Lead Through Change

How the best managers lead through change

The role of Manager is not finite. It moves. What your team needs from you, what the company needs from you, shifts in accordance to the conditions of the market, the economy, the business context. Too many managers, in my opinion, have only one gear. Aggressive managers. Directors. Facilitators. Micromanagers. Cheerleaders. Most managers have one approach and stick to it in every scenario and at every company.

The best managers, by contrast, begin every day and every situation with an assessment of what is required, and morph into that role until it is no longer optimal. If the team is seasoned and the company is growing, the best managers may try to amplify and find leverage by decentralizing control. If the team is inexperienced or the company is in flux, the best managers may lean more towards directing and teaching and coaching.

Today I’m going to focus on how the best managers lead during times of constant change. I’m going to describe 5 traits a manager should adopt to give a team the best chance for success when times are turbulent.

What your team needs from you as their manager changes depending on the context you’re in. When your company is changing rapidly, or the business conditions are in flux, your team has significantly different needs than when everything is calm and predictable. People struggle with change. We all do, to one extent or another. On the outside, we talk about embracing change and that all change leads to opportunity, but on the inside, none of us is unaffected by the uncertainty of it all.

I have had the good fortune, like many of you, to have worked in my fair share of highly variable business environments: Acquisitions, bankruptcies, hyper growth, layoffs, restructuring. What I’ve discovered is that the role my team needs me to play as a leader changes depending on the situation we’re in.

Here are 5 roles I try to emphasize when leading through change and turbulence.

1. Purpose Provider

When things are crazy, it’s helpful to remind yourself and your team about your fundamental purpose. The wilder things get, the more frequently you need to call it out. I recall a recent team I managed, which was going through a major re-organization, where I started our weekly meeting for 6 months with a reminder of our mission, purpose and top goals. Things were so hectic the situation demanded it. Looking back on that time, I can see how necessary it was. That little reminder each week (even for me), gave us a brief reset before jumping back into the chaos. Eventually we moved through it.

My recommendation to managers is to find more opportunities to remind your team of their purpose and mission when things get crazy. Purpose, above all else, is the source for engagement and motivation in the workplace. It may feel awkward at first to recite your purpose and mission and goals all the time, but you’ll find it to be a useful reset and refocus when you need it most.

2. Communication Facilitator

During turbulent times, when team members are coming and going, new people and groups are being introduced, communication inevitably breaks down. When people stop talking, all the fears and pitfalls associated with change emerge in force. In my experience, the role of a manager during periods of change needs to evolve from encouraging communication to brokering communication. Instead of just espousing the virtues of collaboration, you need to force it to happen. There are just too many forces working against effective communication when change is happening to leave it to chance.

My recommendation to managers is to become more active as brokers of communication in periods of change. Bring groups together, change where people sit, expand your meetings, add daily standups. Take unnatural actions to force more communication to occur.

3. Ruthless Prioritizer

When new variables are constantly being introduced at work, it gets harder for a team to prioritize. It’s difficult to know where the focus should be when so much has changed. New people are involved, new business concepts, new market conditions, new management. The more things change, the harder it is to make prioritization decisions on a day to day basis. Your role as manager needs to evolve to meet this gap. You can’t leave it up to individuals and functional groups to make these calls when the entire context for prioritization is changing so rapidly.

My recommendation to managers is to assume a much greater role in the day to day prioritization choices your team is making. This will have the impact of improving the probability good choices are made and of sharing the evolving context by which you’re making tradeoffs and decisions with your team.

4. Listener in Chief

When things are crazy at work, my role as a manager leans heavily towards listening. I’ll have a never-ending queue of people coming to my office, frequently just to talk through issues and to vent. I want this. I frequently don’t have all the answers. I often feel powerless to fix the problems they present. But I still want them to come to me so we can talk about it. What you don’t want, is for your team members to internalize everything or resort to gossip and griping when times are tough. The mere act of expressing, listening and understanding can make the difference between a team that stays positive and productive and a team that becomes toxic.

My recommendation to managers is to get more personally involved with team members as change accelerates. Listen to them. Don’t feel compelled to have all the answers. Listening and engaging in dialogue is often enough to keep things moving and remind your team members that you’ve got their backs no matter what happens.

5. De-pressurizer

The crazier things get; the more mistakes are likely to happen. This can be a source of great stress on you and your team whether you realize it or not. New people, more work, confusing direction – these things lead to balls being dropped and to mistakes taking place. I have found it helpful to call this out publicly at my team meetings when pressure and stress are running high. By acknowledging mistakes are likely to happen and that we all need to accept this is the case but try our best anyway, a lot of the stress is removed from the environment. What you don’t want, in times of change, is for people to feel afraid. Fear brings out the worst in people. It causes them to turn on each other. It causes risk-taking to evaporate. It restricts creativity. These things will make a bad situation much worse.

My recommendation to managers is to talk openly about how crazy things are. Acknowledge that some mistakes are going to happen and that you’ll support everyone when they inevitably occur. The mere act of acknowledgement can help your team stay positive and aggressive even when times are tough.

Your optimal role as a manager changes depending on the situation you’re in. Be mindful of that. Start every day and every situation with an assessment of what is required to inspire your team to their highest potential. I hope these 5 tips were helpful. As always, I’d love to hear what has worked for you during turbulent times.

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