Guildelines for Selecting Change Leaders

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Choosing the right person to lead a major change initiative may be one of the most important decisions you ever make. To do it right, you have to focus on managers who share the traits of innovation leaders and possess a talent for building teams and a willingness to take risks. But that will get you only so far, says Jean-Philippe Deschamps, a professor of innovation at IMD in Lausanne. To select the best change leaders, he claims in a recent article, you also have to take into account the type of change you’re making and where leaders are needed in the innovation process.

Most change initiatives, for example, involve both front-end and back-end activities. The front-end explores new product ideas, while the back-end works to develop these products and bring them quickly to market. Both are critical to innovation, says Deschamps, but each calls for different leadership skills. Front-end innovation requires leaders who excel at out-of-the-box thinking, while back-end innovation leaders need operational knowledge and execution skills. Your requirements for change leaders may also vary, says Deschamps, depending on whether your initiative is top-down or bottom-up driven.

Finding the Right Match

To help companies select the right change leaders, Deschamps outlines four common innovation strategies and the type of leadership that each requires:

  • New product or service. Creating a totally new product that falls outside the scope of existing business units requires the leadership of a top executive who can wield influence with senior management to support the innovation through the usual corporate decision processes and investment hurdles. At 3M, such leaders are called “executive champions,” and their selection is based on their commitment to innovation and ability to guide a new product from idea to market. Deschamps calls them “no-nonsense mentors,” because their job requires not only good coaching skills, but also a keen awareness of market realities and the ability to make the new venture team face up to them.
  • New business model. Innovative business models often entail major, and sometimes disruptive, changes in how a company works with its suppliers and partners. So leaders of these efforts must be experienced negotiators who can forcefully defend the new model against established ways of doing business. “Pragmatic architect” is the term Deschamps uses to describe them. They need the vision to conceive, down to the finest detail, a new and fully operating business system, as well as the implementation skills to coordinate the input of various suppliers and partners.
  • Better customer solutions. Developing and marketing new customer solutions, by bundling products or by coordinating services across business units, often requires firm, top-down leadership, especially when new structures or ventures are created. But other capabilities are equally important, says Deschamps. These change leaders must also possess the sensitivity and charisma needed to orchestrate a diverse group of performers across the company and the ability to instill in staffers a deep understanding of unmet customer needs and a desire to enrich the customer’s experience with the company.
    Improved products or services. This is the most common change strategy, in which companies seek to gain advantage with customers by making incremental improvements in the quality or cost of their products. Since this type of innovation usually works best in a bottom-up mode, it requires leaders who are good at promoting a culture of innovation. But they must also have stamina, says Deschamps, because improvements are often ongoing during protracted product battles, and good training skills, to make sure staffers can deliver quality performance reliably. “Leaders of such efforts have to have the characteristics of tough sports coaches,” he adds, “being demanding yet supportive.”

For more information, see “Different Leadership Skills for Different Innovation Strategies” in Strategy + Leadership, vol. 33, no. 5, 2005. Reprints can be ordered at

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