Last week, I led a workshop about what it takes to be a change agent – one of my favorite topics – for an audience of Bay Area women executives and corporate attorneys. We had a lively discussion about the joys and journeys of change agents and by the end of the session, we’d come up with a few important best practices for successful change agents.
1. Seek Change Friendly Environments: At companies like Cisco, change is a way of life. The company regularly undertakes large layoffs and reorganizations, purchases other companies and promotes leaders from one division to another. You are rewarded for being someone who can readily lead (and adapt to) change. But largely hierarchical law firms are not as eager to institute major change – they rarely reconstitute themselves unless they are moving into a new specialty area — and they reward those who step one rung at a time up the promotion ladder. If you’re a change agent, you’re better off in a culture that embraces change.
2. Buttress with Best Practices: It’s easy to reject even good ideas for what needs improving if what is already in place is ‘good enough’. To push for change in long-established procedures, your best bet is to research what is being done better within a customer’s or respected competitor’s organization. Best practices that are well-established elsewhere are likely to carry more weight with upper management than just proposing a change not backed up with any data.
3. Find a Change Champion: Years ago, when I was trying to launch the first venture conference for women entrepreneurs – Springboard – I hosted an event to bring together the women venture capitalists in Silicon Vally in hopes of seeking their support. After giving my pitch, it became readily apparent that I did not have the support of my audience. Fortunately, one woman from the group stepped forward and took the microphone from my hand. She exhorted her colleagues to get on board with this new initiative and she proceeded to win them over with a combination of guilt and a focus on what was in it for them. Find your champion, preferably one from the community you are seeking to enroll in your ideas.
4. Hold Your Feet to the Fire: In a previous post, I spoke about the value of a mastermind group where you can test ideas. Another valuable strategy for change agents is accountability partners – people you meet with frequently who you give permission to kick your butt to get done what you want to get done. Change is hard and it’s easy to abandon your efforts part-way. Make sure they don’t let you off the hook.
5. Dive Into a New Community: One of the workshop participants shared her story of wanting to get back into music after many years of college, law school and beginning her law practice. After several years of making little progress towards her goal, by happenstance she connected with a few musicians who soon connected her to others and she has now joined a band and is practicing for her first gig. This new community allowed her to let go of her doubts and reconnect to what she loves. She knows this never would have happened if she’d remained surrounded by just her lawyer colleagues every day.
6. Avoid Change Whiplash: Overturning the status quo takes time for the change-initiator, but it also takes time for those who are asked to adapt to change. Recent research shows that most large companies undertake major change every 7 months but it takes their employees 14 months to adapt to any change. Over time, leadership becomes frustrated — not realizing that they have created the very circumstances that are now causing their teams to underperform. By slowing down, this research might suggest companies could actually go faster as they avoid giving their employees change whiplash.
7. Celebrate the Wins: Chip and Dan Heath, in their fascinating book, Switch: How to Make Change When Change is Hard, are adamant that you should always celebrate the small wins rather than punish the failures. In their videos (here and here), they talk about the importance of not wasting your time on trying to fix those employees who are at the bottom of the learning curve when a new change is adopted, but instead focus on those who are flourishing and figure out what they are doing so you can replicate it. Similarly, Stanford Professor B.J. Fogg, who studies how people change behavior, argues that you should start with very small changes and celebrate each time you are successful. By being the champion of the wins, you are more likely to be a change agent that others will follow.
8. Create a ‘No’ Committee: Most of us are so busy already that we don’t have time to lead a major change in our company or community. The first step is to stop saying yes to every request that crosses our desk. One participant recommended that you never say yes to anyone until you’ve had 24 hours to sleep on it. This also gives you more time to figure out how to say no. Another option is to create a ‘No’ Committee – 3-4 people who agree to review any new request that comes your way and help you decide what is worth your time. A majority vote is required before you can say Yes to anything. For some reason, it is easier to say, “Sorry. My ‘No’ Committee won’t let me take that on,” than just to say no. Besides, people love the concept of a ‘No’ Committee and they want to learn more about that, which helps them get over the sting of rejection.
Do you have any other recommendations for change agents? Or have you tried any of these successfully? Add your comments below. And forward this article to your favorite change agent. Hopefully they’ll find a few ideas to help them keep them moving forward.