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The Five Key Moves of Great Change Leaders

Updated: Sep 28, 2023

In our past articles, we discussed how change leaders can miss key human needs under the stress and overwhelm of leading a complex initiative. And we talked about how we often underestimate the emotional journey of change. These fundamental misses can lead to transactional, flat change initiatives that are met with poor fidelity, cynicism, and even resistance.

We know it’s one thing to name what not to do as change leaders. It’s another thing to develop the instincts and skills to know what to do to lead change in inclusive ways.

We are inspired to see great change leaders who treat sustained change leadership as an ongoing process. They honor their people by seeing that they have skills and creativity to contribute to their collective goals, and they understand the role that they bring to facilitate those ideas into sustained progress. Great change leaders see change as a dialogue and grand collaboration - one that they are listening to, and one that they are supporting and encouraging.

Across the journey of a major change, we see five major moves that great change leaders demonstrate.

Stage 1: Co-define the problem together

When we are focused on making progress, we can assume everyone sees the problem clearly. But often, the first time that people hear that there was a problem worth solving was when they hear about the leader’s solution to it. They didn’t have the chance to share what their experience or hopes were, and they may have had a different picture of what the real problem even is.

We see great change leaders slow down and check that people are seeing problems the same. A conversation might look like:

  • “Hey, we’ve notice a pattern that … “

  • “We think this a challenge because … “

  • “Does that resonate with your experience? What does it look like in your circumstances?”

Stage 2: Share what you heard and a hypothesis of how to solve the problem

After getting input from people, it can be tempting to go deep into solution mode. But from the experience of those who gave input, that can feel like their perspective has gone into a black hole. This can fuel narratives such as “they don’t really care” or “nothing around here ever changes.” You can be doing your darndest to address their concerns, but they might give you credit if they can’t make the connection between the input they gave and the decision you made.

Oftentimes, great change leaders are balancing multiple interests, so it takes some care to show people how they translated the input they heard. They often pause to say to leaders:

  • “Here is what I heard from you…”

  • “A general solution could look like…”

  • “The rationale for this solution is … (which is related to your concerns about …)”

  • “I know you care about X, but we were also balancing Y which led us to Z … “

Stage 3: Test draft solution and implementation plan

The solution hypothesis and the solution plan are two very different things. Some leaders will tell others to “go forth and implement” once they have identified the directional solution. But the devil is in the change details, and they often underestimate a vast number of factors that need to be answered for people to implement at scale.

Great change leaders test out their solutions before launching at huge scale. They pilot, prototype, or whatever they can do to see what it takes for the idea to become a reality. In those cases, they see change often on a multi-year horizon.

But even within the current horizon, great change leaders are staying in dialogue with people. As an analogy, think of a doctor that is excellent in collaborating on what the diagnosis of your pain is. But then they plunge forward on an aggressive treatment plan without asking about what matters to you in the way you receive treatment. The execution is a partnership as much as the diagnosis phase is.

So great change leaders don’t stop the dialogue at the diagnosis - they problem solve on what the support looks like, as well. Here, they are asking things like:

  • “We can’t implement all of this at once. We think we will prioritize J first, and then move onto K. Does that sound right to you?”

  • “We want to try out ABC in a scrappy way before making a big financial investment. How might we try this out in simple ways?”

  • “If we go at this with X <training, coaching or whatever support you have in mind>, do you think that will help you? Will that be enough?”

Stage 4: Implement to inspire and sustain

There comes a moment where an initiative goes from “planning” to “doing” mode. These initial stages can be incredibly delicate. In most any new endeavor, the first steps are wobbling, toddling steps in this Neutral Zone. In these moments, we can mistake that our work is done as others pick up the torch.

Great change leaders understand that they shift from facilitating and planning to coaching and supporting. They know that it often takes a whole array of experiences that help someone to develop mastery in a new way of working.

They facilitate a suite of supports to:

  • Learn by Seeing: People have vicarious experiences where they picture what excellence looks like

  • Learn by Doing: People have safe, risk-free mastery experiences where they can practice

  • Learn by Coaching: People reflect and receive feedback in a supportive space from an expert

  • Learn with Support: People receive encouragement, praise, and emotional support

(We thank the great work from Anthony Bandura for laying the groundwork on frameworks on self efficacy and want to acknowledge that thought leadership here.)

There is no one right way to support implementation, and it’s never fully done. But all of these small, intentional acts of support help people to keep taking their own steps to keep at it, even when the Neutral Zone is messy and imperfect.

Stage 5: Celebrate and Fine Tune

At some point, the thrill of launching and the newness fades. In some lucky circumstances, those first steps have been successful, and things have gone just as we hope. In most cases, the results aren’t that clear. Perhaps people see what isn’t working, and people start wondering if they should shift altogether (or they use this chance to name why they were skeptical in the first place).

Great change leaders are fanatical about bringing inspiration and clarity to the work. They find ways to infuse stories of their why, the possibilities of what can come ahead, and the examples of what is working well. They are reminding people about the big goals, and they are reiterating the picture of how this will work.

And great change leaders don’t blindly push forward on what isn’t working. Rather, they find ways to monitor and triage the feedback they are getting. They look for easy tweaks they can make and hold on what can wait until next time. And if needed, they pull up and make sizeable shifts where things have gone off.

At this phase, they are saying things like:

  • “Wow! I’m amazed to see ABC in motion. If we keep at this, I could imagine … “

  • “Right now, we know that success is going to look like small steps of XYZ. Let’s remember that we might not see ___ yet.”

  • “It seems like people are getting stuck at X. Can you help me think of some tweaks we could do to simplify here?”

  • “It looks like we’re hearing a lot of unanticipated headaches around B. If we were to address that, it would take C, which could be risky. Do you guys think it’s worth it?”

Putting it into practice

The work of change leadership is never really done. But by seeing these stages, we can often give ourselves the structures to keep us honest when we might be tempted to take shortcuts and miss what humans undergoing change need to create successful outcomes.

We encourage you to take a moment and reflect on your change (and your typical patterns).

  • Which stages are you most likely to skip?

  • What are the ones that your people need the most, given where you are now?

  • How might you make changes to the traditional way of operating that can bring more care, listening, and co-creating to the way you lead?

If these feel like natural ways of leading, then perhaps the question is: how much is this the norm for your organization? What steps might you take to influence the norms across your organization?


Interested in learning more about the practical steps of leading inclusive change? Join us for our foundational workshop series, Leading Inclusive Change.


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