Becoming change-ready requires the whole team, not just a select few leaders.
This column was originally published on Entrepreneur.com on MAR 3, 2023.
Recently, Frontier Airlines enacted a change by removing its customer service phone number. This leaves customers to find solutions through digital channels. With this change, the customer experience will transform entirely, creating a significant difference in the organization. This approach will allow Frontier Airlines to uncover insights that might inform, validate and challenge its strategy.
Making a bold choice such as this can be difficult, which is why many leaders and founders struggle with change.
Why is change so hard for a growing business?
Many businesses insist on leaving transformational leadership in the hands of a small group of senior leaders or change managers rather than making it part of their team’s mission. Maybe because change is so crucial at the beginning of a venture — the scrappy entrepreneur needs to disrupt, innovate, sell their home and live in a basement. Then a company’s relationship to change changes.
A familiar disappointment for company leaders is the feeling of getting slower as they grow. The profile of people who start and join a small company is vastly different from those who join as the company grows and becomes more stable. Stability becomes the preference and inertia the enemy.
The demands of a company’s growth stage can reveal individuals’ unproductive relationships to change. These relationships can be put into three categories. Receivers of change believe change is being done to them. Resistors to change believe they can wait out the change, and controllers of change ultimately believe they can plan and manage their way through it. Being big doesn’t have to mean being slow or putting change on the back burner, and entrepreneurs can overcome these unproductive attitudes.
Organizations growing most sustainably continue to disrupt at all stages of growth. The ability to continue to adapt and outpace the changes of the external environment requires change-ready leaders at all levels.
What are the benefits of a change-ready organization?
Companies with change-ready teams can tackle and rise above the challenges of their environments more easily than teams that rely on top-down change management. Companies that insist on only entrusting change to a select few leaders are bound to find a lack of change, engagement, diversity and connection with customers. We’ve already established that change is constant, and leadership needs to reflect that in order to have a change-ready culture.
Here’s what sets change-ready leaders apart:
- They’re more engaged. They understand that emotional agreement precedes strategic alignment, so they seek to bring everyone’s voices to the table.
- They’re more adaptable. They are open to their teams’ conflicting views and assumptions and can adapt to the increasing rate of change in the environment.
- They lead with a mutuality mindset. They know that diverse teams generate even stronger ideas that consider key risks and ensure their teams think from customers’ perspectives.
Perhaps the most important benefit of developing change-ready team members is that researchers believe that “employee attitudes to change are key predictors of organizational change success.” People who see change as a constant and necessary source of opportunity are best positioned to turn change into positive forces for their organizations.
How can leaders nurture change readiness?
Instead of managing change from the top down, leaders could find that a more sustainable way of staying change-ready is to engage the whole team. How can leaders begin to cultivate a change-ready mindset among team members? Here is a playbook of initial strategies to try:
1. Accept that change isn’t linear
Change is messy. It progresses one day and falls back the next. Many leaders operate under the notion that periods of change in their companies will be followed by periods of calm or that change will eventually end. This is a misconception; business is change, and creating conditions of change readiness will be more enduring than making temporary preparations to handle a specific change.
Therefore, leaders should adapt their mindset around change in their companies. At BTS, we know that change is no longer an individual sport but a team sport. Rather than a few elite surfers trying to conquer the waves, we see change more like white water rafting, where everyone must work together to make it through the waves.
2. Build awareness of your own relationship to change
Before you can successfully lead anyone through change, you need to heighten your own self-awareness of your productive and less productive responses. This starts with a biological reality: Although change is coming at us faster and more frequently than ever before in human history, biologically, we are wired to respond to change as a threat. In the past, threats to our existence were lions, tigers and bears; in the modern change-filled world, threats are things such as looking bad, being wrong or losing control.
The first step any organization can take to build more change readiness is to help every leader understand their beliefs around change and offer them new tools and approaches to be more effective. This is the approach we took with a Fortune 200 company that, in anticipation of significant structural shifts for the organization, equipped all 50,000 employees with new tools and techniques to build resilience and change readiness.
3. Engage your team to take ownership of change
Identify the pivotal moments your organization faces in leading change and align on what change-ready behaviors look like in each moment. Cultivating a team of change-ready leaders will mean engaging team members in what change means. Share the targets and outcomes of strategic direction meetings, allowing time to hear all perspectives and test different ideas on the front line. Invite people to tackle those challenges themselves in their roles so that they feel ownership over the pivotal moments where change occurs in a day.
To support this team-level ownership, shift behavior in the smaller moments that matter most. Back this up by creating the social networks and support structures that enable a wholescale mindset, giving each level and department a chance to own its change readiness.
Change is constant, and it is a team sport. No one leader or manager can author change by themselves and expect it to serve the whole organization and a whole world of customers. Sustainable, successful change comes from a collective of people who feel positively about change: a team of change-ready leaders.