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When I was having a think about how best to describe the difference between change leadership and change management, I suddenly recalled a marvellous cartoon I once saw of a wrecked pirate ship strewn across the beach of a desert island, with the sheepish-looking Pirate Captain surrounded by his bedraggled ‘hearties.’

In that scenario, the Pirate Captain can take one of two approaches. Under a change management approach, his instinct would be to start farming out tasks: “Right – you lot saw wood to patch up the hull, you lot sew up the sails and you lot go into the jungle to find some twine we can turn into ropes. Let’s get cracking – we sail again at dawn.”

However, these pirates have just been through a raging storm and have almost died. They could be forgiven for whispering among themselves, “Is he crazy…?” This, reader, is where mutinies come from (and, lest the relevance escapes us, we’re currently living in a UK beset with strikes on multiple levels). The trouble with the Pirate Captain’s change management approach is that it’s based purely on tasks and process, and therefore fails to inspire. It also fails to build trust: a mission-critical asset in any change venture. So, what’s the alternative?

Well, change leadership is the diametric opposite. Under that approach, the Pirate Captain’s instinct would be to settle his crew down, then nip off personally to find some wood and build a campfire. He would cook something delicious and invite his crew to sit with him and partake of the meal – and if he’d happened to read Simon Sinek, he’d choose to eat last.

And then, most importantly, he would tell stories… of the beautiful ocean around Fiji, of the spices of North Africa, of the jewels in the Middle East – and of the rum in Jamaica. And he would see the glints in the eyes of his crew, telling him that, in the morning, they would be ready to get to work.

Hidden potential

Change leadership paves the way for change management to come in later. By putting his crew at ease and inspiring them with visions of what lies ahead, the Pirate Captain has begun what Kurt Lewin called the ‘unfreezing’ process that must take place ahead of any transformation.

So, why doesn’t it happen often enough? Well, simply put, it’s extremely daunting. If we leave our pirates behind and connect this back to the real world, imagine instead what it takes to inspire an NHS trust to pick itself up and dust itself off when it’s already working with increasingly limited resources. And it’s been trying to do more with less for the past 12 years. And it’s dealing with 14-hour queues for beds that are winding through hospital corridors… but bosses are still encouraging staff to have a can-do mentality. That doesn’t require change management, but change leadership. It means that those people have to figure out how to hang together when the pressure seems unbearable and somehow remain on the same side, at a point when it would be so easy to just snap and start shouting at each other. That involves each member of staff taking a look in the mirror: “What are my weak points? What will trigger me when I’m tired and hungry?” If you create a psychologically safe space where staff can call out fractious behaviour in a team setting, you will knit that team together even more tightly.

Much of change leadership is about helping people in management roles look at their direct reports and wider teams and identify hidden potential – because when we’re nervous and afraid, we bunker down and do the things we feel safest doing.

Nurturing trust

I’m currently working with a family-run engineering firm that’s been passed down a generation. The guy who’s leading the business is fantastic, but still on his own leadership development journey – and when I first engaged with the business, he had just sent his staff on a change management course. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself – but they were learning how to manage stuff. And my counterpoint was that that’s great when you’re trying to coordinate tasks, materials and processes – but what he wants to do here is step things up and grow the firm. That doesn’t happen by managing tasks, but by inspiring people to go on a journey with you – and by role modelling and leading in a way that nurtures trust.

Trust is the essential foundation of change leadership – so, how do you generate it? Well, you must first have the courage to show vulnerability. And for many leaders, that’s the Number One fear: not looking like they’re in control. But if you really distil it down, vulnerability is the opposite of that. If you have the strength to be open, human and transparent, instead of taciturn and guarded, you will galvanise a collective energy and sense of direction. There’s so much temptation to be evasive – but think about how this direct approach sounds: “Sorry, everyone – but things in the organisation are currently not working. I’m going to put it right, but first, here’s how it’s gone wrong – and I own up to that because a lot of it was my call. But I’m working on it, and I wanted you to know that we’re going to have to change direction. Could you please help me?”

That instils trust. Of course, the workforce would still be very nervous after hearing that address because, well – what if the CEO messes up again? But if you look at work in this field from Kouzes and Posner, they stress that honesty and integrity are the most vital qualities for any leader to have, if they are to build trust. And having the courage to be vulnerable supports both of those qualities.

Driving engagement

So, you start with your storytelling, then you go vulnerable to inspire trust – but I don’t think that goes far enough. If you want to take change leadership to the highest level, then it’s time to throw it open to the floor: “I’m interested in what you think. There are no bad ideas, here – I just want you to be involved.”

That was my approach with a training company I founded in East Anglia: I sat down with my team of a dozen people and said, “Okay, what I want to do here is get some branding on this thing, because we’ve been building it up from scratch and focusing on attracting clients – but we don’t have a really distinctive identity yet. So, let’s think about how we should look to the outside world and what our strapline should be.” I put the staff in a hotel for the day and gave them breakfast, and left them to it. When I came back, I was blown away by what they’d come up with. They’d lived and breathed the future shape of the business, to the point where they were completely immersed.

A critical part of the engagement journey is getting people to care about the organisation they work for, to the point where they become ambassadors. That’s what happened when I worked with a talent group of around a dozen people at a national estate agent to design a mock, three-year strategy for the business – at a time when, coincidentally, senior management were doing exactly the same thing for real.

When we presented the strategy – visualised with hundreds of Post-it notes on massive sheets of paper all sellotaped together – the senior team were stunned. One of them said, “You’ve gone into much more detail here than we have so far in the boardroom.” The staff were then invited to present their ideas to the board in the form of an implementation plan. So, everyone was on board, and the business could move forwards.

I've shared these stories with you in an attempt to demonstrate that while managing change is massively complex, the key to doing it well is to lead change first. Leading change paves the way for more effective change management, and that starts with building trust. And remember, leading change doesn’t stop just once you enter the change management phase. Indeed, maintaining trust throughout the change management process is as important as establishing it from the outset.

Good luck!

Voices from our community: Tony Kerley FIoL is an independent organisational development specialist and director at Contigo Associate Ltd.


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