Blog

The Learning Leader as Change Agent

Guest post contributed by
Holly Burkett

Managing change and cultural transformation is among the top challenges facing executives and the one area in which they’re most likely to partner with learning leaders and talent managers.

Today’s Leadership Challenges

More than ever before, organizations need leaders who can anticipate and react to the nature and speed of change; act decisively without always having clear direction or certainty; navigate through complexity, chaos, and confusion; and maintain effectiveness despite constant surprises and a lack of predictability. Yet few business leaders rate themselves as “highly effective” at managing change, most work for an organization with no change strategy in place, and most have no designated person to lead change efforts.

Given these challenges, how can L&D help?

Leverage leadership development. Leadership development remains a key strategy for building change capability. Developing collective change capabilities across all levels has more impact than simply focusing upon mid or senior-level managers. Effective development methods include the combined use of self-reflection exercises, coaching, mentoring, stretch assignments, action learning, and simulations in which participants are placed in real-world scenarios and roles where they must lead change. Development approaches should be contextualized and customized to fit the capabilities required of specific change roles, including:

  • change sponsors (those who lead change strategy)
  • change managers (those who facilitate change in their operational areas)
  • change project members (those who plan, design, and implement the change plan)
  • change agents (those who advocate for change efforts, make the changes relevant to their needs, and contribute to successful outcomes)

Developing collective change capabilities across all levels has
more impact than simply focusing upon mid or senior-level managers.

Keep in mind that change capability is about more than stand-alone, one-and-done leadership development programs, however. It is about nurturing change responsiveness and resiliency throughout an entire organization so that it is fully embedded within an organization’s culture and DNA.

Integrate change capabilities. Effective development includes the integrated use of tools that assess, develop, and reward change capabilities during recruiting, performance management, and career development, including succession planning. Other enabling mechanisms like change networks, change academies, or communities of practice can help align change-readiness and responsiveness with employees’ daily work practices.

Manage change capacity. While change capability is a skill, ability, or mindset that can be developed or improved, change capacity relates to the ability of individuals and organizations to accommodate new change demands. Change fatigue is one of the biggest barriers to employees’ overall capacity to adopt or adapt to change. Change fatigue sets in when people feel pressured to make too many transitions at once or when change initiatives have been poorly thought through, rolled out too fast, or put in place without adequate preparation. An integrated, well-planned change strategy is meaningless if an organization lacks the capacity to execute it. In reality, capacity is finite; people can only do so much and there are only so many people to do the work.

As change agents, learning leaders must sensitize senior leaders to the risk of frenetic, disorganized change that goes beyond what individuals or teams can manage. Best practices include the use of a vetting process where proposed change projects are subjected to rigorous “war room” screenings by key stakeholders and then prioritized according to their importance to business strategy, financial impact, and the probability of success.  

As change agents, learning leaders must sensitize senior leaders to the risk of frenetic,
disorganized change that goes beyond what individuals or teams can manage.

Final Thoughts. The pressures for change are real, change is here to stay, and organizations are looking to L&D for help in gaining the confidence and skills needed to navigate in a business climate of constant disruption. While the effort may seem daunting, we have a responsibility to step up and embrace our role as change agents with the goal of helping an organization transform itself for the better. This means positioning learning and performance initiatives within the context of broader change. It also means integrating the discipline of change management into our own mindsets and skill-sets so that we can leverage learning as a catalyst for innovation, change, and high performance.


About the Author

Holly Burkett, PhD, SPHR is principal of Evaluation Works, a performance consultancy in Davis, CA.  For over 20 years, she’s helped diverse public and private sector clients develop resilient learning and performance capabilities that create high engagement and operational excellence. Author of the award-winning book “Learning for the Long Run: 7 Practices for Sustaining a Resilient Learning Organization,” she is a sought-after speaker, coach, and workshop facilitator. Learn more at: http://hollyburkett.com/