Leading change

Kate Sikerbol, change management facilitator at Queen’s IRC, explains the mechanics of managing change and reveals four character traits every modern leader must embody

Leading change

Kate Sikerbol will lead the upcoming Queen’s IRC change management course, Change Management: Building Support for Successful Change Projects Using a Time-Tested Framework, in Toronto on October 1-3 and in Victoria on November 5-7.

The world of work is changing. Today’s leaders are responsible for overseeing various concurrent change initiatives. The ability to initiate, plan and implement change successfully is increasingly recognized as a core leadership competency. Modern HR leaders have a pivotal role to play in transforming their organizations and readying them to adapt to rapidly changing conditions.

Leaders set the tone; they create the conditions and context for others to work toward a shared vision and goals. Successful leaders have a combination of two things: character and competence.

To become competent at leading change, leaders need to understand the process of change. They need skills and tools, templates and processes. They need to develop a deep appreciation of the people side of change and understand how to deploy resources and project management skills appropriately. The human dimension of organizational life – and change – is not the exclusive purview of HR. It is a fundamental responsibility of leaders across the organization to create a culture that fosters creativity, innovation, accountability and change.

HR plays an important role in supporting leaders across the organization to develop their leadership and change skills. True change, however, happens through the day-to-day efforts of leaders and line managers across the organization, who train, coach and supervise the people who are directly involved in the nitty-gritty of change implementation.

Leaders need to move beyond increasing people’s individual capability for change and begin to focus on developing organizational capability for change. They need to consider the foundational beliefs, values and norms that may impede success: Does the organizational culture maintain the status quo or drive innovation and change?

Leadership character

There are four qualities that are important when it comes to character: authenticity, courage, humility and presence.


Being authentic means knowing your motives, feelings and values and being aware of your own unique talents. Leaders who encourage people to bring their whole selves to work, and who value the unique strengths of people, facilitate an environment where creativity, risk-taking, learning and change thrive.

Leaders who are comfortable in their own skin, comfortable with being vulnerable, and who are honest and trustworthy, will build the trust that is so important in change. It’s much easier for people to embrace and adapt to change in workplaces with high trust levels, and effective change leaders need the ability to build swift trust.’


Understanding their values enables leaders to take a stand when those values are in danger of being compromised. It allows them to stand in integrity and to take the risk to speak up about inconvenient truths. Demonstrating courage means creating psychological safety for others. When people feel safe to take risks and know that they won’t be punished or made to feel embarrassed for asking a question, offering a suggestion or admitting a mistake, it’s easier to tap into the energy for change.


Leaders who demonstrate humility engender greater commitment. The ability to say “I was wrong,” “I’m sorry” or “I need help” is a simple but powerful way for leaders to demonstrate that they are open to learning and being coached.


In this case, ‘presence’ doesn’t mean executive presence, but rather being accessible and approachable, being real and deeply human, and appreciating the humanity of others. It includes the capacity to be empathetic with others. This doesn’t mean agreeing with others all the time; it simply means having a profound appreciation for the experience someone else might be having.

We tend to think of resistance to change as a negative and forget that people just might be right when they tell us there may be problems. Sometimes change means a sense of dislocation and loss; people are being asked to give something up, often something that is important to them. As leaders, we need to listen, appreciate and understand their experience.

Change competence

Successful change is dependent on the involvement and coordination of hundreds of people, not a single heroic change leader. This raises an interesting question: Why would anyone want to be led by you? It’s a question worth reflecting on. Do you have a directive leadership style or an empowering one?

Leaders who empower others take time to reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses as leaders and change champions and examine the underlying assumptions that guide their behaviour. Building capability for change is difficult if a leader’s fundamental orientation is to squelch talent, diminish others and limit opportunities, rather than encourage people to grow and flourish.

The evidence is clear that controlling and dominating approaches to change have a negative impact on change implementation. A focus on short-term results can cause change leaders to lose sight of the goal of creating an organization that is more effective at dealing with change. Instead, effective change leaders must focus on building bridges to get better results and use ‘smart power’ to do so. 

Effective change leaders cross organizational boundaries, bust silos and bring together disparate parts of the organization to work collaboratively. Understanding who the organization’s informal and formal influencers are allows change leaders to tap into an organizational network that can enable the communication, connectivity and commitment that contribute to change.

Evidence shows that when leaders define the change but no one manages the change process, there is a very low likelihood of success. The odds improve (to about a 20% success rate) when leaders define the change and manage the process. The real secret lies in engaging others to both define the change and manage the process. If done effectively, the odds of a change being successful increase to 80% or 90%.

Being successful at change requires skilled change champions and transformational leadership. Change is an opportunity to build better leaders across the organization and, in doing so, develop the organization’s capacity to be ready for the next change around the corner.

Kate Sikerbol will lead the upcoming Queen’s IRC change management course, Change Management: Building Support for Successful Change Projects Using a Time-Tested Framework, in Toronto on October 1-3 and in Victoria on November 5-7.

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