Future-proofing your career (part 3 of 4): Managing change in difficult times

changing leaves

From the new technology that’s changing the way we work to wider-world crises such as Covid-19, we’re in a time of unprecedented change. And much of it is far from welcome.

However, the ability to evolve through challenging times is a skill we need to cultivate in order to thrive – or sometimes simply survive – in this unpredictable world. And although it can be a difficult journey, it’s one that can bring rich rewards.

In her speech Reflecting on a World of Change, Carly Fiorina, formerly the President and CEO of Hewlett-Packard and Founder and Chairperson of Carly Fiorina Enterprises, said: ‘Change is rarely easy work. It requires a special kind of determination, a boldness — a willingness to take risks, a willingness to, on the one hand, have the courage of one’s convictions, and on the other, humility to learn, adapt and grow.’

And change also needs to be managed correctly. And while an estimated two thirds of organisational transformation efforts fail, there are ways to increase the chances of success for you and your team.


Step 1: Understand the situation

The first step in managing organisational change involves asking Where are you now?

Take a 360-degree view on the situation. This means getting the measurable hard facts, but also consulting with others in the company and your own team to get their perspective. It may also be relevant to look beyond your own organisation, benchmarking it against competitors, or those facing similar challenges.

In her experience of the reinvention of Hewlett-Packard, Carly Fiorina describes ‘looking out at the world and assessing what is worth aspiring for’ while also ‘looking in the mirror and looking at ourselves honestly, seeing the truth and acting on the truth’. While the change may have been prompted by adversity, it doesn’t mean that the outcome can’t lift you, your team and your organisation to a higher level.


Step 2: Establish a clear vision – and your end goal

Next ask Where do you want to be?

Even when the world isn’t in turmoil around us, change is hard. It’s not something to rush into. Once you understand your current situation and its full impact, you can decide on the degree of change that’s required to move you towards your goal.

As observed by Sarah Clayton, Executive Vice President, Employee Engagement & Change Management Practice at Weber Shandwick: ‘Few things are more important during a change event than communication from leaders who can paint a clear and confidence-inspiring vision of the future.’

Organisations often rush this stage, but it’s essential to take as much time as you have available to clarify your vision. It’s this that will help you persuade others to let go of the past and follow you into the future.


Step 3: Make a plan (and be prepared to change it)

This answers the question How will you reach your goal?

‘Managing change is tricky, but rarely more challenging than when the whole world is changing at the same time,’ notes author and sociologist Tracy Brower. That’s where having a clear plan pays dividends.

But remember that you can’t control every outcome and that change is a fluid process — so contingency plans which anticipate a wide range of possible scenarios is a must, but you have to also acknowledge that it’s not possible to plan for everything, and that it’s how you react in those circumstances that matters most.

So, while the goal shouldn’t change, the plans almost certainly will, and assuming we have all the answers from the get-go is unlikely to lead to success. Constantly monitoring the outcome of our actions and drawing on data where we can will help evaluate whether we’re moving in the right direction. As will keeping a watchful eye on how the rest of the world is continuing to change around us.

The Science of Organizational Change, a paper by the BCG Henderson Institute, suggests that the companies which will come out on top over the next decade are those that constantly learn and adapt to changing realities. Uncertainty and complexity look set to be the hallmarks of change management going forwards, so the willingness to embrace that, says the institute, is essential.


Step 4: Communicate – every step of the way

“People don’t resist change; they resist being changed,” says Brower.

When change is imposed upon us, we push back. And in difficult times we push back even harder. During periods of significant change such as crises, mergers and acquisitions or mass redundancies can erode employee engagement, loyalty and trust. As a leader, your role is to empower, engage and energise your team, and involve them in a positive onwards journey. This requires regular, clear, open and honest communication. ‘Change cannot be put on people. The best way to instil change is to do it with them. Create it with them,’ says Lisa Bodell, founder and CEO of futurethink. 

Your team needs to know as individuals and collectively what their role is within the plan and why they’re important and valued. They also need to trust you – and that you’ll do what you say. And if you don’t, they need a good reason why.

In fact, making sure your team understands the Why? of change is essential from the very start. ‘It’s almost a sense of ‘the bridge is burning and there’s no going back’,” observes Melissa Arnoldi, CEO of Vrio. ‘You have to paint a picture of where the business needs to head … [and] develop a transformation story that creates lasting connection to the change you want to see.’


Step 5: Accommodate the change curve

Change and transition kick off an emotional journey within us. The Kubler Ross change curve describes the stages we go through as shock and denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. And we all move along this curve at different rates.

As a team leader, being able to identify these stages in your people and adapt your leadership style accordingly is vital in keeping everyone on an even keel, as well as ensuring they feel supported.

And because you aren’t immune to these emotions yourself, self-care is a vital part of your change strategy. Prioritising your wellbeing and staying true to your core are two of the cornerstones of a change management mindset. When you look after yourself, you gain the resources to support others and lead with compassion, decisiveness and authenticity: qualities that will help unify your team and create alignment.


Step 6: Don’t be afraid to be human

As a leader, talking about the challenges of the situation and why a plan might not have succeeded is just as important as sharing the successes. Being vulnerable has its place in a contemporary workplace where promoting good mental health and wellbeing is no longer seen as an emotional and unnecessary indulgence.

‘Overall, people want to know you care,’ explains Brower. ‘Ensure you’re delivering messages with compassion and empathy. Remember it’s not just about sharing facts, figures or new procedures. It’s also about the extent to which people feel you’re supporting them – not just in the office but throughout their whole work experience.’

As human beings, we have a fundamental need for safety. Challenging times make everyone – including you – more likely to hang on to old roles, behaviours and solutions for security, which may now be outdated.

Google’s two-year internal study into successful teams revealed that those with higher rates of perceived psychological safety were better than others at implementing diverse ideas and driving high performance.

As a leader, fostering an environment that supports your team on a human level will help create the stability they need to expand with confidence into the future and deliver on your vision.

Change is a shared responsibility and it’s the power of the collective that ultimately supports its success. As we continue into an unpredictable future, there’s no single person with all the answers and it’s worth remembering this concluding thought from Tracy Brower.

‘Give people time and grace as we’re all learning together. There will be bad days, good days and better days.’


View the rest of our future-proofing series:

Future-proofing your career (part 1 of 4): You, technology, and the four questions to ask yourself right now

Future-proofing your career (part 2 of 4): Soft skills — the human touch essential to tech?

Future-proofing your career (part 4 of 4): Setting and achieving goals in an uncertain world



Not a member yet?

Meet your goals and develop your skills on the everywomanNetwork. Join 1000s of other members today.


Not a member? If you would like to hear about our latest content, news and updates, sign up to our monthly update newsletter.