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Ok, so what is a change agent and how do I become one?

These two questions came up in a recent conversation I had with a friend who was looking for a new opportunity. My answers based on my own perspective and experience, follow. They may not be textbook-correct, and I’d welcome discussion and debate.

What is a Change  Agent?

Change Agents are, simply, people within an organisation that have some formal responsibility for the success of a change or transformation. In that respect, they fall under the broad category of Change Leader. However, that’s not unique to a change agent. Let’s explore change leadership roles a bit further.


Change leadership roles

The first, and critical change leadership role is that of Sponsor. A Sponsor – or executive sponsor – should be the ultimate accountable owner of the change in question. Their role is to secure or provide resources, make strategic decisions and to remove blockages through their visible commitment to the change. At the executive level, the buck stops with them.

Change Agent

A Change Agent is likely to hold a line management role in a function or unit that is undergoing change, to which their role in the change is additional. (Of course, they should expect their time to be recognised and duties or objectives adjusted accordingly). They are less senior than, and work on behalf of, the sponsor to represent and support the change in the business. They are, therefore, expected to influence people’s mindsets and coach them achieve the business outcomes of the project. There may well be multiple change agents on a larger transformation programme.

Other change leadership roles

There are, potentially, other change leadership roles such as super users, who support the change through their role expertise and ability to support and influence their peers. Similarly champions may be supportive of the change but might not hold a formal role with responsibilities. All of this depends on context, including the scale and scope of the change.  Many different terms are used in this area, often interchangeably. As I said, feel free to disagree.

The principle difference between all of these roles and that of the Change Manager is that they are part of the operation that is undergoing change while the Change Manager is part of the project organisation.  This might seem like a semantic difference but it is highly significant. Change leaders have to live with the results of the change and they work with or manage the people that are directly impacted. Change managers, while they might be seconded from an operational role, may well move on to the next change project.


Change Agents and ‘change agency’

Going back to the conversation that I mentioned earlier, my friend’s desire was to play an active role in transforming a business. He’d actually been doing that to some degree in his senior digital marketing role, and wanted it to be a more central part of his next one. 

I expressed the view that he was already taking a change leadership role. The decision that he had to make was whether he wanted to transition from leading change from an operational position and join a change or transformation team. He was pretty clear in his own mind that he wanted the former.


are your change agents more jonny english than james bond?

Talk to us about developing change leadership.


So, how do you become a Change Agent?

First up, I’m not aware of anyone being employed specifically as a change agent (or leader). By that I mean that organisations don’t tend to employee people that don’t have more specific responsibilities for delivery, whether operational or project-based.  We talked about two ways in which my friend could take more responsibility for change from an operational leadership position.

The first is a position of trust that is generally earned over time – it’s about being asked. It wouldn’t necessarily be listed in the job description of the person’s operational role. A good change agent is positive and enthusiastic about the change, but is also respected within the organisation. They may not be the first people to put their hands up and might first need to be convinced of the value of the change, but once they are they can be relied upon. They’re not  “change junkies” who tend to be enthusiastic about change in general and might not be respected or reliable, moving on to the next new thing at the first opportunity. It is possible that a new starter might be thrust into the role of a change agent, but that would normally be down to necessity!

In the context of his search for another (relatively senior) job, we talked about another route. This involved him finding a role in a company where his role would provide him with the freedom to initiate change and take responsibility for its success. In other words, finding somewhere that he could initiate change without necessarily being asked!. If he wanted to be able to influence the broad direction of the business, then it wasn’t necessarily the role itself that mattered, but the culture of the organisation and the opportunity to lead change – whether formally or informally, within or beyond the functional role. In my last organisation, we used to describe that as ‘white space’.

In that kind of environment, I thrived on the freedom to step into some of the space between functional roles and responsibilities, and it led to two promotions and some great experiences. In previous organisations I had felt constrained, even suffocated, by the more formal structure and decision-making processes. Funnily enough, I didn’t progress there.


Change Agent or agent of change?


So, becoming a Change Agent may be about taking a formal role supporting a transformation project, but change agency doesn’t depend upon that formality.  It really does depend on whether you can find the right environment, in which you can influence events. Your influence may be based on many things, from your expertise to your ability to build relationships, but it means not waiting to be told what to do, being able to tolerate ambiguity, take responsibility AND take people along with you. It might mean also mean working within the prevailing culture while simultaneously pushing its boundaries, and working with people’s limitations (whether that’s ability or motivation) while trying to get beyond them.

Exercising change agency, in any guise, can be extremely rewarding, but it isn’t easy. It does require versatility – the ability to adopt different mindsets and pull upon a variety of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills to succeed.


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