As a female entrepreneur, as well as a leadership and change consultant, I’ve spent the past 20 years helping Fortune 500 executives accelerate change every day. One thing I’ve learned from this is that challenging the status quo often requires us to use leadership skills in savvy and sometimes unexpected ways.
Here are seven ways to lead change in the boardroom that can also help us forge a gender-equal world.
Speak truth to power—with facts, honesty, and authenticity
To lead change is to challenge the status quo—and win. The first step to doing this is to speak truth to power. Present the data about what you’d like to change and show people the risks and benefits of doing so. What’s more, you must find a way to present it to even the most disinterested, skeptical, or intimidating people. You must show them the stakes, and make your argument meaningful by speaking with honesty, authenticity, and passion.
For example, when you see a challenge or problem with the status quo, you must:
- State your sincere intent: “In the interest of our shared goal of . . .”
- Describe the challenge with the status quo: “There’s a challenge with . . .”
- Frame the opportunity: “One way to address this challenge would be to . . .”
- Support with data: “The benefit/risk of doing/not doing this is . . .”
Ask people what they think
To understand what energizes, inspires, and terrifies your audience, you must ask people what they think about your proposal for change. This requires direct, pointed, and sincere questioning asked out of genuine curiosity and openness.
Once you’ve spoken truth to power and communicated your proposal for change, you must:
- Check for understanding: “What about this suggestion resonates with you? What questions do you have?”
- Ask for input: “How would you address this challenge/opportunity? What are your ideas and suggestions?”
Listen to understand
When you ask people what they think, be silent when they respond. This will make space for them to share candid perspectives and give you the opportunity to deepen your understanding. It may even open your mind to possibilities you may not have considered before.
Once you’ve asked people what they think, you must:
- Suspend judgment: Push all preconceived ideas aside the best you can, so you can focus on opening your mind to what the other person is saying (instead of dismissing).
- Sit with silence: Sit quietly after asking what they think, to give them space to provide thoughtful responses and resist the temptation to respond.
- Ask open-ended questions: “Can you please say more about that? What will the benefits be? What will the obstacles be? What will it take for this to be successful? This will help people get tangible and become energized by their ideas.
Honor others’ reality even if you disagree
Each person’s perception is his or her reality, and you must honor that. To debate their reality is to diminish their experiences and perspectives. It will put them on the defensive rather than opening them up to a different perspective. You must honor and respect their reality whether or not you agree with it, because only then can they truly come to the table open to change.
Once people have shared their input and ideas, you must:
- Thank them: “I appreciate your taking the time to share your questions, suggestions and ideas.”
- Empathize: “I am hearing that you . . .”
Meet others where they are—and converge
To challenge in a way that drives real change is to converge upon a better path forward with those who have different perspectives. Rather than investing your energy in convincing people to meet you where you are, take steps closer to where they are and move together toward a better future.
Once you have thanked and empathized with others, you must:
- Find a point of commonality: “Of all that you shared, here’s what I can relate to most . . .”
- Share where there’s still a gap: “The part that I’m not aligned with is . . .”
- Explore opportunities to close the gap: “Here’s one way I think we can achieve our shared goal by addressing our challenge/opportunity . . . What ideas do you have?”
Maintain your composure
Challenging the status quo and truly leading change can be frustrating or exhausting. You may feel impatient, misunderstood, hurt, angry, or lonely. But, you must maintain your composure so you can inspire others with the confidence and conviction needed to guide the way.
Once you have made a sincere attempt to meet others where they are, you must:
- Be patient: Sometimes, change is easy, but the most difficult changes can take years and decades to come to life. Be patient (but not naive) about where you’re seeing progress or delays.
- Don’t take it personally: People’s ability or inability to change is about them (or the system), not you personally. Ground yourself in your values, so you don’t get too overwhelmed about what can sometimes be an uphill battle.
Stay the course, but show flexibility along the way
Change takes a long time. You will run up against obstacles and resistance, but you must lean into each change and address it with patience, knowing when to be flexible and when to push forward, making progress in the right direction. This takes practice, experience, and self-reflection.
The past twelve months have been full of reminders about social injustice, public health challenges, economic disparity, and inequality. And, although we’ve also witnessed humans’ incredible ability to be empathetic, dynamic, and adaptable, we must still lead change. We must be confident, clear, composed, and committed to continuing to challenge the status quo so we can create a more equitable world for future generations.
Christine Andrukonis is the founder and senior partner at Notion Consulting, a global change-leadership consultancy.