Agents of Change

Stephen DeAngelis

October 23, 2008

Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, and his wife Suzy, former editor of the Harvard Business Review, write a weekly column for BusinessWeek in which they answer selected reader questions. A reader from India asked the provocative question: “What kind of person is a change agent?” [“What Change Agents Are Made Of,” 20 October 2008 print edition]. The Welches thought this a particularly relevant question since both major U.S. presidential candidates are trying to paint themselves as agents of change. Their short answer (and sub-title of their column) is: “[Change agents have] power, vision, and support — which may be why they’re rare.”

 

The Welches must expect dinner invitations to the White House from whichever candidate wins the election since they claim either of them is likely to transform America — just in different ways. Then they get to answering the question more seriously when it comes to change agents in business.

“Count us in on the debate about 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, change agents are distinctly different from the pack. In fact, we’d estimate that in most organizations, they comprise no more than 10% of all employees. But that’s getting ahead of the story. Before you can even talk about the characteristics of true change agents, you need to acknowledge the single, critical trait they all share: power. Seem obvious? Perhaps, but consider this: Most questions we receive about change are from individuals deep within their organizations, burning with desire to improve things and frustrated with the organizational inertia in their way. They hunger to be change agents, but worry they can’t be.”

I don’t disagree with the Welches on their first point. It is obvious that in order to be a change agent you must have the power to make changes. Although the Welches later point out how important a supporting team is to implementing change, they seem to undervalue how important a team can be from the very beginning. I believe that people with vision and people with power can join together to create change. A lot of other business people must think so too because they spend a lot of money hiring consultants to help them create a vision. The Welches report that occasionally change percolates up from the ranks, but not often.

“By and large … change is still made by people with some sort of authority. It’s driven by managers who have a platform to advocate for a new direction and the ability to hire, promote, and reward those who embrace it. Change agents in business, in other words, have to be leaders. And yet, as you know, not all leaders are change agents.”

As noted above, authority is not the only essential trait needed by a change agent. The Welches go on to discuss three other traits.

First, true change agents see a future no one else does, and that vision won’t let them rest. They don’t lead change because it ‘makes sense’ or because change is ‘necessary.’ They lead change because they believe their organization must get ahead of an approaching ‘discontinuity’ in order to survive and win. In some, such foresight can present as a kind of paranoia. But most real change agents don’t get that rap. Typically, they’ve risen through the ranks because they’ve seen around corners before, and they’re recognized for what they are, serial visionaries.”

I think that it’s important to note that a change agent must be able to see the vision clearly that he (or she) wants to attain, but he (or she) doesn’t necessarily have to be the one that comes up with that vision. The reason I insist that this is important is because a leader who only pursues visions he (or she) creates risks falling into one of the biggest obstacles any business can face — the “not invented here” syndrome.

“Second, change agents have the courage to bet their careers. Some leaders will sit around all day talking about the future and how the organization might adjust for it. True change agents are willing to take bold action—and accept the consequences. They know that leading change can be messy, with few clear-cut answers about how events will play out. They understand that pushback accompanies any change initiative and that they will take the brunt of it if things go wrong, termination included. That doesn’t stop them, either.”

That short paragraph doesn’t do near the justice the topic deserves. When one talks about change agents, the reference is almost always to people in established organizations. Entrepreneurs are change agents of a sort; but since they are generally pursuing their own dream from scratch, they face a different kind of pressure than those laboring in established organizations. An entrepreneur, almost by definition, bets his career on the venture he is pursuing. In his famous book The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli wrote about how difficult it is to change an existing organization and why one must expect to put his career on the line to effect change:

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”

In order to overcome the resistance noted by Machiavelli, the Welches discuss the importance of a team of supporters that can help push change forward.

“Finally, change agents have something about them that galvanizes teams and turns people on. Perhaps the biggest misconception about change agents is that they’re Lone Ranger types. In fact, the most effective change agents have a fervent core of supporters, cultivated through intensity and caring. No doubt, along the way, change agents have learned that whether they deploy fat raises or kicks in the pants, change happens faster and deeper in organizations when people are emotionally engaged—and they have a knack for making that happen. In the end, you know a true change agent when you see their people buy into a change effort not to avoid punishment but to reap its great reward.”

In other words, a good change agent must be a good communicator. Supporters must not only hear and understand the vision, they must embrace it. They conclude they column by describing what constitutes the “great reward” of change.

“For some change agents, it’s the organization’s survival. But for many others, it’s not nearly as dire. It’s growth, and all the good things that come with it: more and better jobs, new products, global expansion, not to mention their byproducts—excitement and fun.”

Successful entrepreneurs are lucky in that they get to see their visions become reality and get rewarded in the process. Change agents who labor in larger companies and who must contend with those who are satisfied with the status quo face a difficult battle and often must try to surge forward while fighting attacks from the rear. Those two-front fights can get bloody and can sap the momentum from change if the change agent doesn’t persist until the end. Nothing is more rewarding, however, than to see a vision blossom into reality.