Changing Leaders into Change Leaders

You’ve been a top performing operational manager for years.  Your boss loves you, your team loves you, you consistently deliver results.  Then an opportunity comes along to move into a role on a transformation, as a Change Leader. How do you know if you’re a fit?

The Change Leader is a very different animal than the Operational Leader.  But good leadership skills are always in style, and transferable to any job.  Let’s take a look at the differences in Change Leadership and Operational Leadership.

Operational Leadership.  Operational leaders are great at making sure everyone is following the process.  They deeply understand the nuances of the business and can help the team navigate. They monitor a lot of details to make sure the operations continue to run smoothly. They show great consistency, required to keep the pulse of the business running.

Change Leadership.  Change leaders can lead in complete uncertainty.  They are forging new ground and creating processes as they go.  They show high responsibility for their world because they can’t rely on anything that already exists.  They show courage when the change challenges the status quo.

If you’re an operational leader who wants to take on a Change Leadership role, ask yourself the following:

  • Am I willing to disobey my boss?  I start with this one because it’s actually the simplest vetting question.  If you’re not willing to disobey your boss, you can’t be a change leader. Period.  Change leaders are eating their own dog-food by living the change they are promoting.  Your boss won’t always be caught up to the change you are leading. You’ve got to be willing to respectfully disobey.

  • Can I work without a set of instructions?  Operational leaders have a clear set of instructions, standard operating procedures, precedents, etc.  Change leaders have none of this. Change leaders take responsibility for setting the direction and building process as they need it.  There’s no one to blame, the change leader takes full responsibility for absolutely everything that might impact their team’s work. If that sounds crazy to you, or if you are thinking of exceptions to this rule, you might be better staying in an operational role.

  • Am I willing to set targets that I might not achieve?  Change leaders shoot for the moon!  I was in a role once where I promised a $300M improvement in a year.  My boss challenged me on how I knew I could meet that. I said, “If I’m wrong and we make $295M will you fire me?”  An executive once told me that the way you set a target is by thinking of a number that you can say with a straight face.  That’s it. That’s the science. If you like to have a pretty good idea on how you’ll meet your target before you commit to them, you might be better suited to an operational role.

Have you transitioned into a Change Leadership role?  Have you observed others making the transition?  Tell us about it!