Malay Karmakar / Mint

Malay Karmakar / Mint

Success Secrets | They see change coming & lead it home

Success Secrets | They see change coming & lead it home

What kind of person is a change agent?

—Anil Kale, Pune, India

Malay Karmakar / Mint

These days, it seems everybody has a view on what kind of person is best equipped to really shake things up. Count us in. Not on picking whether Obama or McCain is more likely to transform America; clearly both will, just in very different ways. But on what kind of person in general—and especially, what kind of person in business—has the qualities to really make change happen.

Because as your question implies, we agree that change agents are distinctly different from the pack. In fact, we’d estimate that in most organizations they constitute no more than 10% of all employees.

But that is getting ahead of the story. In our experience, the most effective change agents, tribe apart that they are, all share two main traits. They have official power. And they have fervent believers. Seem obvious? Perhaps, but consider this. Most of the questions we receive about change are from individual contributors usually deep within their organizations burning with a desire to improve things and frustrated with the organizational inertia in their way.

They want to be change agents—but find they cannot be. And they are right. We are not saying change has never been sparked by an otherwise “unknown" employee with a big idea. Nor are we saying that won’t happen in the future as company blogs and other forms of online social networking will increasingly give employees at every level a way to gather a critical mass in calling for change.

But as unfair as it may seem, and despite the gains of employee engagement, change today is still mainly made by the people in an organization with some sort of authority, be it running the whole business, a group or just a project team. It is driven by managers who have the platform of their “official" positions to advocate a new direction as well as the ability to hire, promote and financially reward others for embracing it.

Change agents, in other words, have to be leaders—yet not all leaders are change agents. As we said, a very small percentage of business people actually fall into this special category. The vast majority are “OK, let’s get on with it" types who will welcome and work for change once its purpose is explained to them, and perhaps 20% are resisters who will fight to preserve the status quo until the bitter end, which usually comes when the change agents in charge ask them to take their opinions out of the door. That kind of decisive move, in fact, brings us to another defining characteristic of real change agents. They have an extreme proclivity for action. They seem to understand that leading change can be messy, with few clear-cut answers about how events will play out.

They seem to understand that ardent and persistent criticism comes with any change initiative. Regardless, they forge into the fray; they are courageous that way. Don’t get the idea, though, that change agents are Lone Ranger types. Quite the contrary; the most effective change agents always have a strong core of supporters.

No doubt, along the way, they have learnt that no matter how big their “stick", be it a fat raise or a kick in the pants, change happens faster and deeper in organizations when people are authentically persuaded by its meaning and feel passionate about its success.

They want people to change, not to avoid punishment but to reap its great reward. And what is that reward? For some change agents, it is growth. Surely, that is what motivated A.G. Lafley as the CEO and lead change agent pushing P&G’s great innovation revolution over the past few years.

But for others, change is a reward in and of itself. Virgin’s Richard Branson, for example, has said he keeps entering new industries to keep work interesting for his people. To him, change is not just about economics; it is also about fun and excitement.

Our examples of the mild-mannered Lafley and wild-mannered Branson bring us to a final point about change agents in any line of work, political or otherwise: You sure cannot spot them by how they look. You can know them only by how they act. They see change coming and they want to lead it home.


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