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How to develop change management skills

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We’ve already written about the nine pillars of change management, but now we want to turn some attention to change management skills, or namely the aptitudes you need to manage change on both a personal level and when leading a team.

This is a big moment for change management skills, because a lot is currently changing about work. If companies decide on hybrid models, that has massive implications for what skills managers need day-to-day, but also what change management skills they need -- because it’s harder to move a distributed workforce to new end goals than it would be a workforce where everyone sits in the same general area.

There’s more interaction and communication needed for hybrid teams, and as we’re about to see, communication skills are a huge subset of change management skills. 

The numbers do vary on change management success rates, but one statistic you see often is that 70% of change management initiatives fail. Seems like a massive failure rate, but if you’ve ever been part of a change management initiative, you know it’s very reasonably true -- change management is super hard, because moving dozens to hundreds (to maybe thousands) of individuals to the same end state when they all have different emotional connections and incentives around work is like turning around an oil tanker in a narrow strait. It can be done, but it’s not happening anytime soon, and it won’t go well for a while. 

How can we make change management better, then? What change management skills should we be fostering and developing in people?

Table of contents

What are some core change management skills?

Let’s start with one bucket of ideas:

  • Resilience: Whether it’s a failed change initiative or layoffs/headcount reduction, both employees and managers need to develop resilience as one of their change management skills. The good news: resilience is trainable. With the right skills, perspective, and environment, we can improve our resilience. At the heart of these evidence-based approaches is instilling a mindset wherein you see your skills and abilities as ever-improving and adversity are challenges. (That’s ostensibly a growth mindset.) Through this lens, you can facilitate your growth, develop psychological skills that can help you strategically navigate life, and cultivate an environment that maximizes your resilience.
  • Trust-building: How can you drive a group towards change if they don’t trust you, or at least think you’re aligned with them? Unfortunately, we know from surveys and research that trust within organizations is not that high, generally. Trust in senior leaders, i.e. the CEO, is even worse. Thankfully, there are relatively easy strategies to build trust in a team. 
  • Managing the uncertainty of others: You might call this “psychological safety” at one level, and it’s long been considered the secret sauce of high-performing teams. If you know that your manager has your back and will guide you through the rough parts of a change management process, you’re more likely to more deeply commit to that process -- hence, being able to foster this environment in others, whether or not you have formal leadership authority, is one of the core change management skills.
  • Follow-through: No one will go along with change efforts if the leader of the change efforts has no action items, follow-through for other team members, etc.
  • Coaching: Coaching is one of the core tenets of our work,  and it’s nearly impossible to effectively deploy change management skills without being a coach at some level -- guiding, instructing, helping, setting priorities for the team, etc. You can also do this without formal managerial power, although sometimes it’s easier with it just in the context of hierarchy.

What about being a change management practitioner, or the more technical skills?

When we speak of change management skills in the context of a change management practitioner, that usually -- not always, but usually -- refers to someone working within the vocation/industry of change management. The change management skills for a practitioner are a mix of hard and soft skills, so a bit more technical, but with a focus on communication as well. Some of the more common skills for a change management practitioner include:

  • Project management background/training
  • Communication
  • Strategic vision/thinking
  • Coaching
  • Knowing change management models and frameworks
  • Digital literacy
  • Problem-solving methodologies
  • Other methodologies relative to organization, i.e. lean, agile, Six Sigma

When you talk about being a change management practitioner, then, you need a mix of soft skills that anyone involved in change management would need -- such as the ability to communicate clearly about what’s happening with different initiatives and timelines -- but you also need a technical rooting in project management and other methodologies that your organization might embrace. If your organization is highly committed to “Lean,” for example, they’re not likely to let someone work as a change management practitioner unless they’re very well-versed in “Lean” as well. 

How can change management skills foster innovation?

To quote Zenger Folkman:

Innovation is one secret ingredient that makes a difficult, painstaking change move from impossible to easy. There is often a better way, but too often, leaders bulldoze forward without looking for more innovative and creative options. The leader need not personally be highly innovative. There is a big difference between being innovative and supporting innovation by others. Often someone in your organization or network has a brilliant idea that will make change much easier, faster and less painful. They need your backing and sponsorship.

Unpacking that quote a little bit, people in leadership roles need to think about change management skills along these prisms:

  • Solicit input from multiple people.
  • Actively listen to what they’re saying.
  • Realize that the next great idea could come from anywhere. (This is somewhat how GMail started.)
  • Support your teammates and direct reports. (This is similar to the “psychological safety” piece above.) 
  • Sponsor and ally with people who don’t have the formal leadership role you do. 

In addition to fostering innovation, Zenger Folkman’s other four core change management skills are: Acting quickly, Maintaining a strategic perspective, Cultivating an outside perspective, and Inspiring those on your team. Consider this visual:

When they looked at data from 90,185 leaders whose direct reports were asked to indicate their level of confidence that the organization would be successful, it turned out that leaders who had above average skills on the five behaviors also had direct reports who scored at the 70th percentile regarding their confidence that the organization would be successful. Leaders who had none of the five skills that were above average had success scores at the 33rd percentile.

That’s a strong endorsement for the development of change management skills.

What about the role of process vs. strategy in change management?

This is an important topic, because a lot of companies will jump right to tracking documents and deadlines and general process points, as opposed to thinking through the bigger strategy and the end goals of a change management initiative. The reality of a team enacting change is that you need both process-driven change management skills, such as project management backgrounds, and you need higher-level change management skills, such as advanced communication and strategic vision. If a team is all process-oriented, the end result will not achieve a grand vision. If a team is all focused on bigger strategy, then some of the execution-level work that needs to get done may fall by the wayside. You need both.

How do you show change management skills on a resume?

The best approach is usually to create a change management sub-section, perhaps within or under “Skills,” and list high-level change management skills, such as “Effective communication at advanced levels,” as well as more technical skills and certifications around project management and different work methodologies. Cluster it all together so that a recruiter or hiring manager can see you have a large chunk of change management skills.

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