Leading change is one of the greatest challenges you’ll face in your leadership, says Doug Dickerson

“Change before you have to.”

Jack Welch

How well do you embrace change? Is it in your nature to be an early adapter to change or are you one of the last to get on the change wagon?

It’s been said that the only constant in life is change. And while that much is true, some find it more difficult to embrace than others. To be sure, not all change is bad, and not every change is worth embracing. Somewhere in between is the tension that is real for many.

As an Executive Assistant, you know very well the challenges that come with change that seems to never end. So how do you deal with it? How do you manage the ever-evolving responsibilities and expectations that are placed upon you? Before we go there, let’s take a stroll down memory lane for a moment.

One of the most infamous changes in business history occurred back in 1985. Pundits referred to it as the “marketing blunder of the century,” and the backlash was more like a customer rebellion.

The formula for Coca Cola had not been tampered with for 99 years. But in 1985, they changed it, and “new Coke” was released. Coke customers were not impressed. The new formula was a bust. Customers stockpiled the original Coke in their basements; the customer service hotline, which normally received 400 calls a day, was now receiving more than 1,500. The message Coke customers delivered was simple: The old formula has worked for 99 years – why change it?

It took just 79 days for Coke to reverse their “marketing blunder” and revert to their original formula. It was a painful lesson at the time for Coke, and one from which every leader today can learn.

Leading at the speed of change can be challenging. How you manage and lead it and how you compel others to change is important. But primarily, it’s an inside job.

I want to share with you a few of the most common obstacles to change and why we resist it. I believe once we recognize these, then we can position ourselves to embrace change and be better for it. Using C.H.A.N.G.E as an acronym, see if you can identify with any of the reasons we resist change.

Comfort Zones

One of the chief reasons we resist change as individuals and in our organizational structures is that we settle into comfort zones. It’s an autopilot mindset that we are way too comfortable with. It’s the proverbial “new Coke” formula mindset – it’s been the same and has worked for the past 99 years; why change it?

In our comfort zones, we tend to protect the status quo and become guardians of the past. If you are a leader stuck in your comfort zone, you are a leader who needs to embrace change.

Habits

Most of us are creatures of habit. And just like with our comfort zones, we tend to stick close to the familiar. At times, embracing change may require relinquishing old habits for the sake of growth. But old habits can be blind spots. So long as you don’t see how your habits stand in the way of progress, you will never be compelled to change.

Your leadership in many ways is an extension of the habits you’ve developed over time. Ask yourself if those habits that served you well in years gone by are still useful today. What habits need to change for the sake of change?

Attitude

Oftentimes, it’s not the change itself that’s problematic, it’s our attitude towards it. The reason in part, I believe, is that we go straight to negative thoughts about change. We assume it’s going to be bad. We fear the unknown, so we hunker down, determined to preserve the way things are. We like the formula just the way it is.

If you want to be a change agent within your organization, you must model the attitude you hope to see in others. Change is challenging enough as it is without a negative attitude to deal with.

Change is a necessary and constant companion in life. Often, we don’t like it, we are slow to embrace it, and sometimes we despise it. But change is a consistent disruptor in life. Like it or not, change happens.

Negative Perceptions

Being a change agent is not easy. People are creatures of habit and, once settled into routines and ways of doing things, seldom want to see them change. One reason why change is so hard is the negative perceptions that surround it. Usually, this is created by opponents of change out of fear or lack of clarity surrounding it.

If you want to successfully navigate the waters of change, you must get out in front of it, anticipate the negative perceptions of it, and make the case for it. It’s been said that perception is reality, but a negative perception of change can be a death-knell if not handled properly.

You can overcome negative perceptions of change, but only as you skillfully make the case for it and communicate the consequences of what happens if you don’t.

Guarded Traditions

When time-honored traditions collide with the headwinds of change, tensions are at their peak. One camp wants to move forward and innovate while the other wants to hold on to the traditional ways of doing things. How many times have you found yourself caught in the middle of the two camps while at the same time trying to process your own feelings about it? Managing change while respecting the past can be done, but it takes a keen leader to make it happen.

If traditions are guarded at the expense of progress, you stifle the growth that could be yours. While change is inevitable, positive outcomes from it aren’t if you have people working against it. Get the buy-in first.

External Forces

There will be times in your leadership when change is brought about by circumstances over which you have no control. The COVID pandemic is a case in point. Many businesses were forced to pivot and make changes in record time just to survive. Sadly, many didn’t. Your role as an Executive Assistant certainly went through times of testing. While you can try to plan for and anticipate any and every potential obstacle that may come your way, you’re not going to get it right one hundred percent of the time. The unexpected happens. We like to believe that the force is with us. The truth is, sometimes it’s not.

Final Thoughts

Leading change is one of the greatest challenges you’ll face in your leadership. It can be very rewarding and helpful when done right. Trust your skillsets and be the one who helps others navigate the winds of change.

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Doug Dickerson is a respected leadership author, speaker, and trainer. He is a John Maxwell Team member and a Certified DISC Trainer. He resides outside Charleston, South Carolina, USA.

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