Tilting at Windmills: Change Agents in Business

When I was at one of those crossroad moments of my life my Uncle bought me two tickets to see “Man of La Mancha” live on stage in Boston. Even as a 16-year-old raging-hormonal heathen, the message of fighting the good fight for justice and fairness was not lost on me. I like to think that at a time when I was seeking direction in my life, this beautiful play and its stirring message played not too small a role in guiding me in my choices. Flawed as I may be, I feel that I am better than I would have been due to the message of this play. Years later, after I had acquired some practical lessons in life, I saw some of the flaws in the play’s message. The formula for maturity: one part optimism and one part idealism, mixed in with equal parts realism and acceptance of my own limitations?? that’s life’s cocktail (served with crushed ice and a slice of orange, but don’t even think about the little umbrella). The main character in the play was driven mad by his inability to deal with the issues of life and the general state of affairs in the world in which he lived. The shame was that with his wealth, power, and influence as the owner of large tracts of land, he could have affected some levels of change. Maybe ending world hunger and bringing about an end to human injustice was beyond his influence, but some meaningful successes on a more limited scale could have prevented him from going insane and brought some good to those around him?? certainly enough good so that at his death his Dulcenaia would not yet again be alone, impoverished, and at the mercy of a cruel and judgmental world. And this has what to do with human resources and staffing, you ask? Change is that element of business that comes as the result of changes in environment, technology, culture, resources, knowledge of rising moral imperatives. Change made child labor laws, five-day work weeks, paid holidays, and other fundamental improvements in the workplace occur. A change agent is the person who actually stands up and says, “We need to do this,” and creates the energy that brings that change about. In matters concerning the human dynamic within our organizations, we should be the “change agents.” Every community has a population, and so does that of a change agent. Before we discuss the strategy and challenge of managing change, let’s see who else you will find in your “village.” Because it takes a village to make change (sorry Hillary). The first basic population breakdowns are the three levels of involvement a person can have within the change process. Visionary This is the legendary position awarded to a person recognized for creating and bringing to the forefront fundamental and monumental change. This person is a lot more involved in change than those debating whether to include their names and emails on recruitment advertising or working on new “cost per hire formulas.” But there is bad news as well. For every acknowledged visionary there are scores of “wanna-bes,” trampled by bad ideas, bad timing, or bad execution. Sometimes the acknowledged visionary was more the better marketing guru than inventive genius. Each new concept can only have one visionary, no shared credit in this game. Example: A visionary looked at the data of the aging workforce and the extended life of its parents, and realized that child care was not the only issue facing the future workforce. Elder care would rise as an issue, and a company’s ability to maintain a competitive recruiting edge for the “best and brightest” would hinge on this issue. The visionary saw it before we even knew it was there. Change Agent This is the person who exists in any organization that hopes to move forward and avoid stagnation. They champion new ideas, concepts, or ways of thinking and work to bring these new concepts into practical reality. Change agents risk the security of their careers, as they may well often find themselves introducing change that is not readily accepted. But those who manage their role well enjoy careers that are enriched personally and professionally. Even organizations that are reluctant to accept change are aware of the inevitability of change and welcome those who can manage change successfully, or at least introduce change as inoffensively as possible. Example: A change agent would read about providing onsite care for the elder parents and dependents of employees, see the sense in it, and begin to plan on how to introduce the concept to her current employer. The change agent did not think of it, but she embraced the logic of it due to her ability to see beyond what is universally accepted. Functionary This is the purely mechanical role of doing the work needed to perform the functions required in the business world on a day-to-day basis. This person’s only involvement with visionaries or change agents is in being handed the work to manage after the dust has settled and the change is accepted and acknowledged as part of the daily business world. Example: A functionary will explain, supervise and make workflow recommendations for an Employee Elder Dependents Care Program. The functionary would never recommend implementing one, but would have ideas on how to make the form to apply more readable. There is honor and fulfillment in each of the above roles. Visionaries see the need; change agents find a way to implement that change; and functionaries bring the reality of that change into your employees’ daily existence. Change: The Supporting Cast Now, just as the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the path of a change agent is lined with spectators?? some of them helpful, others harmful, but most inert. But knowing who they are and how to manage them in the change process is a critical success component.

  • Joe Automatic. Joe will always have a negative knee-jerk reaction to any change. He is the person whose ego or sense of self-preservation is totally wrapped up in maintaining the status quo. He is so fearful of his inability to learn new things, he clings to the old ways to prevent their being revealed as incompetent. Joe is the one shaking his head within the first three sentences of your presentation for a new concept. Don’t take it personally, he probably took three months to warm up to the idea of using half and half instead of light cream in his coffee. It isn’t you he dislikes, it’s change he fears. Joe Automatic can wreck your efforts even before they begin. In planning your change efforts, dealing with him in private can often defuse his negative input. But left unidentified and unresolved, Joe and his cousins comprise the minefield you must walk to create change.
  • Larry “My-Ball-and-Bat.” Lord help you if you are recommending changes or improvements in an area Larry considers his own. Larry thinks about “turf battles” as most of us think about protecting our children, with an almost primordial drive. You may want to seek Larry out to “help” you work out a few ideas. Inclusion will resolve his fear of exclusion. He hates surprises, especially the ones that occur at meetings populated with other people.
  • Barbie Bigger-Issues. Barbie will always oppose recommendations for change because, “We have bigger issues to deal with first.” Nothing ever gets done, because nothing is big enough to actually be a bigger issue. You have to be able to infuse your ideas as part of a greater whole to win Barbie over. Whatever it is you are proposing, make sure it is presented as “Phase 1” or “The Initial Effort.”
  • Winnie Weather-Vane. If Winnie sides with you, you are in. Because there is no way she risks being on the losing side. Survival by remaining nameless is her only career ambition. She votes in favor of an issue only after the majority has already cast their ballots in favor. Winnie will never be a threat?? that would require speaking out. But there is little or no reason to invest time in winning her over to your cause. When it is obvious things are going your way, she will join. Winnie and her ilk make great barometers.
  • Jerry Joiner. Jerry comes on-board any effort, because that is what he does?? for everybody, for every issue. I suspect Jerry Joiner is a social animal and hopes that by always joining he will not miss any good parties. But Jerry can diffuse a good effort due to his reputation for not being selective. He lacks depth of conviction, and therefore should be given a less visible and critical component of a change effort. Have him make coffee and distribute copies, but never make him one of your spokespeople. He will easily be convinced to join the other side of change as yet another opportunity to join a “bigger group,” and hence the potential for a bigger party.
  • Corey Corporate. Corey still thinks that “what’s good for General Motors is good for the U.S.A.” Your recommendation for change had better have the corporate logo all over it and be presented with the corporate anthem playing in the background. (What, you don’t know the corporate anthem? Well, Corey does, you can be sure of that!) Corey will only look at change from the perspective of the existing corporate culture. If he sees your change as placing that culture at risk, you have lost his support.
  • Sally Social-Worker. Sally will embrace all change as long as it appears to be the “good and decent” thing to do. A project to reduce paperwork will have to include a paper recycling project, the proceeds of which should be given to either Greenpeace or MADD. Both worthy causes, but people become weary of Sally’s tendency not to see the bottom line as the real issue in business. As righteous as Sally’s ethics and goals may be, the goal of a successful change agent is to bring about real and fundamental change. If you take Sally as an ally, you run the risk that your recommendation will be ignored as just another “social project” and not business relevant.
  • Stew Skeptical. Stew does not oppose change, but he is always concerned whether it is the right time, the right place, the right plan, the right team… If you look up “vacillation” in the dictionary it says, “…see Stew.” Stew will challenge your patience as he comes up with yet another far-fetched scenario where your change could place the company at risk if on the same day the building were to catch fire during a flood while planning a RIF while the parking lot was being plowed…
  • Billy Bellicose. Billy doesn’t like you. He never did, never will. If it is your idea, it stinks. He would refuse your offer to give him a kidney because even if his tissue did not reject it, he would. You can only hope to manage Billy’s opposition to your plan, not overcome or eliminate it. When you accept the role as a change agent, you also accept giving your enemies another target to aim at.
  • Barry Bean-Counter. Business is all about money, as Barry will remind you, unless you work for a non-profit, in which case it is only 85% about money. All ideas must conform to the bottom line. That is a reality that will not change for quite some time (no visionary I am aware of working on that one). Failure on your part take this into account is not Barry’s fault, it is yours. You know he is there, so plan your change taking Barry into account. Change can be fundamentally good and moral and still have a positive impact on the bottom line. Find it or you will never get Barry’s vote.
  • Freddy Fan. Freddy is your bud, your companion, your shadow. In seeking help in planning to implement change, do not confuse his blind loyalty for real assistance. There will be plenty of time for pats on the back AFTER you succeed. Change agents need realistic allies who will find fault and thereby aid in finding workarounds and alternative solutions. Freddy is useful as a vote, but less useful as an ally. If you really need reinforcement that badly, buy a puppy.
  • Laura Leach. Laura will take recommendations and other ideas from other people and put her own spin on it. She’s likely to reprint an idea in its original form with her name on the letterhead and submit it as her own. You just have to be better, and smarter, and faster to overcome Laura’s efforts to steal your work and ideas to claim as her own. You must also learn not to broadcast your thoughts before you are ready to deliver action. On the bright side, plagiarism is, in its own way, a compliment.

Being a change agent requires, first and foremost, a decision on your part to want to effect change and to be seen as such by your peers and business partners. Change agents who manage the process poorly run the risk of being seen as nothing more than troublemakers. If you fear your ability to manage the process of change without risking alienation, then you should avoid any effort to force you into that role. But if you enjoy risk, working without a net, angst, self-doubt, potential failure, and never being totally accepted as “one of the gang,” it is a rewarding and fulfilling role to seek in your career. But a change agent must never forget that no one will ever benefit from their failing gloriously. It is better to succeed at many small victories than to be defeated constantly seeking a truly “impossible dream.” Next week: planning change. Have a great day recruiting!

Ken Gaffey (kengaffey@comcast.net) is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services (www.cps.ca.gov) and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE, Monster.com, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.

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