Leading Change: An Executive Guide

What nobody tells you about leading change

Leading your organization through change is a singular experience. Bringing teams together to achieve something they never thought possible can be a legacy-defining moment. And at the same time, change will challenge you like nothing else: you will face uncertainty, opposition, and frustration. Indeed, Edgar Schein, one of the foundational researchers of organizational behavior, believed that the main function of a leader is to lead change. So how can you serve as a reliable, positive role model for change despite the discomfort inherent in the process? 

Why You Should Trust Us

In the last 10 years, we’ve led wide-scale transformations at over 300 organizations ranging from startups to Fortune 500 companies, in dozens of industries and divisions, affecting thousands of employees. In doing so, we’ve counseled leaders at every level of the organization and have first-hand knowledge of the tensions they experience while navigating change.

What Leaders Experience while Leading Change

It’s actually completely normal for leaders at every level and stage of transformation to experience: 

  • Doubt. There will be times when the path forward seems uncertain, and the obstacles feel insurmountable. The weight of responsibility can be overwhelming, making it hard to see the progress you’re making. It’s natural to feel like you’re navigating through uncharted waters, unsure of what the next step should be.
  • Setbacks. You may have days when it feels like for every two steps forward, you take one step back. (And let’s be honest, some days, it might feel like even further). Initiatives will fail; mistakes will be made. Every misstep feels humbling at best—and at its worst, can have real implications for the long-term success of your project and your career. 
  • Opposition. Doing something new challenges the powers that be—and understandably, not everyone will appreciate that. Even when change is objectively the right thing to do, institutional inertia and indifference will threaten your momentum, which will lead to…
  • Exhaustion. Change takes longer than you expect (or hope). It’s an emotional roller coaster: you’ll feel like everything is going great and everything is falling apart, sometimes within hours of each other. It requires trade-offs and loss. And yes, it is lonely at the top. How do you keep going, and support your team while doing it?

If you’re feeling any of these, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed, or that the change is doomed. If anything, your concern means you’re doing something right. 

How to Personally Prepare for Change

You can help yourself navigate these challenges by creating habits and systems that will support your efforts in the long run.

Align ambition with motivation. There will come a point (actually, maybe several points) in your change initiative where you’ll find yourself asking, “what was I thinking?” Before beginning a change, figure out what’s motivating you to make this change. How will it align with the organization’s goals? How will it benefit you and your immediate team? Is this reason strong enough to keep you going in the messy middle? 

Source a supportive team. Find others within your organization who are similarly inspired to drive change. They should help you spot the gaps in your own knowledge, troubleshoot and test ideas, and are willing and able to deliver what they say they’ll do. Most importantly, they can be trusted to stay the course when the going gets tough. 

Build a political coalition. You’ll also need to navigate the unofficial, unspoken power networks in your organization. This is the time to reach out to like-minded individuals, start collecting and exchanging favors, and determining your best approach to managing potential rivals and naysayers.

Make a plan. Work with your team to determine how to make change. Don’t expect it to be fool-proof. In fact, you should expect it to fail. But aligning on overall goals, discussing contingencies, and assessing how to pivot will prepare the team to adapt and continue making progress despite setbacks. 

Seek a confidant. Leading is lonely. A team and political coalition can only support you so much. Find someone you can safely complain to without harming your image; someone who can give you much-needed perspective and space for reflection. This could include a valued mentor or coach, or a peer group—someone external to the organization. 

Ritualize your own care. Finally, think of change as a marathon, not a sprint, and build in periods of rest and recuperation. Learn your signs of burnout, and similarly, encourage your team to take a step back when needed. 

Navigating the Tensions Inherent in Change Leadership

While these support systems will improve your resilience, you’ll still inevitably experience tension between competing demands as you lead teams through change. In fact, we’d argue that experiencing tensions is a sure sign that you’re really making progress and creating change. 

Of course, that means there is no true “solution” or resolution. Tensions must be balanced depending on the context, and are subject to change as the environment shifts. What you can do though, is regularly define your boundaries and tradeoffs, and interrogate the values behind those boundaries:

The expectation of supporting development versus the need to enforce accountability. Change can’t happen without trying new things, so leaders should encourage their team to take risks and grow in their careers. But also: new things will inevitably slow people down, and we’ve got deadlines to meet, people. To manage this tension, set clear expectations for what is currently a priority. Then, define the boundaries for risk-taking, and encourage risk-taking within those bounds. What’s an acceptable vs unacceptable risk for the project, or for peoples’ roles? Why?

The need to invest in self-development and improve your own leadership versus the demands of the day-to-day work. Leadership is an art and a science, and new research and training comes out every day that could make leaders more effective at leading change. But also: their organization needs their time and attention to move work forward. To manage this tension, ask yourself what type of leader you want to be, and why? What work do you not want to stop doing?

The desire for servant leadership versus the realities of the self-driven organization. To see change truly spread throughout the organization, leaders must put the needs of the organization and their teams first. But also: ultimately, every organization, and every leader, is driven by self-interest. To manage this tension: realize that others in the organization may not aspire to servant leadership, and that it’s not necessarily unethical to act in your own interests. Determine where your and the organization’s ambitions overlap, and any boundaries you want to maintain.

The need to compete in a global market versus the call to maintain ethical practices. Leaders drive change because they seek an advantage: they sense that improvement will give them a competitive edge. But also: the pressure to cut corners and be first, no matter what the price, is real. To manage this tension: evaluate for yourself your personal boundaries (and, of course, legal restrictions). Then, examine any feelings of dissonance. How much are you willing to tolerate? Are there lines you won’t cross?

A Modern Partner for Modern Leaders 

No one ever said modern leadership was easy. Luckily, you were never interested in what’s “easy”—but sometimes, it’s nice to have a little help. Leaders turn to NOBL when they want a fresh perspective, and partners who work hand-in-hand with teams to do the hard work of implementing real change within their organizations. Contact us to learn more. 

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