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The Difference Between Change Management and Change Leadership

Change is inevitable, and for organizations everywhere, things are moving faster than ever before. One study found that industry change, mergers and acquisitions activity, and disruptive startups will shorten the average lifecycle of an S&P 500 company from 24 years to just 12 years by 2027. Whether it is a result of organizational initiatives, a merger or acquisition, a leadership transition, or simply shifting market conditions, it isn’t about if, or even when change will occur. It’s about how long-lasting and disruptive the change will be, and how it is handled by the organization.

Being prepared to not just survive change, but to proactively design and leverage opportunities for change from within the organization, is a key differentiator in today’s markets. To do this effectively, it is important to understand change management vs. change leadership.

What is Change Management?

Change management is usually reactionary and can be seen as a linear process, with a single goal and preset checkpoints. These are defined by the change managers, and implemented by relevant individuals. As a Forbes article put it, “change management can be seen as an intermittent project, with a discrete beginning and end, addressing one or two big-ticket items, such as restructuring the organization or implementing a new IT system.”

As anyone who has been through a major change in an organization knows, it is rarely that straightforward. It is an iterative process that requires strong leadership, input from throughout the organization, and course-corrections throughout the process. To bring the biggest benefit, implementing change requires more than just management – it requires change leadership.

What is Change Leadership?

Change leadership is a proactive approach to change management, where change is seen as an opportunity for growth and improvement rather than a finite project. Change leaders create an inspiring vision, and advocate for that vision throughout the organization.

Change leaders take a people-centric approach. They consider how change affects employees, their processes, and their tools. They work alongside company leaders, HR, and employees to successfully integrate the change rather than impose it. Change leaders seek out insights and feedback, and strive to understand any challenges the change initiative is causing. They acknowledge when things aren’t working as anticipated and adjust the plan accordingly. This gives employees a voice in the initiative, empowering them to provide the input that will allow them to support and engage with the initiative.

But before a change initiative even begins, true change leaders work diligently to build trust with their employees. That way, when change happens there are strong relationships to provide a foundation that allows employees to follow even when things seem uncertain.


What Do Change Leaders Do Differently?

1. Inspire Others with a Vision

A good change leader can create a vision for the future of the organization that will inspire others to support change, rather than resist or fear change. The vision will clearly show why change is necessary, the benefits of changing, and how people will be affected in their work. Successful change leaders anticipate, understand, and address employee concerns in that vision. A clear vision not only ensures that everyone understands the benefits of organizational change, but that they feel like a part of it – the picture is so vivid that it inspires everyone to want to achieve it.


2. Define the Strategic Plan

People will begin to connect with the vision for change when they have a clear understanding of the direct impact on their everyday work. To do that, change leaders bring the vision to life by sharing the strategic plan for accomplishing the change. This includes how team and individual accountabilities will be affected, when, and how the processes will change.


3. Communicate Effectively with Employees

Communication can’t stop after the vision and plan are shared. It must continue with progress updates, any adjustments to the plan, and celebrations of the milestones along the way. During a change management initiative, leaders should encourage two-way communication and actively seek opportunities to solicit feedback and questions from employees. They recognize the importance of safe avenues for individuals to provide feedback, ask questions, and seek reassurance, because there will be no meaningful insights without that safety – and change leaders know that would be missing a critical step toward success.


4. Provide Consistent Support

To ensure success, change leaders make sure there is ample support available. This includes providing leaders at all levels of the organization with the skills and information they need to coach and assist their employees. By working with teams and individuals, leaders can address specific changes to tasks and duties, collect suggestions and ideas related to optimizing new processes, and identify areas where further training and supports will be needed. By providing these supports proactively, leaders can maximize the chances of success.


5. Sustain Energy Long-Term

Change leaders know that successfully achieving the vision requires maintaining momentum and avoiding backtracking wherever possible. By routinely providing updates, implementing retention strategies, making adjustments, and reiterating the vision on an ongoing basis, the organizational change initiative stays top of mind. Providing any metrics you’re tracking helps everyone to see the progress as it unfolds. Some change leaders even find that conducting surveys periodically helps them to keep their finger on the pulse of employee mindsets and commitment so they can proactively overcome challenges and friction in the process. Especially in the case of long-term change initiatives, maintaining momentum after the kickoff is crucial to success.



Companies that pursue and embrace change are well positioned to continue to evolve and grow, while those that resist change are at risk of stagnation – or even extinction. Pursuing and embracing change takes more than a change management approach. It requires leaders who lead the change and diligently work to guarantee the organization’s success. When companies simply manage change as it comes, they are constantly attempting to avoid threats. But when leaders can adopt a change leadership approach, change becomes an opportunity to thrive.


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