10 Tips for Surviving as a Change Agent
Updated: Nov 1, 2018
For more than a decade I have been contracted by organizations to change the way they work, think, behave, deliver, market, and sell. Though the work is mostly rewarding, it is not for the faint of heart. Each change is fraught with its share of politics, anxiety, sabotage, and heartache.
This article is for all of the current and future Change Agents of the world. These tips come from many years of sleepless nights; anxiety filled days; many laughs, and numerous triumphs. Though the journeys are often rocky, the juice is always worth the squeeze.
1 – Come from a Place of Curiosity
Every client, event business is different. Though, the solutions to the problems are often the same. Over time you will become good at quickly identifying and solutioning organizational barriers. But, no matter how good you may be, it will serve you well to approach the new organization from a place of curiosity. Strive to understand the people, what motivates them; and the organization along with its history. No matter how good you are, your advice will fall on deaf ears until people know that you understand them.
2 – Meet Them Where They Are
Clients may be quick to acknowledge their issues, and even be ready to agree on where they would like to be. However, those changes do not happen overnight. After deciding on “current” and “future” states, work with the client to understand their appetite for change. Understand where they are, the politics and history that have brought them there, and together agree on an incremental path forward. For some clients it may be fast, others slow, but whatever the pace, accept that you can only change as fast they are willing.
3 – Embrace That People Will Be Mad At You
Change is hard, even when people agree they need to do it. Think of a personal trainer at the gym: the person you love to hate. You are essentially paying this person to yell at you, make you uncomfortable, and cause you pain (because you know it is for your good.) The same can be said for a Change Agent. People will be mad at you, people will not always like you, and people may not appreciate your efforts until after you have departed.
Suck it up, buttercup. Change is about them, not you. More often than not, the agitation is short-lived, and the joy of success far exceeds the short-term emotional tax.
Note: For me, this is the hardest part of being a Change Agent. By nature, I want to make people’s lives better (which is why I got into this line of work, to begin with.) As a young consultant, I suffered many sleepless nights wondering why people would get so upset when the work I was doing was so plainly focused on providing them with greater balance and productivity. It wasn’t for several years that I began to realize that the words people were saying mostly had nothing to do with me.
This video by Destin Sandlin solidified the complexity of change for me: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MFzDaBzBlL0
4 – Show Vulnerability
You are the evil consultant (or change advocate.) People will subconsciously believe that change is something you are doing to them, not for them. To level the playing field, it is vital to show vulnerability to those with whom you are working. If you open up to the people, they will begin to warm up, and eventually, trust you.
5 – Practice Empathy
Each person processes change differently, and there is no wrong way for people to feel about it. It is crucial for Change Agents to understand this, and not discount how anyone may be feeling.
In a recent acquisition, I was amazed by the efforts of a leader who openly, and without judgment, invited people to call him at any time, no matter what they were feeling, to discuss the change and how they were feeling. This sort of leadership is something that each of us can practice to both validate the emotions of others, and to help us learn how to better approach change based on their unfiltered feedback.
6 – Network, Network, Network
Your success in influencing change is directly correlated to the size and influence of your guiding coalition. Network, be authentic, build trust, and garner support. This will likely happen naturally as a result of practicing #’s 1 – 5.
7 – Sell The Wind Through Their Hair, Not the Convertible
I hate Agile.
Though, I am a consultant focusing on Organizational Agility.
Why do I hate Agile?
Because it has become a vehicle for argument, negativity, and a scapegoat among a host of business professionals. They argue about what it is, what it isn’t; what is pure, and what is bogus.
Frankly, I don’t care about the semantics of Agility.
What I care about is helping people communicate better, and deliver value to customers, faster.
Is the Agile cultural framework the vehicle? Yes. But I will rarely say the word.
8 – Never Stop Learning
No matter how much you know, regardless of how many degrees you have, there is always room to learn more. Always listen more than you speak, and always think before you speak. We all have unique circumstances, experiences, and knowledge that can help mold the way each of us feels about and approaches problems.
9 – Have a Sense of Humor
You have to be able to laugh at yourself. As a purveyor of change, you will absolutely become the proverbial back-side of many jokes and memes. Hey, they’re pretty funny. Maybe you’ll end up on Instagram.
10 – NO FEAR!
Be OK knowing that you may not survive the change. Do the right thing for the people, do the right thing for the business, and embrace that you will probably, at some point, fall victim to internal politics. Rest assured knowing that your work and efforts will live long beyond your exit.
Remember, this is about the people, not you. As long as you leave people in a better place, then you found them, your mission as a Change Agent was a success.