Leadership traits best suited to leading change

Whatever the change, the engaged executive should lead from the front, get broad buy-in from the workforce and build momentum step by step.
Pravesh Parbhoo
By Pravesh Parbhoo, Head of sales and solutions, Altron Karabina.
Johannesburg, 09 Oct 2023
Pravesh Parbhoo, head of sales and solutions, Altron Karabina.
Pravesh Parbhoo, head of sales and solutions, Altron Karabina.

Growth happens during change, and the change itself precipitates growth. It’s a strange nuance of the world that change is often so uncomfortable and can even be painful.

However, by understanding and appreciating the growth on the other side, we can − as leaders − muster the courage to lead our teams across turbulent waters.

In my previous column, I referenced the paradox that the only certainty we face in life and business is change. Indeed, digital transformation is in many ways one, long, enduring change. That shouldn’t be surprising − the period we are navigating is often called the fourth industrial revolution, though it would appear people are too busy in the trenches to speak about lofty shifts in the grand timeline of technology.

In this column, I will bring the lens in a little closer.

While the only certainty we have is change, another certainty is that there will be, and must be, change within the change. It would be futile for a leader − burdened by the responsibility of vision − to appreciate where the business needs to be, build a bridge to get there and then call across the rapids of a violent river for his team to follow. Tides change. Rocks appear just beneath the surface.

Just like the GPS that is locked onto a destination needing to recalibrate a route in the face of a road blockage, change in a business will require ongoing smaller changes until the destination is reached.

Be the flag

How best, then, for a leader to approach this change journey? First, we should acknowledge that change must happen. There is never − or never should be − change for the sake of change itself. There is a reason − it could be systems or processes that do not support the business anymore.

Indeed, digital transformation is in many ways one, long, enduring change.

There has been a way of doing things for many years and now change is fundamental to the purpose of the business. And so, the first, important job of a leader and leadership team, is to maintain the flag of purpose for the workforce.

Like a tour guide at a busy sightseeing stop − hold aloft the red flag so that your team can easily see the flag and gather back around the purpose.

Engaged executive sponsorship

The next crucial skill leaders should develop is embodying executive sponsorship entirely. In fact, perhaps the naming convention “executive sponsorship” needs a rejig. Let’s call it “engaged executive sponsorship”.

This is the opposite of a leadership team identifying the need for change and then driving it downwards. Engaged executive sponsorship means genuine buy-in from the leadership. What does this look like?

Lead from the trenches

It requires leaders to look their teams in the eye and say: “We absolutely do understand how difficult this is going to be for all of us. We are not trying to dress this up in any way whatsoever; the journey is going to be uncomfortable. However, as a leadership team, we are going to be here alongside you, every step of the way, to support you.”

And then the leadership team should take one step, and then ensure the entire organisation has taken the step and secured the small change, before taking the next step.

Whatever the change may be − whether it is a business application, core transactional system or even structural changes and new operating models − the engaged executive should be leading from the front, getting broad buy-in from the groundswell of the workforce, building momentum step by step.

One step at a time

Unlike the unengaged executive committee that signs off on the business case and waits on the opposite bank to measure return on investment, the engaged leadership team doesn’t take more than one step before bringing the organisation with it. Then another step, before shoring up the team, then another step.

Sitting on a pedestal on the opposite bank of the river of change and trying to pull an organisation towards you requires far more effort than doing it step by step, understanding the impact of the change on the people in the organisation.

By being knee-deep with them, and seeing the challenges and threats in real-time, leaders develop empathy as well as the agility to course-correct in real-time − this is the change within the change I referenced earlier.

Build the first slab of the bridge and secure the pillar firmly, make sure everyone is with you, and then build the next section − this way you’ll get to the other shore with the team, as opposed to alone or with some of the team, frustrated at the stragglers.

Don’t be overwhelmed, or the business will be overwhelmed. Help instil a culture of looking at the next step.

If everyone looks to the top of the staircase, besides being overwhelmed by the climb, they may trip on the next step. Go step by step and before you know it, you’ve reached the top.

Humility, vulnerability, empathy

Another key trait for a leader navigating change is the humility to understand that yes, you are charged with the responsibility of plotting the path for the business to achieve its destination, but don’t assume that once you’ve done this there won’t be change. You must be prepared to recalibrate quickly.

Lastly, be comfortable being authentic. Ask yourself, will the authenticity of vulnerability expose the organisation to being afraid or resistant, or will it − through the power of human empathy − engender a spirit of shared determination to support the leader and plot the journey ahead.

In my experience, the latter is true every time. A leader who expresses genuine empathy, and shows vulnerability amidst the vision and drive, leads a far more supportive team during times of change. And, as we ascertained, we live in an age of immense and rapid change.