Blessed Are the Change Agents
Years ago, an agency asked me to define its target buyer as part of a brand repositioning. My client wanted to do business with companies eager to innovate. I recommended that my client stop thinking of its buyer in terms of a formal title such as CMO and instead seek out a persona I referred to as the change agent — which I described as a leader who is in a position to effect behavioral change needed for a business to grow and innovate. Find the change agents, I reasoned, and you find the wellsprings of innovation inside a company.
So I read with interest a new report from Brian Solis, The Digital Change Agent’s Manifesto. It turns out that over the past few years, Brian has been interviewing about 30 change agents (with a focus on digital change agents) to better understand them — and to provide a road map for change agents to flourish.
Brian’s report is a revelation. Here is a report that helps businesses identify change agents inside their own organization and set them up for success. His report is also a rallying cry for people who believe they are change agents or on the path to becoming one. Brian maps out the attributes of a change agents, calls out stumbling blocks to success, and identifies 10 mandates for change agents to prosper. Although he focuses on digital change agents — because of the distinct challenges and opportunities digital presents — the report is a manifesto for change agents of any type.
Why You Should Read Brian’s Report
Business leaders should read Brian’s report for one simple reason: at a time when digital disruption has become the norm, companies that can find and support change agents more quickly than their competitors will possess a distinct advantage. Companies that fail to nurture and support change agents will lose these visionaries to someone else who can. And change agents don’t exactly walk around wearing “Ask Me about Change” buttons. In fact, they might be flying beneath the radar screen, by choice. Brian’s report will help a C-level executive find and uplift them.
What Is a Digital Change Agent?
Brian defines digital change agents as “individuals who share a deep expertise and passion for digital and are ardent advocates of its potential to help their companies compete more effectively.” Digital innovators usually become change agents, per se, because either someone appointed them the role or they simply started a grassroots effort for a company to adopt some form of digital transformation. Although there is no single type of digital change agent, they usually progress along this path to maturity (in Brian’s words):
- Digital/innovation advocates: Individuals who are passionate about digital innovations actively spread the word about its potential to colleagues and executives.
- Digital executives: Individuals who are tasked with heading digital efforts in specific roles, groups, or business units and are motivated to expand their insights and efforts within their sphere of influence.
- Aspiring leaders: As digital/innovation advocates and/or digital executives realize that their expertise can be productive and beneficial to the rest of the organization, they learn to navigate corporate relationships better and become skilled in the art of managing-up and managing-across to rally support and collaborate with others.
- Experienced digital transformers: Those aspiring leaders who master the art of change management, over time, are sometimes promoted to leadership positions to help bring the right people together and align everyone’s work toward a mutually beneficial and productive charter of digital transformation efforts.
A Fifth Level
I would add a fifth level: post-digital leader. These are individuals, probably at the C-level, who are helping companies make change an everyday norm inside their companies — to the point where “digital disruption” becomes standard operating procedure. Digital is embedded in everything the company does. The businesses are adapting to completely new business models that or may not be centered on the digital experience. Examples of these leaders:
- Mary Barra. The General Motors CEO is pushing GM into the embrace of self-driving cars among other cultural transformations.
- Reed Hastings. The head of Netflix makes transformation the norm, first turning Netflix into a movie streaming service, then a content creator, and now a seller of branded merchandise, as well.
- Doug McMillon. The Walmart CEO has overseen the adoption of mobile, ecommerce, and new on-demand services such as Pickup and Fuel stores.
- Ginni Rometty. IBM’s CEO is leading the company’s development of artificial intelligence-based services.
An even more refined type of change agent is what I call a market maker. Market makers aspire to do something even more ambitious: change behavior. For example, Jeff Bezos is a market maker because Amazon is largely effecting changes in the human/machine interface via voice assistants. For more about market makers, read this post.
The journey of a change agent is a difficult one. They face multiple challenges including resistance to change and political land mines. They learn on the fly the leadership and change management skills needed to overcome those challenges. But they all typically possess the ability to take on the following informal functions to navigate the human aspects of change:
Note that these characteristics require an interdisciplinary person who possesses the ability to both gather data and humanize it through storytelling. They also build influence and relationships — which come from human-centered skills.
Brian cautions change agents to tackle obstacles ranging from self-doubt to fear as their careers progress — fear in themselves and their colleagues.
“Change agents must manage these colleagues’ fears by communicating clearly that the risks of not doing anything are greater than future-proofing the business through digital transformation,” he writes. “They must assure these colleagues that they and executives have their backs.”
He identifies four principal challenges and write bluntly about them. He acknowledges candidly that if you are a change agent, you’ll face “opposition, roadblocks, and even sabotage.” The reasons are understandable albeit not defensible: people feel threatened by change. Perhaps that’s why one of Brian’s main recommendations for change agents is that they get leadership support. Even better, leaders should find change agents and support them.
“[O]ur research suggests leaders should identify them, seek them out, and empower them,” he writes.
A Manifesto for Change
But change agents can improve their chances for success — for themselves and their employers — by taking 10 essential actions, which Brian refers to as a manifesto for change:
For example, Mandate 3, “lean to speak the language of the C-Suite,” means engaging in storytelling and translating technology and digital change into everyday language, among other actions.
Learning to speak the language of the C-Suite is essential for getting the C-level buy-in that change agents need to thrive. On the other hand, Mandate 5, “spread digital literacy,” is about helping everyone else in your organization (and beyond) understand the skills they need to make the transformation to digital change.
These mandates, by design, are interdependent. To spread digital literacy, you need to master Mandate 4, which is to make allies.
As I read these mandates, I was struck by how many of them involve bridge building and people management. The Steve Jobs of the world, who succeeded by fiat and force of will, are not practical models upon which to prosper as a change agent. Change agents succeed more often through finesse and nuance.
To Brian’s 10 mandates, I would add a few more:
Build a Personal Brand
Change agents should act like one-person brands. They should know what they want to stand for and define a brand strategy for delivering on their vision.
Let’s say you’ve decided you want to build a personal brand around augmented reality because you believe in AR, and you believe your company should embrace it. Your personal vision might be, “I’m going to be the one who leads our charge into AR.” Then, like any brand, you should define your key messages (justifying why your business needs AR) and your approach for delivering that message, such as your company’s thought leadership, PR, social media, events, and internal communications mechanisms. Most large companies have these corporate brand-building mechanisms in place.
When I worked at Razorfish, Shiv Singh (interviewed for Brian’s report) and Ray Velez were masters at personal brand building although they might not have used the term “personal brand building” when I worked with them. Shiv was passionate about immersing Razorfish in social media at a time when agencies were still figuring out how to build services involving social. Ray was passionate about technology enabling innovation, especially cloud computing, befitting his role as chief technology officer. Both Shiv and Ray understood how to tap into Razorfish’s marketing and PR functions to advance their visions. For example, Ray worked with me to launch a report on the technology catalysts for innovation, and Shiv collaborated on a similar report about social media. They both spoke at the Razorfish Client Summit, the company’s flagship event, contributed to other forms of thought leadership, and became visible as spokespersons via PR.
Personal brand building is not about stroking your ego. It’s about understanding how to harness your own influence to achieve a vision. It’s about investing in thought leadership skills such as speaking and writing — which, if you open your heart and mind, require tremendous personal humility.
Empower Your Own Team
If you enjoy any degree of success as a change agent inside a large organization, chances are that you’ll be assigned more responsibility in the form of a team. Or perhaps you envision yourself running a team and would like to have that responsibility. Being a change agent means going beyond managing a team efficiently; being a change agent means empowering your team to start acting like change agents, too — which is espeically true of digital because digital ushers in change faster and more urgently, requiring fearlessness, confidence, and self-empowerment.
Change agents who lead effectively do more than manage budgets and complete performance reviews on time. Great change agents like Tari Haro of Cars.com create a vision and then empower their teams to dream big and perform big. Throughout her career, Tari has mastered the art of inspiring teams to go beyond their day-to-day jobs and embrace the new and unknown — behaviors that foster real change. In fact, she’s the only person who ever worked with me to design my own job, which happened at agency iCrossing — perhaps the ultimate act of empowerment. She emboldened me help take the iCrossing brand into new territory, such as cobranding the agency with a musician (which was a risky move) and combining influencer outreach, social media, and thought leadership (which many agencies take for granted today but did not when we worked together). And now she’s applying her approach of personal empowerment at Cars.com, where she’s leading a transformation on the company’s business-to-business side.
Empowering others to embrace change is perhaps one of the toughest mandates for change agents. Other people on your team might not share your vision. They might be afraid. They might resist. And as a change agent, you may need to have tough conversations with your team. You have to help people realize that with change comes discomfort — and that it’s necessary to become comfortable with discomfort. Tari Haro does all those things and more.
Power to the People
The Digital Change Agent’s Manifesto is about personal empowerment: empowering yourself to grow as a change agent, and empowering change agents in your life to succeed by understanding them. Change agents may wear capes like the superhero depicted on the cover of the report. But they are human. And they need uplifting. Find them and help them. Your company’s future may depend on the digital change agent.