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What’s Your Change Management Style?


Focus on these skills to next-level your leadership game

What makes some leaders more entrepreneurial? What sets them apart from their peers? Is there an innate trait that naturally generates uncommon business success?

We recently had the perfect opportunity to research these questions in real-time with an A-team of ten leaders who were kicking ass in their large, multinational organization.

When the client asked us to take a look under the hood, we jumped at the chance.

This was an incredible chance to get up close and personal with a group of leaders who had done things like:

  • Overhaul a poor-performing business unit, making its operations hum.

  • Grow a small company into a big business.

  • 5X-ed the revenues of a healthy but underperforming product line.

We also got to compare the sample group of incredibles to another set of leaders in the company who were very bright, dedicated, and hard-working but just didn't seem to have that knack to make a business take off.

What set the high performers apart from what we might call the high potentials?

There were three glaring differences. Admittedly, it was a small group, but what we found resonates in various business circumstances. Here’s a roundup of the three and some ways to build these capabilities in yourself. And don’t worry: while they might seem innate to our high-performing leaders, they are all qualities anyone can cultivate.

1. Intellectual Curiosity.

This was by far the most significant difference.

In most cases, these leaders had been influenced early in their careers by someone outside of their direct field of study or work. In other words, they were open to new ideas and people.

And, just as important, when something interested them, they pursued it relentlessly. Their curiosity was active and tended to feed itself as new ideas made them thirsty for more knowledge. They’d read something that would trigger an idea or question, and then they’d keep pulling that thread: read more articles or books, seek out podcasts on the topic, and talk to more people on the topic. They were proactive in seeking new information and hungry for learning.

The personality profiles of the ten people studied confirmed this shared trait both qualitatively and quantitatively.

Why is intellectual curiosity so important? Because it demonstrates a willingness to consider other viewpoints and to explore and adopt new ideas. It’s the basis for a mental agility that translates into business agility.

How to build your intellectual curiosity: Cultivating intellectual curiosity starts with generating genuine interest in what’s happening around you, paying attention, and asking questions. Don’t just receive conventional wisdom – ask why. It also requires a mindset of lifelong learning. Our high-performing leaders read a lot and tend to have more diverse social and professional networks. In other words, they don’t stay in their lane, and neither should you. It might feel forced at first, but over time, like any habit, it will become more natural.

2. Systems Thinking.

This group’s ability to see the big picture, the forest for the proverbial trees, was off the charts.

While both the high performers and high potentials were all very smart and strong thinkers, the former could see the dynamic complexity and interrelationships in the larger ecosystem. They could picture how the many moving parts fit together and influenced each other.

This ability made them far better at predicting and capitalizing upon potential outcomes, transcending mere cause-and-effect to envision larger systemic implications. While our group of high-potential leaders knew their business inside-out, they focused their attention on the operational details of their businesses.

Think of it this way: if everyone else is playing checkers, the high-performing leaders are the chess grandmasters, seeing the implications of multiple moves, many moves ahead.

How to develop systems thinking: Systems thinking is challenged in most organizations and roles by the focus on day-to-day tasks and details. The best way to develop your systems thinking is to intentionally set aside time for big-picture thinking. Or, to paraphrase Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, “get off the dance floor and go to the balcony” to see the interaction between the participants within your industry. Some questions to start with:

  • What are our customers expecting or demanding that’s different from what we offer?

  • What forces are impacting them? What could we do differently that helps them succeed as they have to adapt in their environment?

  • What do our competitors or other suppliers provide that creates value for our customers or potential customers?

  • What larger forces (geopolitical, economic, societal, etc.) impact our industry? What opportunities or threats does that create?

3. Risk Tolerance.

The third defining characteristic of our high-performing leaders was a willingness to take risks.

These bold individuals were less fearful of failure than their high-potential peers. And even if a decision or initiative turned out badly, they were OK with learning from it and using this knowledge to make better decisions next time. Their failures did not cripple them or suppress future risk-taking.

The high-performing leaders saw opportunities in challenging or even rejecting the status quo. They all did something antithetical to how their company typically worked, and it paid off.

The high-potential folks tended to be more risk-averse and less comfortable taking a chance on something big and different. They stick with the strategy, the way things have typically been done.

But, as we all know, no risk, no reward.

How to challenge the status quo: When it’s time to make a decision, or start a new project, stop yourself and reflect upon your first inclination. Question it: Why do you think that? What other options might you consider: If everyone else is zigging, what might a zag look like?

The Power of Three

This potent trio of characteristics – intellectual curiosity, systems thinking, and risk-taking – combine to create the conditions conducive to innovation. You might even call them the fundamental blocking and tackling of innovation.

What traits do you see in your top-performing leaders? Is there anything you’d add to our list? As always, we love to hear from you. Add your input in the comments below.

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