Do They Really Want a Change Agent?

For the past 18 years, I’ve been a change agent in small and large companies across multiple industries, in both start up and legacy environments. “Change” is a concept that Boards of Directors and senior-level executives often talk about, especially when facing disruptive technology, changing market dynamics, or fundamental business shifts. They recognize that their companies and industries must change to survive, but having to change and wanting to change are two different things.

A change agent is someone asked to fundamentally alter the strategic direction of an industry, company, division, or team. The changes aren’t expected to be superficial or simple. They’re expected to bore deep into the way a company or organization currently does business. Strategies will be affected in profound ways. It’s not an incremental change; it’s a big-picture change. It’s not evolution. It’s revolution.

Confronting such a situation, virtually all senior-level executives believe they have laid the foundation for change before hiring a change agent. They believe they have communicated the “change must happen” message, and that they have alignment within the leadership team and the larger organization. They believe that is enough. Unfortunately, it is not.

Most senior executives know things must change, but are unprepared for the sweeping changes that must happen to right the ship. They hire a change agent to right the ship, shift the strategy, and change the business model. Then, most often, they disappear once the change agent is hired and wait for things to fall into place. They completely underestimate the tide of resistance across the board—from the trenches to the top levels of the organization—for any kind of sweeping change to take place.

Organizational resistance comes primarily from two sources—employees in the trenches and the very senior-level executives who hire you. Most employees don’t assess the company’s future prospects in the same way senior executives do. And, it’s natural to believe that other teams or departments need to change, while seeing one’s own as properly functioning. And senior-level executives are often the most resistant to doing things differently, especially if they have had long tenure within the industry or company.

So, if you’re hired as a change agent, what can you do? There are five basic steps you can take to help increase your chances for success.

1. Organizational inertia is normal and you will be working against it.

Humans resist change even when all parties want change; it’s rare when all parties want change or want the same change. The fear of the unknown and the comfort of what is known keep most organizations resisting the very change they hired you to do. Most stakeholders will be comfortable with “incremental” change, which are small steps that may improve the short-term outlook, but do nothing to lay the foundation for the future.

The media industry provides great examples of this fundamental resistance to change. Advertising is the cash cow within media companies. Yet at the very time web-only advertising needed to take front and center, most media companies refused to establish web-only sales team, allowing the legacy sales team to “up-sell” ads to the web as “value add” or free advertising. Now that the media audience is shifting more and more to the web, it’s difficult to establish value for web advertising in the minds of advertisers. Media executives also failed to prepare for the change in price points—traditional media is more expensive than digital media. The audience is shifting and the ad dollars must follow, but that dollar is not as “rich” in the digital world. That means media organization must restructure from the bottom up to survive and the new business model is not yet clear.

2. You will spend more time convincing the very people who hired you to make the changes they hired you to make than you will spend competing in the market.

When (not if) the going gets tough, your cheerleaders (the people who hired you) will pull back and wait to see what happens. It’s the old “sink or swim” mindset. You will meet resistance every step of the way at all levels of the organization, and must be prepared to patiently and painstakingly educate the organization about why change is important, how it will help the organization, how it will work, and what the outcomes will be. You must have a good team in place to implement the new strategies while you’re removing obstacles within your own company. Most of your time will be spent building bridges, repairing bridges, communicating, communicating, and communicating again.

“We don’t do things that way,” is a refrain I’ve heard in media companies, integrated digital agencies, and pure-play Internet companies. People grow comfortable with what has worked in the past. That’s normal. It’s what helped them to succeed. I once consulted to an integrated digital marketing agency that refused recommendations from the interactive team on process changes, competency changes and the need to put interactive teams in place rather than account teams to gather digital requirements. This agency had done many things the right way—it had an interactive vision that had been communicated and embraced by the larger organization, but the leadership team could not get out of its own way to allow the newly hired interactive experts to make the necessary changes in a timely fashion.

3. Before taking the job, interview as many people in the organization as you can in order to get the lay of the land and understand the company’s cultural dynamics.

Interviewing with multiple levels and functions of the organization will provide insight into just how big the job is and how much of a foundation for change has truly been put in place. Ask direct questions about change and assess both the verbal and nonverbal responses and attitudes. It also will help people know you and give them some responsibility for hiring you. The more people who “vote” to bring you on as a Change Agent the better.

For one company who was seeking a senior-level digital media executive to start, manage and create profits for a new web-based division, I spent five months interviewing with number of people across the organization—individuals in the trenches, at the top, and at my level. I had a great feel for the culture, the commitment to change, and the challenges of the position. The company had a great feel for me. It was a great fit and we had great success.

For another company I interviewed with the CEO and with the hiring manager only once. Both knew me from my industry experience and results. And, a former colleague now worked at the new company. Because I did not insist on interviewing more deeply within and broadly across the organization, I did not know how profound the resistance to change was. While the division I created gained great traction and was producing positive results, the resistance to change to was too great to overcome. The head of the company “disappeared” when change became unpopular. Without support from the top, no one can effect change.

4. Don’t rush change.

Resist the inclination to hit the ground running. Instead, spend time at the beginning of employment establishing trusted relationships with key stakeholders. Listen to their ideas about what change needs to happen and why they believe change is important. Don’t let Executive teams give you unrealistic goals and deadlines. They will try because most wait until the last moment to take steps toward change and often are operating under an unrealistic sense of urgency. Commit to assessing the situation and making initial recommendations for strategic change after you’ve taken time to build key relationships and gain trust from key stakeholders. You will need their support and voice going forward. A stakeholder who believes you are implementing their change ideas is an extremely powerful ally for getting the job done.

The same media company I signed on to after a short interview cycle expected immediate changes—they did not take the time to lay the foundation for separating the legacy sales team from the online sale team. No amount of communication after the shift could repair the damage done. And, the executive team expected cash flow positive in the first year. In my experience, net profitability in a new enterprise requires an 18- to 36-month timeframe. The first year requires initial investment in new competencies and infrastructure. The legacy business wasn’t built in 12 months. There is no reason to believe the new business line will be.

5. You can’t “rob Peter to pay Paul”.

Well, you can, but you won’t succeed. If a legacy business team or division is asked to make cuts before a change strategy and new business model have been established which show improving margins and ROI, they will fight you for the money. Change requires shifting money within the organization, and there is a right way and a wrong way to approach the financial dynamics. Again, taking the time to lay the groundwork is important. It’s important to know that if the company doesn’t follow the market and the audience, the business won’t exist and no jobs will be safe. It’s a balancing act.

Remember, having to change and wanting to change are two different things.