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The Lonely, Critical Role of Change Leaders

The Lonely, Critical Role of Change Leaders

My company, Future State, is in the business of helping organizations through large-scale change, guiding the integration of new innovations and efficiently bringing companies into new structural and operational formats designed to carry them into the future.

With more than 30 years of experience, we bring a human-centered approach to transformation. We’ve chosen this method not because it sounds nice (or because it wins us awards), but because it’s backed by research. “As organizational behavioral experts Kenneth Thompson and Fred Luthans noted almost 20 years ago,” reports The Harvard Business Review, “a person’s reaction to organizational change can be so excessive and immediate that some researchers have suggested it may be easier to start a completely new organization than to try to change an existing one.”

Despite these challenges, most of us recognize that the ability to navigate change has evolved to become one of the most important qualities of 21st-century business. The most successful projects I’ve been involved with have had one critical player in the middle of the mix: the Change Leader. Assuming most organizations would rather evolve than die out, we should all seek to find and encourage Change Leaders to join and lead our teams.

The hard work of leading change.

I’ve fulfilled the role of Change Leader in many jobs throughout my career — and today, that’s my primary function for other organizations. I can share from personal experience that it can be a lonely place. Change is difficult for many people; bringing together an entire team to support a new way of being can be extremely difficult, and the person who’s seen as the champion of that transformation often gets blamed for every challenge large-scale change entails.

But successfully leading change is also one of the most rewarding opportunities one can have in her career  —  it takes vision and persistence to see that change is needed, and to move forward in pursuit of that new future despite the barriers and obstacles in our paths.

The role of a Change Leader is not usually something one is assigned to take on  —  it is at the core of who one is. To be an agent of change takes courage; it takes commitment to a possibility, to a future others cannot see. It often requires ruffling of feathers and a sense of urgency when others see no danger, no need to change.

[Related: Don't Let Your Negative Nellie Keep You From Moving Forward]

Qualities of a great agent of change.

Change Leaders are often seen as threats or alarmists by their peers. Change can feel threatening; doing things in a new way is scientifically proven to be mentally exhausting, and getting people’s buy-in is frequently cited as the most difficult part of making change work. “This phenomenon, often referred to as ‘human resistance to change,’ is possibly the most important issue facing the field of organizational change  —  and one that continues to baffle scholars, consultants, and executives,” writes the Harvard Business Review.

Despite the resistance they may face from their peers, Change Leaders are often the most valuable players in an organization. They are the first to see the challenges on the road ahead, and they have often envisioned a new future where these challenges have already been met and overcome. They are optimistic at their core. They must be action-oriented, confident, and have an openness to new ideas and ways of doing things.

Of course, Change Leaders who are not also the CEO or equivalent must have the support of organizational leadership and the authority to drive change, even in areas of the organization they are not responsible for leading. To be successful, they must also provide:

  • Sense of urgency: Show a compelling case for the change.
  • Leadership: Increase trust and teamwork.
  • Vision: Commit to achieve the intended results.
  • Communication: Address resistance; engage people.
  • Organization: Align behaviors, actions, and outcomes.
  • Culture: Visibly show new behaviors in action.
  • Engagement: Align people, processes, and rewards.

[Related: Seven Benefits of Increasing Diversity in the Workplace]

The hard (but worth it) part.

With this type of Change Leader at the helm of major change, many (but not all) of the individuals impacted by the change can be guided through the various stages of loss and uncertainty that come with change, ultimately becoming engaged in and contributing to the shared vision for the future. The stages of change acceptance can be likened to the stages of grief — but with positive outcomes for all.

At Future State, we feel qualified to guide organizations through change because we’ve successfully done it ourselves. Our organization (previously TechProse) has gone through major transformations in the past several years. We have changed our business model, our name, our brand, our location, and most of our team since 2010. All of us that led this change, and all of us who were impacted, experienced pain along the journey and made mistakes along the way. We persevered in the face of despair, knowing that the only way forward was through the challenges we were facing. As we emerged from this challenging (and exciting) period, we found ourselves able to bring profound appreciation of the challenges our clients face, and empathy for the journey of a Change Leader.

Agents of change, we see you! We appreciate you, and we are rooting for you. You've got this! For the rest of us, seek out and appreciate those Change Leaders. They are every organization’s best ally when it comes to industry leadership, evolution, and longevity.

[Related: How to Lead in Times of Change]


Shannon Adkins is the CEO at Future State, a strategic consulting firm and certified B Corporation focused on supporting change management and operational transformation within global Fortune 500 companies. Shannon is deeply passionate about driving forward the Future State vision to “Enable Extraordinary Visions that Positively Impact the World.”

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