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Developing Change Leadership as an Organizational Competency

In today's rapidly changing business environment, organizations must develop the ability to respond effectively to change if they wish to survive and thrive. One of the most important competencies an organization can build is strong change leadership. While change can often be difficult and met with resistance, empowering leaders at all levels with change leadership skills is key to navigating disruption successfully.

Today we will explore why change leadership is vital for organizations and explore practical steps companies can take to strengthen this competency across departments and divisions. Through developing change leadership as an organizational competency, businesses will be well-equipped to lead their people through challenges and capitalize on new opportunities.

The Importance of Change Leadership

Leading organizational change has emerged as a critical leadership skill in recent years due to globalization, technological advancements, and other disruptive forces (Kotter, 2012; Helfat & Martin, 2015). According to research, the most important factor determining the success or failure of change initiatives is the quality of leadership supporting that change (Wren, 1995; Armenakis & Bedeian, 1999; Hempell et al., 2019). Leaders play a pivotal role in shaping culture, communicating vision, and gaining buy-in from stakeholders during periods of transition (Nanus, 1992; Kotter, 1996; Avolio et al., 2009). A lack of change leadership can lead to employee anxiety, resistance to new strategies, and stagnation (Judge et al., 1999; Oreg et al., 2011). With constant disruption now the norm, organizations must cultivate change leadership as a core capability in their people if they hope to remain competitive.

Developing a Culture of Change Leadership

Cultivating a culture that embraces rather than fears change is essential for organizations hoping to build change leadership as a competency. A few ways companies can begin developing such a culture include:

  • Communicate the importance and inevitability of change continuously. Hold all-staff meetings highlighting case studies of companies that succeeded or failed based on their ability to change (Armenakis & Harris, 2009). This frames change as a necessity rather than an option.

  • Provide regular change leadership training. Trainings could include modules on change management best practices, communication techniques, culture shifting strategies, and overcoming resistance to change (Judge et al., 1999).

  • Celebrate successes from past changes publicly. Highlighting past transitions the company successfully navigated through showcases change as surmountable and builds confidence in change leadership abilities (Fernandez & Rainey, 2006).

  • Incorporate change leadership goals into performance reviews. Holding leaders accountable for supporting organizational changes with clear objectives keeps change leadership top of mind (Kotter, 2012).

  • Model change leadership from the top. Executive leadership must exemplify the change values they wish to instill to gain follower buy-in and motivate grassroots change efforts (Avolio et al., 2009; Armenakis & Bedeian, 1999).

Developing Change Leadership Capabilities

In addition to shaping culture, organizations must also focus on strengthening individual change leadership capabilities across roles and levels. Some strategies include:

  • Provide change-specific training and workshops. Beyond general leadership training, workshops centered around communication techniques, guiding difficult conversations, managing change fatigue can upskill change agents (Palmer et al., 2009).

  • Offer mentoring and coaching programs. Pairing emerging leaders with experienced change leaders allows them to gain applied skills, have challenges addressed, and bolster confidence over time (Herrera et al., 2019).

  • Conduct change simulations and scenario planning. Low-stakes simulated changes or scenario planning exposures leaders to common challenges, failures, and strategies in a safe environment (Duit & Galaz, 2008).

  • Encourage inter-departmental rotations and projects. Experiencing changes from different angles across an organization through rotations builds holistic change leadership abilities (Manyevere, 2019).

  • Empower grassroots change initiatives. Giving employees autonomy over certain adjustments or process improvements within their roles spreads ownership of change throughout the organization (Oreg et al., 2011).

  • Recognize and reward successful change efforts. Publicly acknowledging leaders that skillfully guide changes builds motivation and sets an example for emerging change agents (Fernandez & Rainey, 2006).

Case Studies in Developing Change Leadership As An Organizational Competency

While developing culture and individual skills are important foundations, truly making change leadership a core competency requires institutionalizing it throughout all levels and functions. Some examples of companies that have done this successfully include:

  • At Procter & Gamble, change leadership is explicitly listed among its "Leadership Expectations" and evaluated regularly, from entry-level to C-suite. Their annual talent reviews appraise leaders' ability to drive strategic changes that push the business forward. This accountability has empowered P&G to rapidly shift investments and strategies in response to disruption (Kotter, 2012).

  • Salesforce promotes change leadership by holding yearly "World Tours" where executives share case studies and lessons from major transitions the company has undergone. Skill-building workshops also accompany these events. As a result, all employees have received applied change training, driving agility and continuous innovation across divisions (Hamel, 2012).

  • Toyota emphasizes mastery of ongoing small process changes as a core competence through its "Kaizen" philosophy adopted decades ago. Repeatedly guiding minor adjustments has cultivated deep change leadership capabilities amongst all teammates. This embedded approach has kept Toyota ahead of industry shifts for years (Imai, 1986).


Developing change leadership as an organizational competency through shaping culture, empowering individuals, and embedding it across functions provides businesses with a powerful advantage over competitors in today's disruptive climate. While change always involves difficulty and resistance, empowering leaders at all levels with the capabilities, accountability, and confidence to guide transitions smoothly will allow organizations to respond effectively to challenges and capitalize on new opportunities. By making change leadership a part of their institutional fabric and fundamental way of operating like P&G, Salesforce, and Toyota, companies can build the agility needed to continuously evolve alongside industry shifts and flourish.


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  • Oreg, S., Vakola, M., & Armenakis, A. (2011). Change recipients’ reactions to organizational change: A 60-year review of quantitative studies. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 47(4), 461-524.

  • Palmer, I., Dunford, R., & Buchanan, D. A. (2009). Managing organizational change and development. Prentice Hall.

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Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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