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Change Happens – You Might as Well Lead It!

What better time than now to discuss leading change?

With this new administration (in fact with any new administration), many of you will be called upon to lead change in your current roles. Or perhaps you will interview for new positions to lead change. Of course, leading change is one of the Executive Core Qualifications (ECQs) for the Senior Executive Service (SES) identified by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). And, “Tell me about one successful change effort you led” is a popular interview question.

But, why is leading change so important? Put simply, not everyone can pull it off with their sanity intact and their teams fully onboard. That begs the question: Why is leading change so difficult? If you are truly confident that the change you are leading is proven and much needed, the resistance likely stems from individuals who fear what they will potentially lose loss of control over their time or work product, or even loss of status and power. Consequently, any successful effort to lead change should balance advocacy of the new approach with addressing these concerns.

So, let’s talk about how to package your successful change efforts for your ECQs, which also gives you what you need to discuss during an interview.

According to OPM, the best approach to use is the Challenge-Context-Action-Result (CCAR) model. This model provides a roadmap to concisely yet richly describe your experience in a manner that allows the reader to see the importance of your efforts.

Starting with the challenge, describe a problem you faced that is ideally something every organization would see as a need that should be addressed. Take, for example, my very own leading change example from my ECQs. Here was my challenge:

  • Upon promotion to the assistant general counsel position, I quickly determined that lack of knowledge sharing and lack of true succession planning were issues that needed to be addressed. There were broad experience and knowledge gaps within my team which consisted of attorneys nearing retirement and attorneys right out of law school. A staff composition that I originally thought was ideal presented unique challenges.

Now what agency doesn’t care about knowledge sharing and succession planning?

Next, you should share the additional context for why this issue was a challenge. This gives you an opportunity to describe the individuals or groups you worked with or the environment that caused the resistance. Here was my context:

  • The senior attorneys in the group had established portfolios that they were accustomed to solely supporting. They had no interest in sharing. In fact, any effort to assign “their work” to someone else was met with resistance. Also, there was essentially no cooperative teamwork; only individual effort. 

With the context, I sought to describe the delicacy of the situation.

After the context, describe the actions you personally took to implement successful change. This is your opportunity to show true leadership by balancing the concerns of the individual players with the needs of the organization. Here are the actions I described as indicative of leading change in a win-win manner:

  • To meet those challenges, I continued to assign the work as had been done in the past, but I also began providing shadowing opportunities to the attorneys still in the Attorney Development Program (ADP). This decision very effectively allowed knowledge transfer between the senior attorneys and the more junior attorneys. Importantly, it also made the senior attorneys feel valued as they mentored the ADP attorneys. With ownership effectively expanded, I gradually began making direct assignments of the various issue areas across the entire team.

Lastly, you should conclude by showing impactful results to the organization overall. These results should show the effectiveness of your leadership. Here are the results I described:

  • The return on investment was a more collaborative team with a significant payoff when the most senior attorney in the group retired because there were already attorneys in the group who had begun assisting with her body of work. Importantly, at her retirement ceremony, she thanked me for effectively giving her a new career by allowing her to mentor the younger attorneys who shadowed her. Similarly, when in a matter of one month, we had another senior attorney leave the agency and yet another attorney assigned to a detail on the Hill, the remaining attorneys were able to absorb those engagements because of the knowledge transfer and succession planning that had already taken place.

As you can see, I concluded by showing the qualitative effects of the changes and by illustrating the positive effects not only on the process but on the individuals.

Whether you are putting together a package of ECQs or preparing for an interview (SES or otherwise), being able to succinctly describe your prior efforts to lead change is very important. And while my successful change effort described here is clearly just my own example, I hope it gives you a roadmap to help you package yours.

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Shirley A. Jones, Esq. is a Senior Executive Service (SES) member in the federal government and a certified leadership and diversity and inclusion trainer. Considering herself an employee advocate and a career development trainer, she was recently elected National President of Blacks In Government (BIG). Ms. Jones has had the opportunity to testify before Congress on the lack of diversity in the SES and frequently speaks at events in the Washington, D.C., area. She often addresses a variety of topics related to leadership and empowerment. Ms. Jones has also written Op-Ed pieces for the historic AFRO newspaper, HBCU Connect, and other publications.

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