7 lessons from a decade and a half as a change agent

Mastering the "Art of Change"

Why is the term "change agent" increasingly relevant in today’s context? Considering the environment we operate in with rapidly changing technology, turbulent economy with an increasing pressure to do more with fewer resources; competitors becoming partners and ever demanding customers who want their demands met faster, cheaper, better. The pace of change is accelerating and corporate reorganizing and downsizing is becoming an annual affair.

This is our reality.

In this world, leadership success belongs to those who can keep a work force resilient and engaged while dealing with a tsunami of change, complexity and chaos. I have lived as a professional change agent for a decade and half and this is what I have learned in my journey.

Being a change agent can be HARD work

Lesson #1: People are more important than strategy

Organizations develop well-crafted strategies that emphasize the urgency for change. Leaders hone their presentation skills to deliver those strategic messages. But organizational change efforts fail more often than they succeed and rarely because of poor strategy.

In fact it’s almost always a "people" issue. If the individuals in an organization don’t agree with the stated rational, if they haven’t been involved in developing the strategic plan, and if they don’t trust the messages they hear from leadership, there will be no successful change.

Lesson #2: Emotion has more impact than logic

Employees need to understand the marketplace realities that are the driving forces of change. They need to know the consequences of not changing. And they need to hear the answers to questions about how changes will impact them personally. What specifically is changing … and what isn’t? What’s in it for me? How does this affect my job and my security? What new skills will I need to learn?

But . . . what matters more than the facts alone is the ability to place those facts into a meaningful context and to deliver them with emotional impact. That is why leaders who tell stories are such powerful communicators. Stories create the context, give facts meaning, and speak directly to the emotions.

Lesson #3: Your behavior is more persuasive than what you say

As a communication coach, I help leaders find the words that inspire, enlighten, and transform people. But nothing is more depressing than watching executives struggle to convince an audience with rhetoric that runs contrary to observed leadership behavior.

If the stated message is "Let’s all collaborate!" and employees see that senior leadership doesn’t work well together, then the collaboration message hasn’t a chance. Or as one savvy executive put it, "What I do in the hallway is more important than what I say in the meeting."


Lesson #4: Informal networks are more influential than formal communication channels

We will always need and value authentic speeches from senior leaders, well-written and well-researched articles in newsletters, and first-line supervisors who are first-rate communicators. But organizations are a mixture of hierarchical structure and informal networks, and the approaches such as executive speeches, articles and first-line communication utilize only formal channels.

None of them deals with the complex web of social interactions and informal networks that are the conduit for up to 70% of all organization information. Grapevine communication is faster and more influential than formal communication. Too few leaders are aware of the power of informal communication or have a strategy for gaining grapevine support.

Lesson #5: Nonverbal communication is more powerful than verbal communication

Traditional explanations of human behavior in the business world presume that employees are influenced most by words used when a change is announced.

Instead, the key to successful change communication may be found in the kinds of signals ordinarily overlooked, especially tone of voice and body language.

All leaders express enthusiasm, warmth, and confidence as well as arrogance, indifference, and displeasure through facial expressions, gestures, touch, and use of space.

Your words can address the rationale behind change, but your body language connects with your audiences at a subconscious and emotional level. That’s why successful leaders recognize the importance of everything that isn’t being said, but is being communicated.

Lesson #6: Choose your leader for change carefully

Change is never easy and the failure rate can be high. Top management must take a hard look at the candidates for change agent positions. If none of the in-company candidates closely match requirements of the job, then a search outside the company is required.

Once an organization finds the right individual to be its change agent for a project, management has one more commitment to make – assuring the change agent has between 50 and 100 percent of their work time available to dedicate to the success of the initiative.

Lesson #7: Hire your change agent on the basis of attitude, knowledge and skills

When assessing potential candidates for roles as change agents, three questions need to be asked: Do they have the right attitude? Do they possess the appropriate knowledge? And do they have the necessary skills? Here is an exploration of each of these questions:

The Right Attitude: Change agents cannot succeed without persistence. Change is a complex and labor-intensive process that arouses feelings and emotions. Angry people, frustrated teammates, conflicting priorities, unforeseen problems and behind-the-scene resistance are typical daily challenges.

Project leaders or managers cannot lead teams through these difficulties without determination and stamina. To avoid changes in leadership in the midst of change, change agents must be fully committed to see projects through to completion. A good way to ensure such commitment is to appoint ambitious and enthusiastic individuals who have potential for career advancement within the organization.

Appropriate Knowledge: Project sponsors should be seasoned change agents with a general understanding of the business. However, project managers should be subject-matter experts in their respective area of responsibility. Having someone with excellent project management skills is simply not enough. They will crash due to lack of detailed understanding of the subject area. Expertise also brings the credibility and respect needed to succeed in their role.

The Necessary Skills: The pressure on the project leadership can be tremendous. Change agents have to be able to operate during times of instability and uncertainty. They have to manage conflicting priorities, multiple constituencies and fast-approaching deadlines. They are responsible for guiding the organization through the numerous challenges of transition. Therefore, in order to survive, change agents must possess the ability to remain highly effective under intense pressure.

But what do you think? What lessons have you learned during your time as a "change agent"?