5 Required Skills for Leading Change

April 7, 2022

5 Skills Required for Leading Change

A critical aspect of effective leaders today is the ability to lead change. Indeed, many would argue that the most distinguishing difference between people we identify as good managers and those we deem to be great leaders is that leaders are adept at bringing about change.

Most organizations are struggling with potential disruptors, including digital transformation, increasing global competition, and changing customer expectations. An organization that is unable or unwilling to change is most likely facing a very grim future. Organizations need leaders to be skilled at leading change efforts, but the reality is that most have no formal training or experience on what it takes to make a change effort work well.

Senior Leaders are Expected to Know How to Lead Change

Being skilled at leading change is more important for leaders in top management. We gathered data from over 1 million people asking them to indicate competencies that were the most important for a leader in performing well. When we examined those leaders where at least 25% of their colleagues reported that leading change was one of the four most important competencies (chosen from a list of 19), we found significant differences between top-level leaders versus front-line supervisors. The graph below shows that 32% of leaders in Top Management positions received feedback that leading change was critical for their success. Only 14% of supervisors received the same message.

More Top Management leaders Received Feedback that Leading Change is Critical to Their Success

What Makes Leaders Effective at Leading Change?

We have collected data on leaders over the past decade. We isolated those rated as most effective at leading change seeking to understand what made them so effective at piloting change. Five critical skills emerged. The chart below shows the importance of effectively combining these five skills.

The graph below shows results for 103,474 leaders scattered across the globe. It shows the impact of having both above average and 90th percentile rankings on the five skills. Leaders who were below average on all five skills were rated at the 18.9th percentile on their ability to lead change. Those who were just above average on all five skills vaulted to the 81st percentile. Last comes the icing on the cake. Possessing profound strengths at or above the 90th percentile elevated a leader’s effectiveness at championing change beyond the 81st percentile.

How Do Companion Behaviors Influence Leader's Skill at Leading ChangeThe Importance of Each 

Any leader needing or wanting to lead change can benefit from understanding what these five critical skills are and developing a moderate skill level in each. The five appear to function together, rather than being five unique or alternative approaches. The importance of each one is highlighted by this fact: you need all five to make the biggest difference. If you break it down, being above average at four only gets a leader’s overall change leadership effectiveness to the 64th percentile, but then adding one more capability vaults a leader 17 percentile points higher, moving them into the top 20% of all those who lead change. 

What Empowers Leaders to Make Change Happen?

1. Fostering Innovation. Innovation is one secret ingredient that makes a difficult, painstaking change move from impossible to easy. There is often a better way, but too often, leaders bulldoze forward without looking for more innovative and creative options. The leader need not personally be highly innovative. There is a big difference between being innovative and supporting innovation by others. Often someone in your organization or network has a brilliant idea that will make change much easier, faster, and less painful. They need your backing and sponsorship.

2. Acting Quickly. We found in our research that leaders who were able to act quickly were two times as effective at making change happen. We have all had the experience of ripping off a bandage slowly and know that doing it quickly is much less painful. But it requires courage to grab one end and rip it off. Most of us can identify a change process that plodded and dithered. This increased the difficulty, resistance, and pain. Leaders who increase the speed of a change process where possible will usually be more effective in the long run. 

3. Maintaining Strategic Perspective. What is the goal? What does the organization aspire to be? Will the change we’re contemplating bring us closer or take us further from that goal? Making a change without a clear strategy is like being lost in the woods and deciding to walk faster, despite the lack of a clear path to your destination. Too often, organizations get caught up in a change process, forgetting to tie that change back to the organizational strategy.  

4. Developing External Perspective. What is the big picture? What are the trends? What is happening in your market or industry? One naturally occurring outcome of an organizational change is that people tend to focus on what is happening within their organization and may forget to look out at what’s going on outside the organization. People get so caught up in internal challenges, including politics and conflicts, that they fail to notice that the world is changing around them. Keeping an eye on the outside, especially customers, helps everyone understand why the change is necessary and the value that change can create.

5. Inspiring and Motivating. Many leaders’ first impulse is to initiate the change process with a big push. Pushing behaviors focus on deadlines, timelines, accountability, direction, deliverables, and orders. Pushing is helpful because it forces everyone to move forward. Most change efforts naturally begin with a big push. But, pushing makes change a hardship with no alternatives. When leaders combine push (driving for results) and pull (inspire and motivate), the outcome is much better. 


We presumed that leaders who are more effective at leading change would have direct reports that were more confident that their organization would be successful. To test this hypothesis, we looked at data from 90,185 leaders whose direct reports were asked to indicate their level of confidence that the organization would be successful. Leaders who had above-average skills on the five behaviors that enable leaders to be more effective at championing change also had direct reports who scored at the 70th percentile regarding their confidence that the organization would be successful. Leaders who had none of the five skills that were above average had success scores at the 33rd percentile. 


We are confident that leaders who can perform these five skills at an above-average level will be significantly more effective at leading change, which in turn produces a higher level of confidence within their direct reports making the organization more successful. 

—Joe Folkman
Connect with Joe Folkman on LinkedInTwitter,  or Facebook.

(This article first appeared in Forbes)

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