Look Before You Leap: 3 Steps to Leading Change
Embarking on a new career path or job can be both exciting and daunting. Exciting because of the opportunity to leave your mark and lead a team or organization in a new direction. Daunting because of the uncertainty of moving into uncharted territory and the change you may need to drive.
Whether your new role requires leading a successful company or a struggling team, one of the critical skills you’ll need to master is effective change management. How should you drive change? How much change is too much? How quickly should you implement change? The answers to these questions vary. If you’re taking over a business that’s on the ropes, the answers might be relatively obvious.
However, there will be times when you’ll be asked to take over a winning franchise. If your new organization has a strong foundation, an empowered team, proven strategies and clear momentum in place, the question then becomes more difficult. How do you bring your fresh perspective to a team with a strong track record without seeking change for change’s sake? It’s a fine balance.
I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on this question based on my first-hand experience. For the past 10 years, I have served as Intuit’s fifth CEO, following in the footsteps of great leaders such as Scott Cook, Bill Campbell and Steve Bennett. Following these iconic leaders has helped shape my views on how to lead change and empowering teams to achieve “the next chapter of great.”
As the late President John F. Kennedy often reminded us, “the best time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.” With that said, it takes a different kind of change management skill. Here are three steps I’ve found useful in driving change when things are going well.
1. Test what needs to change.
First, ask yourself if change is necessary—and if so, in service to what? There are two key considerations here – internal and external.
First, look inside the business and evaluate key metrics to get a sense of where your teams are today. Are the current results on target? Are you being aspirational enough? Do employees and key stakeholders believe in the current game plan? Do you have personal discomfort as a leader, and if so, can you be explicit about what has you most unsettled?
Second, look outside the business. What are the biggest untapped opportunities you feel you have failed to capitalize on? What are the biggest risks on the horizon? What are your competitors doing? Companies like Airbnb and Uber demonstrate how quickly disruption can happen, so it’s essential to ask: Is our business at risk of being disrupted? If so, how can you evaluate what you’re up against? What are the data or trends? The answers to these questions inform the full-picture diagnosis of the situation and whether change is necessary.
Related: Why Are Leaders So Afraid of Change?
2. Define how to change.
If you do need to change, the next step is to build a case.
Start by gaining a deep understanding of the current state. Go on a listening tour with all your stakeholders -- hear their insights and feedback. At the same time, share what you’ve learned and your perspective, bringing stakeholders along with your own thinking.
Next, amplify what’s working. Be clear about what’s working well and just as importantly what won’t change. This matters as much as what will change, and validates work already done. Highlight areas where you have questions or concerns and unpack your logic. Use phrases like, “Because of x, y, z, I believe these changes need to take place.”
3. Make the change.
Diving headfirst into change is seldom a wise idea. Be sure to run your ideas by key members of your team to test whether they’re on the same page as you. Do this by engaging with them when you have the questions, and not the answers. Explore the pros and cons with them, asking things like, “What resonates?” and “What concerns you?” Adjust your game plan as you gather new input, and engage them in helping shape the change with you.
After getting alignment, go public. Articulate a clear vision for employees and external stakeholders. Show them where you are today, where you want to go, and the path you’ll take to get there. Don’t be afraid to repeat, repeat and repeat your plan for at least 90 days. In fact, during times of change, you should increase the frequency of your communication 3X. Repetition does not ruin the prayer! Finally, be clear and specific about how this change affects people’s roles and responsibilities.
Putting a bow around it, whether your organization is succeeding or struggling, these three steps can help you structure your approach to change. As tempting as it may be to leave your mark through sweeping changes, sometimes the wiser course is a more thoughtful and inclusive process.