A component that is critical to driving everything from process optimization to altering the mindset of the people whom the change will surely affect is the team of employees chartered to help the organization navigate through this often challenging journey. These change agents are leaders in their organizations, free of hierarchical bondage, and are often able to move across a multitude of departments, business units, and divisions in search of simpler processes. They are highly motivated and well-trained employees and absolutely key to implementing better procedures for the maximum output from any organizational investment in limited resources.

Pick this team for their technical skills alone and, in many instances, they will fail. Pick them for their tenure and knowledge of the organization, and they are likely to come up short. Pick a team wholly cut from the same cloth (with similar psychological or behavioral profiles), and they are likely to dismiss those who bring different perspectives in regard to a prioritization of strategic initiatives. They will miss critical components necessary for a successful transformation of the organization. Pick them carelessly and the cost will not be too dissimilar to that of a bad executive hire – at least 10 to 12 times their combined annual salary. And that doesn’t take into consideration the corporate reputation and perceived inability of the leadership team to assign a competent, credible, and emotionally intelligent team to lead the very change communicated to be strategic to the organization’s future.

Consider, for example, a manufacturing client that assembled a team of change agents to drive its lean-operations initiative. The group reported directly to senior executives and was staffed with a team of young, energetic, fresh thinking new hires – real innovators. Unfortunately, senior leadership failed to recognize the covert and overt pushback by the business units’ NIH (not invented here) culture and silo mentality.

As a result, operations managers with very real organizational power felt invaded by “a group of kids who simply didn’t ‘get’ how we do things around here.” The management team was left with few choices other than to abandon the change initiative after just a few months. The change agents did not focus on fostering strategic relationships – those that could influence the broader mindset and help position their great ideas as, “a fresh set of eyes on a stagnant industry and its complacent workforce.” They did not establish themselves as trustworthy in combining their credibility (knowledge of highly efficient and effective processes, combined with empathy) with the value of experience from a highly tenured team. Trust leads to candor; candor leads to prudent risk taking; risk taking leads to innovation.

Our experience with a variety of organizations that have succeeded in crafting and executing real change suggests that it is critical to have strategic and intentional relationship development competencies of a carefully constructed change agent team. Three essential components include:

  • Quantifiable impetus for change and the opportunity cost of status quo – To understand the essence of why we must change, people must believe in the real, financial impact on their lives if they don’t embark on this journey. Without that understanding, the idea of change itself will seldom strike the necessary chord to move. Another fundamental challenge is that of the status quo, which does not represent alternatives to change, but rather the most destructive option of all – that of simply doing nothing. Unless the opportunity cost of the status quo is likewise presented in real dollars and cents, very few will want to move away from their current comfort zone.
  • Careful recruitment and development of the change agent team – Clearly articulating the benefits and opportunities team members will receive because of nontraditional career paths, particularly when selecting high performers already well-respected within the company, sends a clear signal that management takes the program seriously. This group must possess the raw analytical power to solve complex business problems as well as highly astute interpersonal skills, including empathy, strong communication skills, perseverance, and creativity in the face of challenge or ambiguity. This is particularly critical when dealing with conflict. They must be constructive and aim to strike a balance between young MBA types and seasoned managers with proven track records within the organization.
  • Close relationship development and nurturing between the change agent team and the influential members of the organizational areas targeted for transformation – Alan Weiss has often coached me that, “With eighty percent completion of anything – move. The remaining twenty percent seldom matters.” By developing a close working relationship with the shop floor, your buy-in rate as a critical success metric for real change increases exponentially.

Encourage open, candid communication that keeps key influential team members actively engaged in the change process and involves them in complex problem-solving sessions. This helps build personal connections to and ownership of the solution. Testing proposed ideas and making iterative modifications creates small wins, which can be transformed into standard tools and processes and can serve as an enabler, not just inciting change, but to leveraging relationships to overcome barriers to lasting impactful change.


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