The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Change Leaders

by Daniel Lock

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Change LeadersWhat does it mean to be a change leader? What behaviors must they engage in day in and day out to drive real and meaningful change? 

Having worked in the change and process improvement for 15 years, and worked with dozens of clients, since I launched my consulting business, I have identified seven behaviors and habits which help to identify whether a business leader is strategic.

In short, highly strategic leaders:

1. Think from the outside in

Many executives are forward thinkers who initiate change, but when faced with the whirlwind of the day-to-day running of the business become overly focused on internal operations and the latest issues and problems to solve. This causes the executive to have an internal point of view.

Henry Ford famously said, “If I asked my customers what they wanted, they’d say faster horses.” But he still had an external view. Steve Jobs had a similar view, but he still tested and measured his ideas to gain real world insight into what customer value.

But even success can lay the ground for failure. Henry Ford went on to also insist that all black Model T would always remain desirable to consumers. Even as other automakers created new car models and colors, even when his colleagues urged him to consider pursuing new directions, Ford refused to budge. After years of fantastic innovations that helped bring the automobile to the masses, Ford fell prey to the “anchoring bias” that leads people to make (or fail to make) new decisions by referencing their prior experiences.

Change leaders, begin with their customers, developing insights to identify and anticipate their needs and seek to understand how they can create a more significant and influential commercial relationship with them.

2. Take the long-term view

Long-term thinking is the characteristic of the effective change leader. For any change to pay off a leader must have grit. That desire to see a change through. It’s too easy to focus your attention on this quarter’s results, and put key change initiatives off.

The forces pulling you to do this are compelling. Exxon Mobil 21012 second quarter results came in at $8.4 billion and were lambasted in the financial press for “disappointing” results. But actually it had been investing in the capital even while acknowledging that the industry is facing lower oil prices, increased availability of natural gas, decreasing economic activity, and rising costs — all factors largely outside of the company’s immediate control. The analysts also say that in the face of all this, both companies continued to make long-term investments and still delivered billions of dollars in profit.

Be like Exxon and keep focused on the long-term too. Strategies take the time to
unfold and bear fruit.

3. Question everything

Change leaders are skillful analytical thinkers, experts in framing issues and drivers of innovation. They don’t take anything for granted. Contrary to popular opinion, innovators are not risked seeking. In fact, they’re risk averse, and as such change leaders should be continually on the lookout for false assumptions and avoiding the herd.

Questioning your current situation can open up paths to creative thinking. For instance, Google’s original aspiration was to build the best search engine ever; arguably the organization achieved that. But in order to enter a new era of growth, Google leaders needed to perceive their company differently. Only when they challenged their long-held assumption that “We are a search engine company” could they then come up with the “We want to know everything” a notion which sparked projects such as Google Earth, Google Book Search, and Google Labs, along with further improvements to their fabled search engine.

4. Exploit and build their company’s strengths and advantages

Successful organizations all have assets and capabilities that underpin their success. It’s important that change leaders understand what make them successful and build on these for further success. Microsoft’s current foray into hardware manufacturing of tablets and computers, for example, appears to demonstrate that it has misunderstood its strategic skills and assets (software development and business services).

It’s easy to see that while the PC business is declining, their future lies in extending Microsoft’s already formidable competitive advantage into the server tools, and big business markets where, like IBM, switching costs are huge.

It’s a nuance of business to understand that change leaders must be outward looking, always viewing the world through their customer’s eyes, but that doesn’t mean ignoring the internal best practices that are driving delivery of that vision.

5. Create and drive alignment

Telstra developed and implemented a cultural change program that was aimed at dramatically improving the company’s approach to customer service. Driven by CEO David Thodey, who put his top 300 leaders through a rigorous leadership development program, to disseminate the values of simplicity, and collaboration with the goal of improving customer service, they had “each business, each team, each group, to take the values and bring them to life and live them in the context of the work they are doing, to create the best experience that they can for the customer in that environment that they work in.”

Whenever and whatever a change leader discusses with colleagues and team members, they must bring the conversation back to the organization’s strategic priorities. Insisting that all the initiatives and programs are focused on these objectives will help generate tremendous alignment across the company.

6. Focus on results by starting with the end in mind

Consider these famous quotes:

  • “This telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherent of no value to us” – Internal memo, Western Union, 1876
  • “Heavier than air flying machines are impossible” – Lord Kelvin, Mathematician/Physicist, 1895
  • “Everything that can be invented has been invented” – Charles Duell, Commissioner US Patent Office, 1899
  • “Worldwide demand for cars will never exceed one million, primarily because of a limitation in the number of available chauffeurs” – Research prediction, Mercedes-Benz, 1900

The mistake made here was projecting from the current state forward, as opposed to looking at the future state and working backward. Change leaders must focus on results and work backward to determine the tools and processes required to achieve those results.

7. Prepare to make course corrections and sharp right turns

Over time, markets change so much that it’s not enough to be better at what you do. You need to do something differently. Alternatively, you might find that the leading competitors in your market are so well positioned that it’s better to avoid competing for head-on with them and, instead, trying different, more disruptive approaches.

Nokia started life as pulp mill at one time were into making rubber boots. Coca-Cola started out making pharmaceutical products. Tiffany & Co. began selling stationery in Lower Manhattan.

Course corrections are always necessary when implementing change. All of these companies started out with one idea, but as time and markets shifted they need to adjust their course. Agility and flexibility are the hallmarks of inspiring change leaders.

Which of these seven capabilities do you do well, and which do you need to improve if you are to become a true change leader?

Want to Learn More About Change Management?

I’ve created a free eBook on Fundamentals of Change Management. In this ebook, you’ll learn the fundamentals of change management, why it’s critical to achieve business outcomes, as well as tools and techniques to make change work for you. Click Here to Download

Build a common language of innovation on your team

Wait! Before you go…

Choose how you want the latest innovation content delivered to you:


Daniel LockDaniel Lock helps organisations unlock value and productivity through process improvement, project & change management. Find out more about him at daniellock.com.

Leave a Reply