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Published: November 25, 2008

 
 

Stand by Your Change Agent

A steering committee, acting as a kind of board of directors for the effort, is one device commonly used by paragons to ensure that adequate resources and political support from key stakeholders are devoted to the project. Paragons are also more careful to free their change leaders from other tasks, so that they can devote enough time to succeed in the assignment. And they typically select a top executive to sponsor the change initiative. By becoming invested in the change leader’s success and providing guidance, the sponsor increases the likelihood of a positive outcome for the project as well as maximum development for the leader. The change initiatives also provide significant development opportunities for sponsors, members of the steering committee, and members of the initiative team.

With such organizational support in place, paragons don’t have to put their most experienced people in charge of change efforts. They can use the opportunity to stretch their high-potential younger leaders, strengthening their talent bench, without fear that the project will founder. Paragons can proceed with greater confidence in general — about the success of the project, the retention of change leaders, and the development of talent.

Masters: Overcome Instinct
Despite their devotion to leadership development, masters tend to be enmeshed in a problem that has bedeviled leaders, consultants, and academics since time out of mind: Deep down, a great many people and organizations fear change. People do not like to move out of their comfort zones. Powerful institutional forces help maintain the status quo. In such companies, change simply has no constituency.

Perhaps that’s why change agents at master companies lack a broad base of support. Indeed, the most effective change leaders are very likely to be the biggest cultural misfits. Often blunt in methods, inattentive to social assimilation, and lacking in respect for the status quo, they can make enemies easily and may find their efforts impeded, undermined, or rejected outright. Change agents may also suffer from the delusion that others see the urgent need for action just as they do, and may be frustrated to dis­cover how little key stakeholders care about the initiatives and outcomes that they hold dear.

In the master companies in our study, only 28 percent of change events exceeded expectations, versus 85 percent for paragons. It’s possible that masters fail to exceed expectations simply because they don’t fully recognize that possibility. Leadership may be viewed in terms of running the everyday business, while change is seen as the domain of mercenaries and tacticians.

At one such company, a high-potential manager was asked to lead a change effort designed to implement a shared-services model for the finance department. The sponsors encouraged her, noting that it would be great experience and would broaden her exposure to top executives. Initially enthusiastic, she dug into the assignment. But along the way, the sponsors’ energies be­gan to be directed elsewhere, and with little support she lost her passion for the role. The task was completed successfully, but the rewards were few. She stayed with the company and subsequently moved up through the ranks, but avoided taking another change leadership role.

Compared to her counterparts at other companies, this individual was fortunate; 84 percent of the change leaders in master compa­nies ended up moving laterally or exiting the company. The loss and misuse of such leaders is especially ironic given the high value placed by master companies on leadership development. By failing to link leadership development with change, they often wind up with some of their highest-potential leaders hiding in plain sight — or fleeing to the competition.

To beat these odds, master companies need to consciously act against their own leaders’ instincts. They need to provide organizational support and career rewards to act as countervailing forces against institutional inertia. Instead of ap­pointing high-octane technicians — people with reputations for pushing projects through by bullying — as change leaders, these companies should select people with the temperament to be successful change agents within their company’s social structure. And they should support them with thoughtfully selected and genuinely empowered steering committees, plus high-profile, respected sponsors who remain committed to these projects for the duration.

 
 
 
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