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Motivation and Inspiration  |   Executives and Leaders

Leading From Within: 7 Traits of Successful Change Agents

Chris Marr

By Chris Marr

Sep 28, 2022

Leading From Within: 7 Traits of Successful Change Agents

Every year, businesses spend more than $132 billion on outside consulting services. It makes sense. Business leaders place great value on the wisdom of the outside expert who can help set strategic direction or point out shortcomings that suddenly feel blatantly obvious. 

But change doesn’t have to be led by an outside expert. It doesn’t even need to be led by an official “leader.” 

Across every industry and field, transformations big and small are led by internal change agents. Sometimes, these are C-suite leaders with recognized acumen. Often, they are not. 

After a dozen years of coaching businesses, I’ve come to believe that leadership can come from any position in an organization, from the corner office or the bottom of the ladder.

Change agents are optimists who see possibility and opportunity. But change agents are also realists who know that it takes time to turn a large ship. 

Effective change in an organization requires commitment, patience, and consensus. And those professionals who seek to solve, fix, or start something need to know the best way to be successful.

It starts when you choose to see yourself as a change agent. 

Seeing yourself as an agent of change

In her book Impact Players, author Liz Wiseman writes that the majority of workers are run-of-the-mill contributors. They do the job they’ve been given, wait for direction on what to do next, and when they encounter a problem that’s unfamiliar, escalate it to their boss to solve.

There’s nothing wrong with contributors. They help keep things running and get tasks done.

But, says Wiseman, contributors don’t see the world through an “opportunity lens.” They don’t set out to find better ways to get things done. They don’t set out to solve persistent problems everyone else has grown accustomed to dealing with.

The first step is choosing to see yourself as a change agent. Choose to be excited instead of threatened by complex problems. Choose to help instead of standing back. Choose action instead of complacency. 

What makes a change agent successful?

While change can be led from anywhere by anyone, there are some common characteristics that lead to better outcomes.

So, what makes a change agent successful? 

1. Change agents are likable

It’s a well-established principle of psychology that we’re more likely to say yes to people we like. When you’ve established common ground — and common objectives — with a person, that person will be more willing to agree to what you propose.

In a famous study, two groups of MBA students were placed in situations where they had to negotiate and come to an agreement with others.

In the first group, participants were told to get right down to business and start negotiations right away.

In the second group, the students were told to begin their meetings by exchanging personal information and looking for similarities and things they had in common.

Only 55% of the first group were able to reach consensus and make a deal.

For the second group? That number jumped to 90%.

Do you want someone to agree with you? Do you want someone to buy into your vision for change? Build a relationship.

2. Change agents are respected

To lead change from the inside, people need to trust you. They need to know that you fulfill your promises, that you’re reliable, and that you don’t lose sight of the goal. 

The best change agents have already established respected reputations within their organizations. They have built social capital through months (or years) of diligence and conscientiousness. 

And that respect can’t just come from below. Your manager, company leaders, your peers — respect from these people means even more. 

If you want to enact change, you need to be respected by the rank and file and the C-suite. 

3. Change agents make it easy to say yes

If you’re getting ready to propose something to your boss, make it easy for her to say yes. Anticipate objections and be prepared with good answers. Think through what her next steps will be and how you can make them easier. Be ready to accept feedback.

The more flexible you can be, the easier you make it to say yes, the more likely you’ll get stakeholders on board.  

4. Change agents start small

Change agents often have big ambitions and bold visions, but sharing too much too fast can prevent you from getting anything done. 

Part of making it easy to say yes depends on the scope of your initiative. Are you proposing a risky endeavor that’s going to eat up resources? That’s a tough sell. But if you’re talking about something small, you’re more likely to get a yes.

I’m not saying that you should pull back on your ambition. I’m simply saying that getting a green light for a large, ambitious project will be a lot easier if you’ve already proven the idea on a smaller scale. 

5. Change agents facilitate self-discovery

Building consensus is a delicate act. A long presentation about problems and solutions can come off as heavy-handed. As author Peter Senge famously said, “People don’t resist change, they resist being changed.” If you are narrow and preachy in the way you manage change, people will feel controlled and belittled.  

Instead, facilitate a discussion and allow other stakeholders to interact with the problem. Let them ponder. Let them debate. 

I coach leaders to start a meeting by saying, “I have a few ideas I’d like to share, but first I’d like to hear yours.”

This generates discussion and investment. What happens if someone shares the idea the leader had? All the better.  

If they come to see the solution on their own, they’re more likely to get on board. 

6. Change agents focus on the W.I.N.

In Impact Players, Wiseman writes that the most valuable workers know “What’s important now” (or W.I.N.) at their organization. If you’re a change agent looking to gain traction, be sure you’re focusing your efforts in the right direction.

What are your company’s major priorities this year? What are the major focal points? Make sure what you’re trying to fix, solve, or start shows that you’re putting your effort in the right area. You’ll get more people on board if you demonstrate that you’re not off in left field working on a pet project. Instead, you’re in the middle of things, making the work you all share that much easier.

And if you don’t know the W.I.N. for your boss or your company, that’s fine. Just ask. 

7. Change agents don’t initiate change for the heck of it

Remember that change can be difficult and frightening for many people, so it should not be undertaken lightly. Don’t push for change just to agitate or shake things up. There should be a purpose. 

When I lead an organization through change, I’m always sure that company leaders communicate what’s NOT changing. This way, people get a clear sense of what is staying the same instead of getting worked up by focusing on the unknown.

Change leads to success — or failure

We all know what it feels like when change is handled poorly. Bad communication makes decisions seem arbitrary. People feel blindsided by abrupt pivots. They fear losing the familiar way things were. 

As you approach leading any change at your organization, big or small, remember that pit-of-the-stomach feeling we’ve all felt. Remember that change can be uncomfortable for many of the people you work with. 

But everything good comes from change — and companies that don’t adjust course get passed by. Whether you’re changing the entire direction of your company or tweaking the way you run meetings, the tools you need to use are the same.

Start with the right approach and you’re likely to finish with success. 

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