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26 Sep

5 Ways to Manage Change as a 21st Century Leader

Woman manager leads her team through a change management strategy.

In today’s fast-paced business environment, change is inevitable. Leaders must be prepared to respond to disruptive forces both inside and outside of their organizations. They must be prepared to face new challenges and trends, technological advancements, and even changes in staffing—and do it all in a way that allays their teams’ fears and encourages them to support and embrace positive change.

Unfortunately, not all leaders are adept at managing change. According to senior executive and change expert Torben Rick, 70 percent of change efforts fail to reach their goals, most often because management doesn’t adequately support the change efforts, leading to resistance from employees.1 However, by implementing a few key strategies, leaders can become more effective agents of change and eliminate the barriers holding their organizations back.

Here are five strategies you can use to manage change successfully within your organization:

1. Start With the Company Culture

The leaders who are most successful at managing change are those that foster and support an overall culture in which it is expected and encouraged. Although change can be difficult and can impact morale, a culture that anticipates it, and one in which all employees agree on its benefits, will always be more successful at managing it.

A “culture of change” begins at that leadership level, with leaders who demonstrate through actions and attitudes that they accept and embrace change. Regularly discussing upcoming developments, and how they may impact the business and future projects, is a good place to start. Being open to new ideas and approaches, and never using the phrase “but that’s how we’ve always done it” establishes a foundation of innovation and openness to change. It also shows employees there is no such thing as the “status quo.”

That said, it’s important to remember that change for change’s sake is not a good strategy either. Good leaders should look for ways to support goal-oriented change led by open communication and transparency in order to mitigate resistance and avoid change aversion.

2. Define Change

In his book “The Heart of Change,” author John Kotter notes that in order for any change effort to be successful, leaders must provide information that influences team members’ feelings, not just their thoughts.2 In other words, your team needs to understand why the change is occurring as well as the ultimate vision for the change. This way, they have a reason to buy in and contribute to the effort required to make the change a reality. This approach can be augmented with data to support business decisions, especially from outside of the organization, which can be very effective at convincing people that you aren’t just creating change for change’s sake.

As part of this defining process, it’s also important to clearly articulate what you mean by “change,” and establish measurable outcomes. Setting SMART goals (specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic and time-bound) not only gives your employees an objective to work toward, but also allows them to gauge their progress toward those goals. Seeing real progress can keep morale and energy high, and prevent “change fatigue” from setting in.

3. Recruit Change Leaders and Champions

Boss managing change with a change management strategy.

Change can be an emotional issue. Many people fear it and approach it with apprehension: What does this mean for my job? How am I going to do my job after this change takes place? How is this going to affect me individually, and the team overall? And research shows that nearly 40 percent of employees don’t agree with the changes their leaders are making.1 Add in the fact that many employees, especially millennials, are driven by factors other than profits and financial growth,3 and it’s easy to see how change can elicit some strong emotions. Fear, resentment, annoyance and even anger are common during periods of change, and are major contributors to low buy-in and success rates.

For this reason, it’s important for leaders to remain positive and enthusiastic, even when things get challenging. During times of change, it can also be helpful to recruit change leaders, individuals who can embody the positive aspects of change and be champions for new ways of doing things.

But the voices explaining and championing change shouldn’t be coming from the C-suite and upper management alone. Employees are more likely to support efforts when they hear positive information about the reasons for and benefits of change from their peers. And as a bonus, peer-to-peer collaboration and support can help you gather feedback and a better understanding of where your team stands on particular issues, giving you valuable information you can use to improve communication both pertaining to the specific change at hand and overall throughout your organization.

4. Empower People to Make Change

One reason people resist change is uncertainty about its potential aftermath. You can greatly reduce this uncertainty by taking steps to empower your people during the change process, making sure they feel like they are valuable contributors and aren’t just along for the ride.

Articulating a clear vision is the first step toward empowerment; people are less likely to fear something they understand. But giving people the tools they need to make their own change is also important. These tools may include education about and training on new programs, processes and procedures, but they could also include additional opportunities for feedback and discussion. You have to let your team know it’s not “my way or the highway”; they must feel heard and understood. This way, they’ll be more likely to support the change and won’t resist out of fear.

5. Make Changes to Support Further Change

It almost sounds counterproductive to make changes to support change, but the fact is, many initiatives stall or fail because the infrastructure of the company doesn’t support the new methods of doing things. Some common internal issues that impact change efforts include HR policies, compensation structures, processes or procedures, or even specific individuals, including leaders who resist change.

In some cases, these obstacles may not be apparent until the change efforts are underway, underscoring the importance of listening to your employees and making it a priority to get their feedback and ideas on how to best implement changes, and what barriers stand in the way of meeting the established goals. Change doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and success depends on evaluating the entire organization and developing a strategy that takes all aspects of the operation into account.


Becoming a revolutionary leader means having the skills necessary to lead change in today’s dynamic and ever-evolving environment. These are just some of the strategies that 21st century leaders can use to foster change in their organizations. During your time in the William & Mary Online MBA program you can expect to learn more about these and other methods to become a more effective leader and agent of change in your professional life.

1 Retrieved on September 18, 2018, from tinypulse.com/blog/sk-strategies-for-change-management
2 Retrieved on September 18, 2018, from linkedin.com/pulse/leading-change-from-heart-john-kotter-dan-cohen-mike-balbuena
3 Retrieved on September 18, 2018, from economist.com/whichmba/millennial-mbas-changing-world-tomorrow