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If you're anything like me, when you reflect on the past year, you find yourself reeling from what feels like a punch to the gut. At the start of 2022, businesses were grasping for new hires amid a nationwide employee shortage and trying to decide upon a flexible work plan that was right for them. With 2023 now underway, many organizations are steadying their sails for what increasingly looks like an imminent downturn by tightening budgets and issuing hiring freezes.
Navigating change will be the anchor for leadership in 2023. As a business leader, you already recognize that change happens constantly. Economies fluctuate between recessions and expansions, share prices increase and decrease, innovative technologies and industries disrupt businesses, and so on.
The typical response to change can vary greatly depending on the person and the current environment. Some want to jump to immediate action, while others take a wait-and-see approach. It's only natural that we as humans — and as leaders — get comfortable in our present state and find a rhythm for success, only to then get thrown off by change.
But what if instead of simply reacting to disruptions, we turned them into opportunities for innovation and growth? Here are some key strategies I've found useful to successfully navigate change — and even embrace it — as 2023 kicks into high gear.
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Seasoned leaders know that handling change is always going to be part of the job. The key is for leaders to see that change can be a good thing, and to reframe change as an untapped opportunity for employees.
A few years ago, we made the proactive decision to upend our business model and undertake a massive digital transformation. Things were not going poorly for us — we were doing better as an organization than we had in a long time. But our CEO at the time believed there was a better way to serve our customers: by transitioning to a digital-first subscription model. And if that proved to be true, it was going to be much better for our clients and our organization.
I was tasked with testing the model with a subset of salespeople and clients, where results quickly proved the idea viable. But it was not an easy decision as a public company to transform our business. We needed to address everything — what we sold, the way we sold, the way we engaged clients, the financial model of the company, how we recognized revenue, how we accounted for our sales, how we went to market and more. In one way or another, every touchpoint of our business had to change.
Throughout that process, we knew that if we couldn't capture the hearts of our people, this change would fail and the benefits we envisioned wouldn't be realized. As leaders, our job was to help everyone in the organization understand that, while we didn't have answers to every question, ultimately this move was right for them and our customers.
We often believe that leadership is about having the "big idea." But the idea is only the starting line. Leaders need the willingness to confront reality, adjust, get input, adjust again and bring people along. That's the real work of leadership.
When it comes to change management, I have seen organizations of all sizes on every part of the spectrum. Some business leaders have done an incredible job of developing change management plans that are agile and of which their entire workforce is on board, while many others have not.
Having a change management plan is both a failsafe for organizations and a safety net for employees. It's a clear signal to employees that you as a leader know change is coming and can be trusted to lead the organization through what's to come. Creating a great change management plan includes forecasting what changes you expect — and what you as an organization and your individual departments specifically will do to come out ahead.
Start by getting in touch with your own personal reactions to change. As you do so, your empathy with your team increases. Harness that empathy; it's key to helping your team persist when the going gets tough.
Empathy plays a major role in communicating effectively with your team. Successful leaders directly engage their people in change. A change management plan is nothing except words on paper if you as a leader don't communicate it and get buy-in from your people.
No matter the size of your organization, one of the best ways to communicate your change management plan is to get employee feedback early on in the process. Be a sounding board and listen as they voice their concerns over the anticipated change. It's essential to meet people where they're at to successfully gain their support for a change management plan. Try not to focus too much on the process — humans make up your teams, so be human in your approach.
Once you've received buy-in and communicated with your employees, trust your leaders to take the helm and begin implementing the plan within their individual departments and teams. With each small win, your leaders will find the courage and motivation to continue moving forward with your change management plan. They will know they can turn to you as a resource for voicing concerns or providing direction, but they will also know that you trust them to make important decisions and carry the initiative forward.
Over the past decade, we've worked with hundreds of organizations to equip them with the skills not only to develop change management plans, but also to create change-ready cultures where people move from fearing and disliking change to embracing and thriving through change.
As we look to the months ahead, don't be afraid of what's to come. You've navigated uncharted territory before and you'll do it again. Use these insights and work with your employees to create a change management plan that is right for your organization and you will steadily sail — even through the storms — and come out ahead on the other side.