How To Lead Through Change: 6 Leaders Who Cracked The Code

It’s been said that if you want to change the world, you have to change the story. That’s why knowing how to lead through change is so important. True leadership isn’t always about providing a plan or a solution, but about changing the story, or providing a new narrative for change.

And in the spirit of that, here are six stories of leaders who helped their organisations navigate change. I hope you find them as inspiring as I did.

Why Change is Important

The saying goes, change is the only constant. In today’s world more than ever, change is constantly happening. Pressures from suppliers, consumer trends, technology, socio-economics and competitors have huge parts to play in how expectations shift and how businesses must change or die.

In recent times, we’ve lost Toys R Us, Walworth, Jessops in the UK, Pier 1 Imports in the US, Borders Book Store, and Sports Authority (US). These are a few examples of long established names that have bitten the bullet.

In tandem with this, even if you embark on change, it’s hard to get it right. A study by i4CP reports that only 15% of companies have admitted that their change program has worked.

Knowing how to lead through change is even more important nowadays than ever before.

Leaders who cracked the code

Whilst managers need to know how to lead through change, one key thing that can go missing is providing clarity.

Knowing what you’re trying to achieve, and then painting a story that is vibrant in the minds of others, whilst inspiring employees to change, are critical features present in many successful change programs.

Here are some examples of clarity, supported by excellent leadership.

Satya Nadella – A People-First Culture

One of the most positive impacts you can have when making organisational change a success is to move from a culture that doesn’t appear to care too much for their employees, to one that puts their people first.

Statistics show that creating a culture of empathy and care can have huge benefits to teamwork and making positive things happen.

Project Aristotle was Google’s exploration into what makes great teams. What it found was that successful teams aren’t necessarily made up of the smartest or most talented people, but instead are those with empathy and collaborative skills.

Their research identifies that teams that show empathy are much more likely to work well together and trust each other. As a leader, when people know that you care and are empathic, it’s easier to create a shift in policies, practices, and mindset.

If your employees are suspicious of your intentions, then it is near-on impossible to make change stick.

That’s one of the reasons why Satya Nadella (Then CEO at Microsoft) had such a resounding success.

In 2014, Microsoft was creaking. It had missed the mobile phone revolution. Windows 8 was a disaster. It had a bloated product line. It was losing to Google in search and its internal culture was built around protectionism amongst its existing brands, resulting in in-fighting and competition.

On top of this, people were fearful of making mistakes. There was a culture of employees coming up with ideas only to please their managers, rather than taking risks to make new ideas that may possibly fail.

At this time, Satya Nadella was named CEO.

What followed was nothing short of a transformation. Today Microsoft is a different company. It’s profitable for the first time in years.

It’s mobile.

It’s winning.

Nadella describes three challenges he faced when he had to lead through change as Microsoft’s CEO.

  • Challenge 1: Microsoft was a 1990s company in a 2010s world;
  • Challenge 2: Microsoft had lost its soul;
  • Challenge 3: Microsoft had lost its way.

Satya built change around his model of Concepts, Capabilities, and Culture.

He believed that Microsoft’s culture should embrace innovation, where employees should never be afraid to identify new concepts and capabilities.

He set about to change the vision: Microsoft’s goal was now to “Empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more.

Nadella then identified several key behaviours and values that helped reinforce this new change. These were built around the Growth Mindset, which reinforced that “We make mistakes, but we can do better.

Some of the other values were:

  • Strive to seek out differences, celebrate them and invite them in;
  • Truly understand and share the feelings of another person;
  • Aspire to create a society of respect and empathy.

The results: He turned around a 120,000 strong workforce from a products company mindset, scared to make mistakes, to a people company one, who must as part of their cultural makeup, risk things to be better every day.

Today, Microsoft is innovative and creative, with teams that work together internally for the benefit of the customer and society.

They collaborate across multiple platforms including with Apple, one of their major competitors, and have diversified to become a robust player in today’s world. This was created with Satyla’s story of Building People, not Products.

How to lead through change? Make your story personal to your employees.

Kelli Ward – Humility Through Vulnerability

Being seen as vulnerable sounds like a big risk and a no-no in leadership. But it turns out that it’s a startlingly effective way of leading with influence. Being vulnerable shows that you’re human.

It allows you to put your hand up and say, “I don’t know all the answers.” It also allows you to admit mistakes. To be humble. To be human.

Showing this side of yourself to your employees can often allow your team to empathise with you more and to rally around you to help fix mistakes that may happen.

Studies show that being vulnerable is important for today’s leaders. Employees want to work for an authentic company, that has good values, which empowers them and shares honest feedback.

Ultimately, a leader should be able to live their values in what they say and do. However, what often happens is that leaders think they have to be perfect and sometimes a hero.

But the truth is, being vulnerable is not the same as being vulnerable and weak.

Dr Kelli Ward had to work out how to lead through change in a way that kept her credibility in tact.When she became the chair of Arizona’s state Senate Republican caucus from 2012, she faced the real possibility of losing her seat.

But she tackled it head-on, and not only survived, but she also thrived.

Ward chose to be vulnerable, both politically and personally. She took responsibility for her failures, and her errors. She then put the focus on fixing these issues.

Many people would have collapsed under the pressure. But Ward used it to propel forward and to show that she could be a leader not just for herself but for her community.

She gained even more followers as her honest vulnerability paid off.

Steve Jobs – Inspiration Through Creativity

You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

You can’t change without risk.

You can’t grow without change.

A culture that embraces change is a culture that embraces opportunity.

If you can build a culture of innovation and continuous improvement, whereby people live and breathe new ideas, you’ll have a fluid and dynamic business that can respond to market pressures fast.

In this scenario, no one stands still, and change is embraced as the way things are done.

People become accustomed to it, which means very little time is lost to leading through change because it’s something you do daily. It’s the culture.

 How to lead change if you’re Steve jobs? One word: Creativity.

Jobs was often called a “visionary” and a “genius” by people who knew him and by those who didn’t. But Jobs was more than a visionary. He was a good leader, a motivator, and inspired his business to change through continuous improvement and innovation.

He was never satisfied with the status quo.

He constantly sought out new and better ways of doing things. He didn’t want to settle.

As he led within these values, it quickly set an imprint on his teams and the way they worked.

 Jobs believed that if you wanted to create something great, you had to constantly push yourself and those around you to do better, think different, and always take the next step.

Steve Jobs’ never settle attitude was a core part of his success in creating new ways to move forward, as well as leading his teams and consumers to new ideas, technology and expectations that Apple pioneered and brought to the market.

He was the master of innovation and made us all believe in magic. Apple has always been at the forefront of technology and this is no different today. With the products they’ve introduced, like iMac, iBook, iPad, iPhone and the Mac OX, Apple are worth over $1 trillion today.

His legacy in continuously challenging and relentlessly expecting improvement created the foundation for Apple’s presence today.

Tim Cook – Openness

When people feel like they can come to you with an idea, or have some sort of input into what the company is doing, especially during a period of change, it creates a sense of ownership in them that makes them more loyal to the company’s mission.

Besides, being an approachable leader is one of the best leadership traits you can have. There are many benefits to being open and approachable, including but not limited to:

  • better employee engagement;
  • increased morale;
  • improved creativity;
  • more productivity.

For example, a study by Joseph Swani and Peter Isherwood confirmed that having an approachable team leader in medical care teams, improved their performance.

Cameron Brown in his thesis confirmed that the big proponent of excellent leadership and team results is the ability to be approachable as a leader.

This is the approach Tim Cook adopted when he succeeded Steve Jobs at Apple. It was his plan that he devised on how to lead through change.

At the time, although Apple had already been transformed into a global giant, by his predecessor, Tim had the unenviable task of stepping into Job’s shoes and moving the company further forward.

It was not the easiest task; in his first year alone he took on the challenge of rebuilding iOS 7, which had been widely criticized as being stale and disappointing, while also suffering from performance problems. But despite all this negativity about Apple products under Jobs’ reign, Tim Cook managed to turn things around.

Cook has been described as not being driven by ego, but instead by the desire to develop others and for being approachable at all times. He made it his mission to be open and approachable, whilst he kept the strengths of Job’s creativity and innovation as part of the core culture.

Cook strongly believed in and nurtured this openness across the business. He believed in improving on Apple’s existing products – making them even better, whilst developing his people, too.

And whilst Jobs can be credited with building the success of the past, Cook helped accelerate that momentum to the point that Apple’s revenue in 2021 stood at over $1 billion.

Indra Nooyi – Sustainability, Talent Retention and a Better Society

Nowadays more than ever, employees are resonating with and following companies that have positive sustainable values.

Looking after the environment, saving resources, leaving the world in a better place are definite stories that resonate with today’s younger generation. It’s become a major talking point, from electric cars to carbon neutrality.

The new goal of becoming a socially responsible firm that looks after the environment and its people can often inspire employees to take action and work with this change.

This is exactly what Indra Nooyi did when she took over the giant corporation that is Pepsi-co.

In 2006, Indra Nooyi became its CEO. The company had been in a slump for years and she was the perfect person to turn it around. From her humble beginnings as an immigrant from India, she worked hard to get where she is today.

Her values and mission statement have helped shape Pepsi into what it is today – one of the most recognized brands in the world.

As part of her change during her tenure, she created the “Performance with Purpose” vision and it became her story of a better future for Pepsi-co and its customers.

She focused on long term sustainable growth, whilst leaving a positive impact on society and the environment.

In her interview with, she explains her vision in 3 parts:

“The first is human sustainability. How do we make sure that we provide products that range from treats to healthy foods and allow customers to make balanced, sensible choices?

The second element is environmental sustainability. How do we make sure that, as a company, we replenish the planet and leave the world a better place than it was when we began playing around with it?

The third element is talent. How do we make sure that people who work for PepsiCo are able not just to make a living but also to have a life?”

By leading with these values, she oversaw revenue growth. In 2006 when she was announced CEO, Pepsi-co earned around $35 billion. By 2017, the company’s revenue stood at $63.5 billion.

Roberto Goizueta – Leading by Example

Leading by example is a lost art in the modern-day. We have become so consumed with stimulating our employees, customers and stakeholders that we seem to forget that it’s not about us. It’s about them.

It doesn’t matter how many awards you receive or how much money you make if your company fails because of poor leadership. The only thing that matters is results and the ability to lead your teams by example, to achieve success.

Leading by example is one of the most important traits a leader can have. It is not just about what you say, but how you do it too.

The best leaders are always willing to put themselves in uncomfortable situations and work hard with their teams no matter how tough things get.

This can prove an important influential factor in leading people through change – simply living by the values you set and the vision you describe.

We’ve talked about the importance of this in several guides like using the ADKAR Model, and leading by example, but bringing people along with you by doing things that you ask of others, can sometimes be largely all you need to do to gain trust and make change happen.

This approach was perfected by Roberto Goizueta of Coca Cola. The company was nearing bankruptcy in 1985. Goizueta, who had a long history with the company, stepped up to lead it and he led change by revitalizing sales through marketing campaigns like “Coke is it!”

In his 28 years as CEO, Goizueta transformed the company from near-bankruptcy to one of the most valuable global brands on earth.

His legacy is not just reflected in his iconic brand but also in how he led change at a time when there was so much uncertainty.

He was determined to do what was right for the company and his customers. He led by example, and his employees followed: From how he dressed  to how we presented himself, he saw himself as a custodian to the Coca-cola brand.

His guiding principle was “I am what I do.” He had a presence, and he so avidly lived every day by the values of Coca-cola, so much so, he influenced his employees to do the same.

Under his leadership, he expanded Coca Cola’s presence around the globe. Today, 80% of all revenue comes from the international market. Coke’s market value went from $4.3 Billion to over $150 Billion, too.

How to Lead Through Change? Tell Your Story

Sometimes, a story needs a little reinvention. And sometimes, the best path forward is to just start over.

And if that’s the case for you, create your own compelling story. The story should consist of:

  • What the grand vision is and why you are doing it (Set the Vision);
  • Get clarity in terms of how to work with each other (Set your values).

Then tell it in a way that motivates and moves people toward the new end goal, proceeding to lead the values you preach.

It’s not easy.

But if you try it — at least for a little while — it can be extremely rewarding. 

And it can change the way you lead your organisation for the better.