Are You a Great Change Leader?

This week we continue the Connex Executive Insights Series, produced in collaboration with Connex Partners, an invitation-only executive network that brings industry leaders together from the worlds of HR and Healthcare.

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This week’s article is written by Ed Cook, cofounder of The Change Decision LLC, a change and culture consultancy focused on growing Joy at Work.  It is a companion piece to his interview with fellow cofounder Roxanne Brown on Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future titled Joy at Work! that aired on October 25, 2022. 

Short clip from the interview:

Link to the entire interview:

It’s a fascinating exercise to pose the question, “Are you a great Change Leader?”  The personae that tend to emerge break in one of two directions,  Lawyer or Scientist.

The Lawyer will begin with a recitation of presumably amazing evidence underlying their Change Leadership prowess — the project that landed well and the difficult situation that got smoothed over;   the success in personal conflict resolution and the time something else “amazing” happened.  It is all true and valid, an airtight case!

In contrast, the Scientist will pose a question: “How do I know if I am a great Change Leader?”  Evidence will be collected. But, even if done well, it’s not about proving a case but understanding the situation as informed by outside evidence, not inside justification.  That means asking others for assessments of your Change Leader skills.  The Scientist knows that understanding your own success at something can be difficult to judge.  Biases in self-judgment are insidious and difficult to eliminate fully.  The most insidious part? How do you know you are biased?

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

Although the path of the Lawyer is tempting and potentially useful in some situations,  like a job interview.  The path of the Scientist will yield results that can be better applied to improving the capabilities of a Change Leader.  The Dunning-Kruger Effect bears this out.  In their 1999 paper, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the authors showed that people often do a poor job of judging their own competence at a task, particularly at the extremes of competence.  Revealed in their experiments was that those who performed at the low end of the performance scale judged themselves to be better at a task than they really were.  Meanwhile, those at the top judged themselves to be worse.  In a New York Times interview published on March 11, 2011, Dunning described the effect: “If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent … The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.”

The explanation was that the bias results from two different effects. For those at the low end of the performance scale, there existed an internal illusion of their ability.  For those at the high end, there was an external misperception of other’s ability.   In their original paper, they state that “the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.”  The solution?  Get an outside perspective.

In addition to simply asking others how you are doing, Dunning and Kruger in later work demonstrate that training in a task can increase the ability of people to judge their competence at the task.  The skill of judging your skills can be learned!  The first condition is understanding the standard of performance for a task.   To know if you have built the competency, you must know what “good” looks like.  For a Change Leader, starting with the purpose of the role is essential to understanding the standard of performance.

The Change Leader’s role is to create the conditions to make it easier for people to do things in a new way that will achieve the value of the change.  –The Change Decision

This definition implies that the role of the Change Leader is about more than just getting the project done or the change completed.  Making it easier for people to do their work is about culture.  To be a better Change Leader is to be better at growing the culture that you want for your organization.  A way of thinking about culture that has benefited many organizations is to grow a culture of Joy at Work.

So how do you grow Joy at Work?  First, a leader needs to lead change…which brings us back to the core question: “Are you a great Change Leader?”

Be a  Scientist

Applying the scientific approach means gathering data.  Following the advice of Dunning and Kruger means assess yourself and also ask others to assess you as a Change Leader.  The following outlines a useful start toward self-assessment for Change Leaders, and also, when recast as a set of questions, others can use the outline to give a Change Leader feedback on how they are doing so that they can improve.

Leadership Skills Questions

Situation Awareness Questions

  • How would I rate my skills in:
    • listening
    • communicating
    • encouraging
    • influencing
    • building partnerships
  • How well am I managing my mood and reactions?
  • How good am I at reading and interpreting the reaction of others?
  • How open and adaptable am I?
  • How self-aware am I?
  • What exactly am I being asked to do?
  • What’s the risk to me personally?  To my team?
  • What’s the ripple effect of that?
  • How confident I am in the initiative?
  • How confident am I in the people I’m dependent on to succeed?
  • What’s the opportunity?


After a leader goes through this assessment and gets feedback,  the answer to “Are you a great Change Leader?” will be clearer.  From there, it is a matter of continuing to use the Change Leader strengths that are revealed, finding just one thing to focus on improving.

An important element in this discussion is the use of the term, Leader versus Manager.  There is a broader discussion of the topic here, but in the context of becoming a great Change Leader, the use of “leader” is important.  To be sure, there is a role in managing change.  In fact,  an entire profession is driven by organizations like the Association of Change Management Professionals (ACMP) and the Change Management Institute (CMI)  that define the roles and responsibilities of a Change Practitioner.   A Change Leader is a person accountable for the success of an initiative.  Change Leaders define what success looks like,  and although they would be wise to rely on a highly competent Change Practitioner, they also need to contribute to the success of the change effort.  This is not something that can be outsourced or delegated.  Only the leader of the group can play the role of Change Leader.

One Thing

Being a Change Leader can be a daunting task but, with focus,  anyone can improve their competencies and become a great Change Leader.  To do that,  follow the advice that so many have given.  And focus.  Answer this question:

What is the one thing I can do to make my next change initiative easier?

The answer will lead to what you,  the aspiring great Change Leader, need to focus on next.  It might be valuable to find a Coach or Mentor to help guide you.  You can read more about the difference here.  Get regular feedback on how you are progressing and it will only be a matter of time before  you can readily answer  an emphatic, “Yes!” to the question, “Are you a great Change Leader?”



Edward L. Cook has over 20 years of leadership and analytical experience at Capital One and Corning as well as 10 years of experience as a navy pilot. Ed was mobilized by the US Navy and sent to Baghdad, Iraq where, as CDR Ed Cook, he worked in the Green Zone on the Commanding General’s Staff, at the time Gen. David Petraeus. Ed worked extensively on employment initiatives for the people of Iraq bridging across the US military, the US Embassy, and the Government of Iraq. For his efforts, Ed was awarded the Bronze Star. Ed has implemented large process and infrastructure changes. The culminating effort was in leading the program where Capital One built coffee houses (Capital One Cafés) across the country instead of traditional branches. Today, Ed is the cofounder of The Change Decision LLC, a change and culture consultancy focused on growing Joy at Work. Ed has a BS in Aerospace Engineering, an MBA, and holds a PhD in Systems Modeling and Analysis. He brings his expertise in Decision Analytics to the work of The Change Decision. Ed also employs his analytics expertise as a Visiting Professor at the University of Richmond in both the undergraduate and MBA programs.

Roxanne M. Brown has over 25 years of change experience with Capital One and other companies, focused on leader and team transformation coaching, large-scale change initiatives, culture strategy, communications and training. Roxanne has established a Change Leadership Community of Practice, helped implement the first change management practices, and set the program change management methodology and toolset for organizations. She teaches change management courses, leads discussion groups on the subject, and mentors practitioners. Her specialty is in creating high-performing teams by engaging the unique abilities of leaders and team members. As a result, Roxanne moves the organization beyond just implementation and into culture strengthening. Today, Roxanne is the cofounder of The Change Decision LLC, a change and culture consultancy focused on growing Joy at Work. Roxanne received her bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts, with a focus in Leadership Studies, from the University of Richmond. She brings her unique combination of leadership insight and coaching abilities to guide leaders through not only completing the change by improving their organization’s culture. She is also the past President of the Board of Directors for the Association of Change Management Professionals (ACMP).



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