In 2014, a former corporate executive wrote that “change management is the new requirement for leadership success.”1 The demand for key decision-makers who are willing and capable of tackling the change agent role is at an all-time high thanks to organizations’ shrinking competitive advantages.
Business leaders today need the circular vision to see around, beneath, and beyond the obvious to drive changes that improve performance, increase profits, or otherwise contribute to sustained growth and success.
But it’s not just C-suite executives and senior-level managers who can drive organizational change. Anyone who has the desire to become a catalyst at work can assume the role of the “change agent,” a title given to the individual who undertakes the task of initiating and managing change in an organization. Change agents have the drive, vision, and skill to facilitate the adoption of major strategic initiatives that can upset routines and business processes.
If you want to be the one who makes a difference—or helps make a difference—consider this primer on becoming an organizational change agent as your first step.
Qualities and Characteristics of Highly Effective Change Agents
First, let’s look at some of the qualities generally shared by highly effective change agents. Understanding how change agents think, act, and behave can help you develop the attitudes and qualities needed to help lead your organization through change.
- Flexibility – While change agents need to be disciplined in their approach, roadblocks and evolving priorities are par for the course during transitionary periods. That’s why change agents need the flexibility and creative instincts to respond to unforeseen challenges that arise.
- Patience – Organizational change does not happen overnight, which is why effective change management leadership requires enormous patience and perseverance on the part of the change agent.
- Intentionality – Change agents must be diligent if organizations are to complete a strategic initiative on time and on budget. Every activity relating to change management must be intentional and clearly contribute to the adoption of the new way.
- Confidence – Change agents need to have confidence in others to deliver, but also confidence in themselves. Leading individuals or teams through change can cause tension and stress, so agents of change need confidence in their vision as well as confidence in their role as mentor, facilitator, leader, etc.
- Communication – Communication is one of the key activities for change agents. They must get the appropriate message to the right person in a way that moves them towards the desired vision. Good communication eases tension and encourages buy-in among fence-sitters and “holdouts” (people who fight change every step of the way).
Growth and Development as a Change Agent
Project management, decision making, team building, process mapping — these are just a few of the skills inside the change agent’s toolbox. Jim Canterucci, a successful executive leadership advisor, developed a model of change leadership competency that is useful in identifying the skills practitioners need to develop in order to move up the spectrum and become successful change leaders themselves.3
- Level 1 – Accepts Need for Change
The Level 1 change leader is able to identify, describe, and persuasively defend the need for change within an organization. At this level, change agents are able to create an open and receptive environment to minor change initiatives when given clear direction and support from more experienced change leaders within the organization.
- Level 2 – Defines/Initiates Change
The Level 2 change leader is also able to identify, describe, and persuasively defend the need for a change, but can define a specific area where change is needed and identify the exact leverage points for change in specific work processes, habits, structures, etc.
- Level 3 – Manages Change
The Level 3 change leader is able to redirect individual and/or team approaches in the face of broad organizational changes. These change leaders can translate the vision of senior executives into the context of a specific change initiative that affects specific individuals, teams, or departments. Level 3 change agents ensure project success through the implementation of a well-defined communication strategy, refinement of work and organizational design models, and facilitation of staff development initiatives.
- Level 4 – Manages Complex Change
The Level 4 change leader expands on the change management competencies of those at Level 3 to create a strategic course of action for specific individuals, teams, or departments in relation to the cultural dynamics of the current state of an organization.
- Level 5 – Champions Change
The Level 5 change leader publicly challenges the status quo by comparing it to an ideal status or vision of change. These strategic change leaders support dramatic actions to drive dramatic organizational changes and are responsive to the sense of crisis or imbalance their initiatives may cause. Simply put, Level 5 change agents are capable of revolutionizing organizations.
Where do you see yourself on this spectrum of change leadership? What do you need to grow as an agent of change?