Change efforts often crumble into excruciatingly dull meetings and PowerPoint presentations. I studied large-scale change and innovation efforts in 56 randomly selected companies in the high-tech, retail, pharmaceutical, banking, automotive, insurance, energy, nonprofit and health-care industries. My research found that the majority of the efforts failed.
A hallmark of the successful 32% was the involvement of midlevel managers two or more levels below the CEO. In those cases, midlevel managers weren’t merely managing incremental change; they were leading it by working levers of power up, across and down in their organizations.
I recently took another look at my 553 hours of interviews with 380 executives, managers and contributors to see why some managers emerge as change leaders. I found a few defining characteristics:
1 Change leaders have a North Star—and they talk about it. Many change efforts fail because people reduce themselves to checking boxes in safe, defensible systems, such as Lean and Six Sigma. Successful change leaders, on the other hand, are open, bold and have a clear sense of their motivations.
2 Change leaders use a GPS to guide them toward their North Star. Change leaders are visionaries. But they recognize that they—and the organization—need a process to help them reach their goals. They adopt a process, stick to it, and inspire others to embrace it.
3 Change leaders work across boundaries, in many cases creating a direct line of communication to top executives.
4 Change leaders move fast. I encourage managers eager to transform themselves into change leaders to write vision statements. Then I suggest three other steps: Find a bold process of change to follow; push yourself to communicate, especially up, with your company’s executives and the CEO; and embrace speed at every possible juncture. We think of midlevel managers as managing incremental change, but many are change leaders in the making. When they align their personal goals and strengths with the organization’s goals, they become extraordinary leaders.
Behnam Tabrizi is the managing director of Rapid Transformation Llc. and teaches at Stanford University. He has written five books, including Rapid Transformation and The Inside-Out Effect.