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By E. Kirby Warren

Until recently, change--particularly in the way complex organizations were led and managed--was a relatively slow process. Recognizing what had really changed typically took years in terms of determining its true nature and how long its results would last. This happened before the pendulum usually swung back to restore an only slightly modified version of traditional techniques. Perhaps changes in leadership and management in the past 5 to 10 years will prove as dramatic and lasting as they now appear to have been.

Over more than 30 years of observing, teaching, and consulting, I have never read of or participated in what seem to be such significant changes. As a result, my focus has been on change agents who have enjoyed success. How do they differ from those who slip from leadership roles into the vortex of change and are pulled down by, or flung out from, the organizations they seek to alter?

Those who have enjoyed the greatest success have had the following attributes--intelligence, common sense, high energy levels, willingness to work hard, and good timing. They have also enjoyed a measure of good luck. Some add to this personal charm or even charisma, while others simply have extra levels of drive and desire.

The Successful Change Agent

Five related attributes need to be developed, nurtured, and--most importantly--balanced with other potentially contradictory attributes.

A successful change agent must--

* increase dissatisfaction with the status quo and lead the search for frame-breaking quantum change. Incremental change may be too late to capitalize on opportunities created by competition. Such change is far too easy to stop and even reverse.

* strengthen your ability to meet resistance or rejection by your determination to persist. Many people fear or resent the "waves of change." Their fear will often focus on you and your efforts, rather than on the changes you champion.

* continue to seek greater empowerment for yourself and those around you. Seek more freedom to decide and act; not just to recommend or persuade. Good decisions will have shorter lives in terms of offering competitive advantage. Such decisions must be made faster than hierarchical coordination and bureaucracy permit.

* build your lateral as well as your vertical leadership skills. Learn how to lead without formal power. Such leadership is the key to using empowerment. More of your work will be undertaken by teams: fluid teams, spontaneous teams, those which will seldom be coordinated or led by those with formal power.

* develop your self-assurance by seeking and facing situations others fear. Don't confuse self-assurance with bluster or bravado, however. Develop and exhibit through what you do, not what you say or how loudly you say it. Show self-confidence by taking reasonable risks and seeking to learn from your mistakes, rather than passing the blame.

Successful change agents cultivate these five skills. At least as importantly, however, they have recognized the need to balance each of them with awareness of and skill in their opposites.

To succeed as a change agent, you must also--

* balance dissatisfaction with the status quo with recognition that there are elements of the present which people have reason to value. Identify elements of the current environment which must be protected, nurtured, and built on in times of change. Don't let the need for change blind you to valid bases for past pride which can represent keys to a successfully changed future. This applies to people as well as to organizational core competencies. However, some sources of pride are past the time when they can be used as building-blocks for the future. These outdated accomplishments and those who created them do not necessarily need to be "destroyed" to make room for your visions. Remove them, but find appropriate repositories for them.

Praise and celebration of past successes are necessary precursors to smooth change, and the underlying talents which created them may represent the building-blocks of successful new programs.

* balance your persistence and strength in meeting resistance with patience and recognition that those who fear and resist change have a right to these feelings. Give them time to adjust to their losses. If you don't do this, your logical arguments will fall on deaf ears; your visions will be wasted on those affected by fear and resentment. You cannot wait forever, but respect for these feelings will accelerate the change process. The alternative--hasty "elimination" of those
who fight change--will cost you
dearly in terms of "underground" resistance and lost loyalty, experience, and wisdom.

Your quest for greater freedom--greater empowerment to decide and act--must be balanced by willingness to impose and accept reasonable constraints. There is no freedom without constraints, only license. Seek clarification in relation to which decisions you can make. Pursue timetables for adding to them, but first accept legitimate limits, measures, and controls which provide those who empower you with the means to assess your ability to use your freedom. They will grant you more as your performance demonstrates your ability and integrity.

* balance your pursuit of lateral leadership skills with learning how and when to be led. Just as you seek to lead without formal authority, your success with teams will be based on your ability to be led when others have the information and skills the situation requires. When adding to their communication skills, most people seek to learn how to speak or write more effectively, and neglect the most important communication skill--effective listening. Your ability to become a more effective leader depends greatly on your ability to learn how to listen, and when to be led by those who lack formal authority over you.

* balance your increasing self-assurance with trust and mutual respect for others on whom your individual and collective success depend. Mutual respect and trust may sound "soft" but they are not; they are built on knowledge and direct experience. Cross-training and first-hand experiences build such trust and respect. Self-confidence will take you only a certain distance unless it is balanced with your ability to earn the trust and respect of others. This means direct contact with them and collecting enough knowledge of what they do to assess how well they do it.

Tomorrow's Leaders

Successful change agents will be tomorrow's leaders. Their success depends on many old-fashioned skills which have been learned and nurtured. They need to make a conscious effort to balance the drivers of change with the enduring values and skills which offer stability and continuity. *

Professor E. Kirby Warren is director of The Management Institute at Columbia University and Faculty Director of New Zealand Institute of Management Executive Programs.

Reprinted by permission of Chartered Accountants' Journal, April 1997.

Michael Goldstein, CPA
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