others to move in the direction the organization wanted to go. We then analyzed those who had the highest and lowest ratings on their ability to lead change, and compared that with the other behaviors we’d measured.”

Here’s what worked:

1. Inspiring others. “Inspiring leaders understand the need for making an emotional connection with colleagues. They want to provoke a sense of desire rather than fear. Another approach in many work situations is to make a compelling, rational connection with the individual in which we explain the logic for the change we want them to make.”

2. Noticing problems. “Lots of management advice focuses on the need for individuals to become better problem solvers; but there is an important step that comes even earlier. It is the ability to recognize problems (to see situations where change is needed and to anticipate potential snares in advance).”

3. Providing a clear goal. The farmer attempting to plow straight furrows selects a point in the distance and then constantly aims in that direction. Change initiatives work best when everyone’s sight is fixed on the same goal. Therefore, the most productive discussions about any change being proposed are those that start with the strategy that it serves.

4. Challenging standard approaches. “Successful change efforts often require leaders to challenge standard approaches and find ways to maneuver around old practices and policies – even sacred cows. Leaders who excel at driving change will challenge even the rules that seem carved in stone.”

5. Building trust in your judgment. “This is both about actually improving your judgment, and improving others’ perceptions of it. Good leaders make decisions carefully after collecting data from multiple sources and seeking opinions from those whom they know will have differing views. They recognize that asking others for advice is evidence of their confidence and strength, not a sign of weakness.”

6. Having courage. “Indeed, every initiative you begin as a leader, every new hire you make, every change in process you implement, every new product idea you pursue, every reorganization you implement, every speech you deliver, every conversation in which you give difficult feedback to a colleague, and every investment in a new piece of equipment requires courage. The need for courage covers many realms.”

7. Making change a top priority. “Many change efforts are not successful because they become one of a hundred priorities. To make a change effort successful you need to clear away the competing priorities and shine a spotlight on this one change effort. Leaders who do this well have a daily focus on the change effort, track its progress carefully and encourage others.”