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How to Lead by Example to Create Business Change

When a leader leads by example, maintains interest, and holds the pedal to the metal to keep intensity and commitment at their highest levels, the rest of the organization usually picks up on it, and people increase their own belief in the change. Regardless of your role, you have a great opportunity to make change happen by simply making the change happen with your own leadership style first.

Whether you have a team of 100 employees or just manage your own work, think about what you can personally change to be more aligned with the vision of the future for the organization.

The best leaders make change an organizational value by expressing, modeling, and reinforcing the principles in day-to-day operations. Have you ever had a manager who wouldn’t walk the talk and who gave only face time to important issues rather than really working on them? While implementing change, leaders must demonstrate integrity and act consistently with what they’re asking of the organization’s members.

Following are the four key actions that a leader should take to effectively lead by example:

  • Express the desired behavior.

  • Model the desired behavior through decision making and day-to-day activities.

  • Reinforce the desired behavior through forms of recognition and rewards.

  • Endure to the end.

Suppose that during a large technology change at your company, a new reporting system is implemented, but most of your team still is using spreadsheets to do work. Leading by example means you toss those formulas and worksheets and embrace and use the new tool. If you are asking someone else to do something, make sure you are willing to do it and are doing it, too.

Here’s another example. Many companies are trying to change to better support a culture of work-life balance, but if you’re replying to e-mails at midnight, your own balance is pretty out of whack. You can say to employees, “Take time for yourself,” but if you’re not doing it, your employees will have a hard time doing it.

Leading by example is not always as black and white as those examples, but it’s the foundation for respect from others in your organization. If you want people to show up to meetings but you’re frequently leaving the room to answer phone calls, your employees and peers will think you’re insincere.

If you want to implement a new performance-measurement system that rewards results but you constantly reschedule performance-discussion meetings with your employees, the change will be seen as superficial.

When leaders’ actions are inconsistent with their words, they can destroy the trust needed for an organization to effectively implement change. Even the most intricate and well-orchestrated plans will fall on deaf ears when the trust and credibility of the change leader is lost.

How to do a changing-by-example audit

Leading by example seems easy enough at first, but in reality it takes practice. Because leading by example is so far-reaching, take a personal audit of the example you want to set for the change. The two areas you want to address in your personal “changing by example” audit are what you physically and mentally give attention to and what new skills you’re mastering in the new environment.

  • Attention: Where do you spend your time and energy? Are these items aligned with the goals of change? If not, what needs to change to make sure your calendar reflects the new way you want others to work?

  • Capabilities: Have you taken the time to learn the skills you need as a change sponsor, change agent, or change advocate? If you take the time to learn how to become a better change expert, everyone around you will follow your example. Do the same for the new capabilities you’ll need in order to operate in your new business environment.

What you do and how you do it is equally important when it comes to mastering the change process and the new way of doing business.

Sneak in examples of the change you desire

When it comes to changing by example, the rubber really hits the road when new skills are ready to be put in action. Until things are really done differently, you can say one thing but do something else. When the time for action comes, everyone can see who isn’t walking the talk.

Do any of these situations sound like your organization?

  • Skills and knowledge are assumed, not taught or developed. People learn on the job or through water-cooler conversations.

  • Quality issues are dealt with after the fact, rather than eliminated earlier in the product development process. Employees may be rewarded for being the hero and saving the day for a customer when a product breaks rather than employees being rewarded for stopping the problem before it happens.

  • Individuals complain about not having information, clearly defined roles, or straightforward responsibilities, but they then run as fast as they can (the other way) when asked to adhere to new standards.

All of these situations can easily be turned into opportunities to lead by example. If skills and knowledge are assumed in your organization, have other employees (often your change agents and advocates) step up and teach classes.

If you praise teams who get up at midnight to go fix something, start turning your attention to the teams that actually got to sleep through the night because they did things right the first time. If individuals complain about not having clarity, allow them to create the clarity for the new change.

Leading by example doesn’t have to be a huge shift in the way things are done — small changes can add up to a big change in total.

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