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Same principles. Different approach.

Traditional change leadership begins with articulating a vision. And articulating a vision presumes the change was designed with intent: that leadership has opted to shift its strategy or alter its structure or implement a new technology platform.

But how does a leader lead through a change they didn’t design? How do they lead through change when change is a crisis?

We’ve been adapting our change program to address these very questions. And today we wanted to share a few of our insights should they offer you any support, direction or new ways of thinking as you lead your teams through this change.

Our model, based loosely on John Kotter’s change work, is broken into three phases. And below you’ll find our overview of each phase, and how we’re encouraging leaders to think a little bit differently about each for now.

In Phase One of our program, Initiate, the focus is on crafting a compelling story that rallies your leadership team behind an inspiring and singular vision. But in a moment of crisis, vision is hard to articulate. You can’t see the endpoint. No one can.

So what can you do as a leader – at any altitude of an organization – during a crisis?

  • Focus on what you can see. The full picture – how this new normal will shake out – remains largely undefined. But what changes have already occurred to the way your team is working, and what do you want to hold onto? Codify those ideas for your team.
  • Interpret. We may all be witnessing the same events, but what sense are we making of them? Share with your team how all of these changes are coming together in your mind. Help your team make meaning of the chaos.
  • Shift from what to who and how. In “normal” times your vision would define a clear what – what structure, what strategy. But right now you can’t control the what. So focus instead on the who and how. Who will your team or organization be – for each other, for customers – and how do you want people to show up? What specific actions and behaviors will you drive?

In Phase Two of our program, Engage, the focus is on engaging your team in a dialog about this vision – and how they can play their role. During a crisis, the important shift is that we lean more heavily into listening than speaking. What are some ways you can do this?

  • Ask what values look like in action. If your vision, your story, is one of supporting teammates, staying connected, being collaborative and agile with customer solutions – then invite your teams to tell you how you and they can tangibly bring those values to life.
  • Hold and contain. This moving HBR article offers advice on how leaders can be containers for the anxiety and uncertainty of their teams. It doesn’t require you to know the answers – but to be a soothing presence as they wonder.
  • Establish feedback loops. The last edition of our newsletter was about the power of Listening Posts – how to build them and why. Listening posts enable feedback loops, setting you up to course correct in real-time.

In Phase Three of our program, Sustain, the focus is on implementing the change – staying on course and celebrating wins. During a crisis, the changes are happening on their own timeline – not yours. So your job is to stay as close to the employee experience as possible, finding wins where you can and making changes to manage whatever is within your control

  • Invite stories. Because “wins” or successes are likely happening remotely, your ability to celebrate them requires your teams to share them. Let your employees decide what qualifies as a win (they’ve experimented with a new way of engaging with customers or running a virtual meeting?) – and let them know you want to hear it all – no win too minor!
  • Let teams define celebrations. If you’re looking to celebrate or recognize an “A” player, be mindful of individual experiences. Zoom happy hours are starting to drain and exhaust people. Individual public recognition might fall flat in a moment of high stress. So ask your team how they want to celebrate or be celebrated right now.
  • Welcome every experience. Finally…while you may want everyone to feel excited and inspired, the reality is the pandemic is taking a very real toll. There is no right way to experience it. If some employees are craving more team time while others need some breathing room – welcome all of that right now. No judgment. Only support.

Here are just a few tweaks we’ve made to our change program – for now. We hope you’ve found some utility within.

If your leadership team could use some support right now – will you give us a shout? We’re here to listen.