By Sumantra Sengupta
Calling yourself a change agent is cool. Who would not want to be known by that moniker? If you are not a change agent, then you are just part of an engine — a cog in a wheel. That is probably not something that you want to openly admit — even if that is what you are or prefer to be.
So, we are now surrounded by these agents of change — just like we are surrounded by leadership coaches and consultants. Everyone is changing something, and yet many businesses and organizations are barely able to maintain status quo.
Over my professional career, I have spent a significant portion of my time working with companies that are at various inflection points. The one constant about being at an inflection point is that there will be change — hopefully positive in most cases. I have gone in-house to help drive the effort, held interim roles at some places and served as an adviser or consultant to the team actually doing the work for others.
As always, there are no silver bullets, but I have found that successful change agents tend to possess varying elements of the four Es:
• Ability to enunciate: In order to even start a change process, one must clearly enunciate the overall plan, the end goal, the need and, most importantly, what is in it for me. Change agents must be able to clearly enunciate in words and on paper for the eco systems that are going to feel the impact. They must keep the document updated, comprehensive and very easy to explain and understand. Even in the most complex changes that I have been part of, I could easily capture the most important elements on a single sheet of paper, granted it may have been 11 by 14.
• Ability to be empowered and empower: If someone asks you to drive change or help drive change, the first thing you must look for is the level of empowerment that is being offered and what you will offer the team. No one can do it all and if they think they can, then I suggest they apply for superhuman status. The biggest mistakes happen when the change agent does not have real authority or is micromanaged at every step by the layers above. Driving change is a symbiotic process that has the most sustained impact when it seeps through the organization and everyone is empowered to make an impact.
• Ability to endure: Making sustained change takes time. It is not just a slash-and-burn effort. During the process, people will come and go. Leadership may change, and the objective may need to be tweaked. Additionally, the change agent is rarely the popular kid on the block. In fact, it is quite the opposite. In most cases, the change agent is the one getting “shot” at by the layers of organizational inertia and the we-don’t-need-to-change agents. You must have a thick skin, a somewhat blasé attitude within parameters, and the skill to make the attacks “impersonal.” As I often say, it is just business.
• Ability to execute: When all is said and done, if you are not able to execute your plan in an orderly and sustainable fashion then the entire process is going to be yet another academic exercise. The agent must have somewhat of a bias for execution, and in order to do that they need to possess the right credentials. The best agents are the ones who have had their world changed or pivoted several times in their career. If you have not changed yourself, why should others listen to or follow you?
• Sumantra Sengupta is director of the MBA programs at the California Lutheran University School of Management.