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A Warning for the Change Agent

It's a Circus Without Sponsorship

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You have been placed in a highly visible role to bring about an organizational change.  As a change agent, you might be launching a new leadership development program, a process to increase efficiency, or an upgraded IT platform. The CEO publicly promises things on your behalf.  He tells the entire organization at a global town hall meeting that you will bring them to the promised land. Your name is mentioned at the company’s annual leadership conference in the “what’s ahead” presentation. The CEO invites you to a pool-side lunch at a business offsite as his senior staff looks on at your elevated status. Congratulations!  You are the CEO’s Shiny New Penny.   As you consider the unexpected limelight into which you have been placed, you privately revel in your career trajectory.  But watch out.  There is danger up ahead. You can still turn things around if you take head of my warning flairs from deep inside the rabbit hole that lays in front of you.

The Early Signs of What Can Go Wrong  

Through my sizable network of corporate professionals I have learned that even skilled change agents often fail once they have been handed the keys to the rusty gates of organizational change. Their efforts can follow a downward spiral of events that are masked in the fanfare of expectation. The events go something like this: At a kickoff meeting of the executive committee and CEO, they magnanimously offer you all of their support and resources.  You then painstakingly obtain input from each of them in 1 on 1 meetings.  While they each lobby for an approach that favors their own special interests, they agree to compromise for the broader good and approve and sign the plan. But the next few weeks reveal subtle forms of resistance.  No particular behavior points to sabotage by the senior staff but the aggregate becomes highly suspicious:

  • A pattern of rescheduling meetings
  • Delegating their sponsorship role to a non-influential junior staff member
  • Waiting for consensus before getting back to you
  • Disparaging the effort privately to their team
  • Expressing confusion regarding the plan despite the fact that they participated in designing and signed off on the plan
  • Claiming to have not seen the plan
  • Advocating for delay for any number of reasons including a possible M&A that never comes, or a stakeholder is leaving or about to come aboard

As you struggle to keep the project on track, you have observed some disturbing things about the CEO:  He is timid in the face of resistance.  He has delegated a person on his team as his proxy who privately takes issue with the entire idea of this change despite expressing approval in group meetings. Their suggestions are in contradiction of the spirit and intention of the CEO.  Inscrutably, the CEO has placed this obstacle in front of you.  Although the CEO asks you periodically for progress reports, he does nothing to counter any resistance and tells his team to work it out. You come to realize that the CEO is an outsourcer, a term used to describe a senior leader who feels they are no longer required to demonstrate sponsorship because they have delegated it elsewhere.

After months of no tangible progress, your slow decent to the bottom is almost complete. The CEO begins to look for reasons why the program is not further along and suggests that if you knew how to build relationships everything would fall into place. When you provide examples of how others are not cooperating, he deems your answers as “defensive”.

The rabbit hole is lovely, dark, and deep.

Why It Goes Wrong

You wonder how you went from CEO poolside lunches to the janitor closet in two years’ time.  You begin to think that you have not attended enough change management (CM) training.  Or that your careful approach with each executive committee member needed to be even more nuanced.  You might even be thinking that others could have done a better job.

I suggest that you pause your self-flagellation just long enough to consider the success rate of organizational change.  A recent Forbes article confirms the often contested statistic that 70% of change initiatives fail despite the best intentions (an inconvenient statistic for CM practitioners).  In the above scenario the obstacles were even greater because of the deeply flawed relationship between the CEO and the executive team.  In that environment, a change agent will become the lightning rod for every gripe they ever had with the CEO. To compound matters, the CEO was naive about his role as a sponsor.  Sponsorship for enterprise-wide initiatives cannot be outsourced to the CEO’s subordinates.  He needed to provide leadership by coaxing his team to leave their comfort zone for the greater good and not pretend to tie his shoe each time he met with resistance.

Why do CEOs engage is such ill-fated attempts?  It may surprise you to learn that even leaders experience mid-life crises, but of a corporate kind.  When they tire of themselves, they are not like you or I who might try something simple like redecorating our office or buying a smart new pair of shoes. Instead, they look to see a renewed version of themselves in the reflection of a shiny new penny.  It buys them time and allows the failed hopes of the CEO and the organization to be reignited with expectation.

Check for Vulnerabilities in Your Plan Before You Make Promises

If you have become the shiny new penny in a major change initiative, there are things you can try to take you out of the 70% crash zone.  First, be fastidious in CM best practices.  Even if you hire a CM consultant, you will need to be knowledgeable about the principals of CM to effectively manage them.  The change process has become its own industry complete with certifications.   A popular model known as ADKAR,  an acronym by the Prosci® organization,  represents the five outcomes an individual must achieve for change to be successful: Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability, Reinforcement”.  Under each category is a collection of progressively complex tasks that should be part of a good CM project plan such as risk assessments and communications. The caveat: You may not have the luxury of implementing a best practice plan given your organization’s limited resources or lack of patience. I enjoyed a large CM success in a global Wall Street firm despite not being able to fully execute ADKAR.  And sadly, I endured a CM failure in a smaller boutique firm despite following a rigid ADKAR plan.  What made the difference was the level of sponsorship at the top. The success story involved a CEO who, in reaction to the global economic crises of 2008, insisted that his senior staff act with urgency to remain competitive.  They responded by the pruningdead wood’ employees via a new stringent performance evaluation and reducing the inflated employee entitlements which had gotten out of hand over the decades.  All departments were given the tools to address the change, but there was nowhere for passive aggressive behavior to hide.  Whereas the smaller boutique firm, which at first glance should have been much easier to succeed in a CM program involving the roll out of a Talent Development program, failed because of inconsistent sponsorship at the top.

Because the lack of sponsorship is your biggest vulnerability, you will need to first focus on the person who hired you.  Coach them, and coach them again.   Let them know upfront that they can expect resistance to change in many forms and how they might handle it. Provide examples of resistance that are mentioned above. Tell them that complaints are not a sign that the change initiative is misguided.   Explain that people don’t like going out of their comfort zone, even when it is to their benefit.  The sponsor should also be able to define the problem that needs to be solved with the change, along with the benefits of its adoption, the consequences of its rejection.

Even with strong sponsorship in your corner, avoid acting in a way that breeds contempt of your efforts.  Don’t wield the CEO’s name like a hammer.  Befriend the line managers.  Don’t tattle on those not cooperating.  Instead, highlight participation in public reports.  Let the conspicuous absence of names in those reports do the work for you.

Being an effective change agent means possessing a deep understanding of the nature of resistance to change – including those who hired you to foster change.  Don’t relax your vigilance because of the magnanimous gestures of your stakeholders.  They are hollow without consistent sponsorship from the top.

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the NavigatorA Warning for the Change Agent
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Samuel Wineman
Samuel Wineman
5 years ago

I cannot comment on this subject subjectively since my experience has only been with smaller privately held companies where management personnel were the only stock holders. During the progress of our growth, we took over a firm that was well known but weak in business leadership. They had more titles among the top management than necessary. We wanted to maintain the staff because it was a personal service firm, ( Architectural Engineering) but we found out that any changes we tried to institute were well out of the comfort zone of the existing top leadership.Even though we held tie lion… Read more »

Change Agent 007
Change Agent 007
5 years ago

This is wise advice. I’m going to share it with my team. We are launching a change project and this piece is like a flashlight as you enter a dark room.

K Pearce
K Pearce
5 years ago

Sometimes this can be an uphill battle against stagnant corporate culture – although it’s obviously slow moving and resistant companies that need change the most. This is when the first two letters of ADKAR are important, even if the CEO has (sometimes reluctantly) called you in, re-enforcing awareness of the problems faced and making sure key employees have the desire to change is paramount. Though this may be easier said than done! Research into past problems the current culture has caused may be a way to show how your change strategies may work. Although, this will need to be approached… Read more »

Brad Graber
Brad Graber
5 years ago

In my experience, a weak CEO and poor sponsorship lead to failed change initiatives. So very on target. Sponsorship at the top is what it is all about. And not delegated sponsorship. Well stated, Navigator.

5 years ago

Love the article! So true! Look forward to your work!