This weekend, I came across an article on Forbes that was so outrageous, it compelled me to respond. The blog by Liz Ryan was entitled, “Don’t Hire a Change Agent… and Don’t Be One.”
She described change agents as “henchmen,” “footman,” and “flunkies” to leaders, and described the need for change agents in organizations as “a hoax and a scam” and “nonsense.”
I’d rather not give attention to an article that is so ridiculous, but since she’s calling out my clients, colleagues, and me, in Forbes no less, I felt the article required a response.
The author offers two main premises for her argument: First, if a leader is a good leader, then they don’t need help leading change, and second, that change agents only serve to push someone else’s agenda, which they can’t do without name-dropping and fear mongering.
On the topic that good leaders don’t need change agents, she says:
The ‘change agent’ construct is a crock because if the CEO cares so deeply about this project, why can’t he or she manage the leadership team to make it happen?
First of all, a recent HBR article stated that Only 8% of Leaders are Good at Both Strategy and Execution, and only 16% were good at either one. Caring about a project is not the only prerequisite to making it happen, nor is trust as the article asserts.
Plus, change initiatives are complex projects that require more effort than a single leader can typically do on their own. If you want to give your project a better chance to succeed, you have to: assess the organization to see what needs to happen for everyone affected to adopt the change, help managers at all levels understand and accept their part in leading change, root out resistance and work with people to address their concerns, develop customized communications, ensure the structure, culture, and systems all support and don’t obstruct the change, determine how to equip, enable, and engage people to change and implement it. It can be difficult for an experienced change agent to do all that, let alone a leader with other responsibilities.
There is no problem getting people to change if they support the changes… The only changes people resist are the ones they feel are stupid.
People can still resist change even if they don’t think it’s stupid. Even if a change makes sense, there may still be fear, a sense of loss, or competency gaps, for example, that prevent people from adopting change. Getting them to support change is the hard part, and takes more than leadership.
Too many self-described Change Agents don’t realize that they are enablers for a CEO’s poor leadership.
On the contrary, the change agents I know are champions and coaches of good leadership! Many in leadership positions don’t naturally know how to lead change. Change agents are not crutches or go-betweens. We need leaders to lead in order for change to be successful, and we’re only effective when we help them do so.
On the point about change agents pushing agendas through fear, she tells the story of a conversation with one change agent who, when asked how he gets managers on board with his project, responded that he drops the CEO’s name and implies a threat if they don’t comply.
If that’s the definition of a change agent she’s using, then she’s right! She’s describing someone who does not know there are 98 other ways to influence people than relying on the authority of others to push it through. If this is your approach to change and you call yourself a change agent, please stop! You’re giving the rest of us a bad name and causing angst in your organization.
In the article, Ms. Ryan also denigrates change agents for pushing someone else’s agenda. The change agents I know aren’t trying to sell a predetermined solution. They work within organizations to find solutions that will achieve the desired results. Often that includes pushing back against leaders’ agendas when they’re misguided, or when they hurt the organization. Balancing in the space between meeting leaders’ expectations and standing up for the people who are going through change requires candor and courage.
Change agents – the good ones, at least – do the opposite of what Ms. Ryan describes. We strive to make sure people do not become victims of change and seek to increase morale through engagement and by building trust. Leaders can rely on our expertise to help them lead change, and it’s a mark of wisdom, not weakness, when they do.