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Leaders don’t need change readiness, but an ongoing capacity for change

Marathon runnnersToo often these days we hear the plea from executives ‘I am change fatigued’, ‘when will this end?’, ‘I just need a break so that I can get on with my real day job!’.  So we are perhaps unfair in our allegation that middle managers and executives are not change ready.  Perhaps executives are change ready, but they have not yet built a way of working effectively with ongoing, never-ending change.  Change is actually what happens while we are planning for it!

There is a difference between being change ready and being able to lead with an ongoing change capacity. The first implies and asks that we be ready for a change intervention, as if for a race, like the Argus, one with a start and a finish line. And the second asks that we have an inbuilt capacity to live with ongoing change and to lead in times of turbulence, which indeed have no finish line.  A lifelong marathon as it were.  And what if this thought didn’t leave us feeling exhausted at the mere thought of it!

With the South African national elections pending we could draw on this as an analogy.  Being change ready is running an election campaign and building up to the elections, and then deploying politicians into departments and roles.  Building change capacity is having the capacity to then lead a government through times of change both globally and nationally – leading through responses to global financial pressures, as well as leading changes in response to local service protests.  Indeed, the Oxford Martin Commission Report Now for the Long Term of 2013 states that globally we suffer from embedded short-termism; that electoral cycles, media pressures, company reporting timetables and just-in-time systems encourage short-sightedness; and that, in fact, as Mario Monti, speaking at the 2013 World Economic Forum, wearily remarked, “Leadership is the opposite of short-termism”. 

What we need is to lead change with shared vision and values for the betterment of the whole country and world, beyond individual egos, self-interest and self-protectionism. We should keep the bigger picture in mind, while being agile enough to meet or challenge the demands and needs of the electorate and employees alike.  

There is no recipe to help us lead this type of change.  Yet, as Hilary Austin (2010) shares, we yearn for guidance: “Few of us are comfortable with problems that are hard to understand and yield a variety of solutions.  Surprise, uncertainty, ambiguity, change, complexity, qualities, and instability are the essence of enigmatic problems. Confused and disturbed by such indeterminacy, we often reach for a recipe to guide us.” 

Building this change capacity develops our alertness, agility and courage to face the opportunities and threats afforded us during times of turbulence, without the comfort of a handbook or manual.  We need to foster this agile responsive and proactive mindset at all tiers of leadership, so that turning the big ship does not take so long, and for us to discern and agree what it will take to indeed make a difference.

What companies need are middle and senior executives who are able to adjust to the needs of the market and customers, in a way that serves the greater whole, and the longer term vision.  This is ongoing, and not just what the change project of the time demands of us.  So we need to build Change capacity across the organisation.

Change capacity means being able to:
  • be alert, responsive and awake to understanding and seeing changes, trends and patterns in our context
  • interpret the larger systems and see the changes and complex interrelationships
  • glean meaning from what is emerging – both challenges and threats
  • see the bigger picture – while seeing the implications of the smaller picture
  • identify greatest points of leverage internally and externally
  • translate these for the organisation and team – make meaning
  • use multiple sources of data and perspectives to understand and see the way forward
  • be prepared to try multiple series of experiments reflect and adjust quickly
  • create safe spaces to ‘fail fast, and learn quickly’
  • track impact, and scale up positive impact, while stopping negative impact
  • support leaders to step up and lead multiple changes  
  • hold complexity and hold the core vision and values
  • let go gracefully
  • have ‘creative confidence’ – overcoming fear in tough times 

Consider how this may be challenging in our personal life – how to have change capacity to respond to the sociopolitical and socioeconomic challenges affecting our daily lives. And then consider how we build this capacity to live with ambiguity, uncertainty and even fear in an entire country and globe. We need to build our confidence and enhance our tool set to be leaders of the future.  

Sarah Babb has over 20 years of experience in leadership development. Her areas of expertise include leadership in transition, leading in turbulent and complex times and building the leader of the future.
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