The Great Change Agent Controversy

tumblr_static_2064Ok, so perhaps it’s not a controversy but Liz Ryan’s recent article in Forbes entitled, “Don’t Hire A ‘Change Agent’ — And Don’t Be One” has stirred up some passions in the circles I travel in, particularly within the Change Agents Worldwide community for obvious reasons. It has led to excellent rebuttals by fellow Change Agents (I wear that badge proudly) Jennifer Frahm (on LinkedIn), and Heather Stagl (via her blog), and probably more to come.

Despite disagreeing with most of Liz Ryan’s piece, I have to preface this by saying that I have a lot of respect for her, having followed her writing for a long time. She regularly shares excellent thought leadership on how to change our workplaces and management practices from the cold, machine-like model of the Industrial era to more human-focused ones. In fact – dare I say it – I consider her a Change Agent in her own right! Which is precisely why I found this piece so out of character.

Let me start with what she gets right. “If you really want change, then the change has to start at the top,” Ms. Ryan writes. You won’t find many change management practitioners arguing with this statement. For traditional top-down companies (an important caveat in a world that is seeing the rise of more and more non-traditional companies, e.g. holocracies) this is indeed the best way to make change happen. I won’t say ‘only way,’ since grass root, bottom-up efforts that influence the top are possible, just much less likely in rigid hierarchies.

But the operative term in her statement is “start at the top”. While change should start with the CEO (or division president or any leader of a unit that can make significant decisions without going higher up the chain), it doesn’t begin and end with her. Unless you’re talking about very small companies, today’s organizations are too big and too complex to let the responsibility for change sit only with the CEO/leader.

To agree with the argument in the Forbes piece, Ms. Ryan is asking her readers to make a considerable leap of faith between the point at which a CEO arrives at the decision to implement change and when the desire to go with that change actually takes hold of employees. Her assertion is that once a leader shifts their view (and listens to the calls for change coming from others), there is no need for Change Agents because suddenly “everybody is in the same groove” – as if the calls for change they listened to represent the universal desires of all employees! Anyone who has spent time in a large corporate environment knows that nothing is further from the truth.

Competing strategies, varied approaches to common issues, budget battles and more abound in large companies. These can all play havoc with a CEO’s change initiative. But more than these largely political games, the real fears and anxieties of employees who will be on the receiving end of the change, whether warranted or not, are what will derail even the efforts with the best of intentions. Employee concerns don’t just magically disappear because the CEO’s got her groove on!

If the CEO and the leadership team want the effort to succeed they better be prepared to focus on the people side of change, which means taking employees by the hand and leading them through the change process, which involves a lot more than selling an initiative. It’s one thing to create the desire in people to want to change to a new way of doing things and another to enable them to do that by helping them obtain the abilities needed to thrive in the new environment, i.e. new process, system, structure, policy, etc. CEOs and leadership teams alone can’t possibly do all of this, nor should they. They should set the right tone and help engender a change-ready environment through communications and sponsorship activities. Anything more is welcome, but not practical in our busy organizations. This is where Change Agents can play a vital role, by being the guiding hand that leads a cautious and stressed employee through the chasm of change and into a (hopefully) better place.

Change Agents inside of companies can take the form of both skilled change managers knowledgeable of the complexities of change, and enthusiastic employees (usually those who have made the leap on their own) embedded in the business that can provide the employee perspective and needed subject matter expertise (as related to the organization’s work). Both are needed since formal change managers can’t personally guichange-agent-badgede everyone. They need to rely on “deputized change agents” (or project advocates) who know and can empathize with the impacted staff. The combination of both types, executed within the framework of well thought-out “change platform” (a topic for another day), provides the support, assistance, and community environment needed for employees to collectively embrace a change.

That’s how I like to think of Change Agents. Not the Mafioso-type “corporate muscle” that Liz Ryan implied in her piece. They are not “footman” or “flunkies” for CEOs. Change Agents are generally passionate employees who care about their colleagues (or clients in the case of change consultants) and have a strong desire to help them through difficult periods.

Change Agents don’t push other people’s agendas or try to sell corporate initiatives like a Used Car Salesman. Instead, they gravitate towards those projects that they feel will make a difference for their organizations and for the good people working side by side with them in the trenches of corporate life.

Change Agents can see what a CEO cannot and use that perspective to lead change from within.

Change Agents don’t blindly follow agendas; they rally people around a shared purpose and show them how the change is aligned with it.

Change Agents operate from a position of trust (which, ironically, is what Liz Ryan says is the only way to push a strategy through), rather than fear.

You can find people in companies that do what Liz Ryan has described in her piece, but one thing’s for sure…they aren’t Change Agents.