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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

7 Leadership Skills Everyone Needs in Times of Change

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Change isn’t a state that companies and individuals can just weather and wait out for a season. These days, it’s the constant. But if you can learn to embrace it—and learn to lead through it—you’ll have a huge advantage in the workplace and in the job market. In fact, employers today consider adaptability to be an essential on-the-job skill.

Why can change be so hard? Even when change is generally positive—say, your company is expanding and hiring many new team members—it can still be accompanied by the stress and uncertainty of venturing into new terrain. When a company is undergoing a change that is negative, such as the failure of a new product, a contracting industry, or layoffs, the stress on team members is exponential.

And yet change also provides immense opportunity for people and companies to evolve in ways that can make them stronger than ever. It gives every member of an organization, from the CEO to the entry-level hire, a chance to showcase their leadership skills and develop new ones. “People and teams can keep things moving forward,” says Sonya Shelton, CEO, and founder of Executive Leadership Consulting. “Change opens up opportunities to be a solution that people are looking for in times of crisis.”

Here are seven essential change leadership skills everyone should embrace.

1. Projecting Confidence

When it comes to leading through change or crisis, Shelton says, “it always starts with a leader’s mindset.” That means the confidence to know that you have the skills to deal with the crisis. After all, you’re in your role for a reason. “You have to be confident that you can handle it, and instill that confidence in your team,” she says. “Tell your team, ‘We can do this together.’”

Making confident decisions when the sands are constantly shifting can be tough, but avoiding “decision paralysis” is crucial, says Kimberly Penharlow, a leadership coach and CEO of Kimberly Penharlow Consulting. “Make a decision,” she says. “You are in the driver’s seat and people are looking to you in change and chaos, and especially in a crisis, to move forward.”

One way to push past decision paralysis, Penharlow says, is to filter decisions based on when they need to be made, what their priority is, and their impact, whether it be on the business, the team, or another important factor. Doing so might even help you realize there is no decision to be made at the moment, she says.

2. Being Transparent

Why is transparency so essential? Because in its absence, the rumor mill churns, cutting into productivity and morale. “Make sure people are informed as soon as you can tell them something,” Shelton says. “It’s treating them with respect.” An essential part of the communication should be priorities, she says—namely what’s important to do or not do, as well as what can be pushed back and where the focus needs to be shifted.

Communication doesn’t just fall to the leadership team. Even if you don’t have direct reports, you may lead an informal cross-departmental team or serve as a vendor’s daily contact. Those folks may rely on you to communicate about what’s happening and why, Penharlow says.

3. Listening, and Then Listening Some More

For folks in leadership or management positions, “Do a check-in every day, even if you didn’t do them before,” Penharlow says. Try a mix of town hall–style meetings, informal and formal one-on-ones, and open office hours or times when people can call you. “Make sure you’re asking your team, ‘What can we do to support you?’” she says.

Then listen to their answers. “It’s really important for people going through change to fully adopt it and feel like they had some sort of say,” Shelton says. Simply creating a forum to give input makes a big difference, so that team members feel like they contributed and were involved, she says. “Create listening environments to get input and feedback—even if you don’t end up taking it,” Shelton advises. Such forums might even raise issues that you may have never considered.

4. Simplifying and Slowing Down

Sometimes during flux and transition, you feel like you have to try to do everything—and all at once. “Many of my clients are trying to respond to what’s happening now at the same time they’re executing on goals that were decided before,” Shelton says. She advises her clients to simplify so people don’t feel scattered. You might, for example, have one team focused on the next three months and another focused on longer-term goals.

And don’t fight every fire at once. “I’m always urging people to slow down,” Penharlow says. Leaders, she says, can model that behavior to encourage it in the team.

5. Delegating Tasks

In times of change, you may be feeling pulled in many directions—even more than usual. “Leaders are stretched,” Penharlow says. “And they certainly can’t do everything.” Accordingly, learn to delegate and listen to the people who surround you. “The less isolated you are as a leader, the better,” Penharlow says. After all, she points out, a smart leader has hired people who are better than them at certain things, so tap into that talent in moments of change.

6. Championing Change

Even if you’re not in a formal leadership role, changes within an organization are opportunities for what Penharlow calls “self-leadership.” “Think about your scope of influence and how you can be a champion for change and the new strategy,” she says.

In addition to helping to communicate and cheer on any changes, you can step up and raise any red flags or risks you see, Shelton says. “But don’t say ‘this isn’t going to work,’” she adds. “Be solution-oriented. Say ‘this is the problem with how you’ve planned for it to work, and this is how it could work instead.’”

7. Recognizing What’s Working

In every organization, there are things that are going right. Find those things—whether they’re processes, communication styles, or company culture—and make sure they are constant through the change. “Sustain the best of your organizational culture,” Penharlow says. “There will always be things that were working well before, so continue to do them, or pivot them as needed.”

Then make sure to look ahead. Even in hard times and difficult transitions, you may see the opportunity for innovation. Now, for example, as businesses shift operations and strategies to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re quickly adopting radical new ways of working, from restaurants shifting to delivery-only to offices going fully remote.

“Think about which things you want to keep after this is over,” Shelton says. “Some organizations think that working remotely could work for them. And new technologies, the new software or apps that they’re using for collaboration—they might continue to use those.” Leaders, after all, are forward-thinking. “Have a mindset focused on what changes you’re making now that you might want to keep in future,” Shelton says, “and get ahead on that.”