What Change Agents Are Made Of

They've got power, vision, bravery, and supportwhich may be why they're rare
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What kind of person is a change agent?Anil KalePUNE, INDIA

Apparently, any person running for President! Change-Agent-In-Chief is a title claimed by both Barack Obama and John McCain, setting off a veritable firestorm of debate about what kind of person is truly best equipped to shake things up.

Count us in. Not on picking whether Obama or McCain is more likely to transform America; both will, just in very different ways. But count us in on the debate about what kind of person in general—and especially, what kind of person in business—has the qualities to really make change happen. Because, as your question implies, change agents are distinctly different from the pack. In fact, we'd estimate that in most organizations, they comprise no more than 10% of all employees.

But that's getting ahead of the story. Before you can even talk about the characteristics of true change agents, you need to acknowledge the single, critical trait they all share: power.

Seem obvious? Perhaps, but consider this: Most questions we receive about change are from individuals deep within their organizations, burning with desire to improve things and frustrated with the organizational inertia in their way. They hunger to be change agents, but worry they can't be.

They're right. Sure, a transformative idea can percolate from below. And yes, gains are being made with employee engagement, especially through online forums. By and large, however, change is still made by people with some sort of authority. It's driven by managers who have a platform to advocate for a new direction and the ability to hire, promote, and reward those who embrace it.

Change agents in business, in other words, have to be leaders. And yet, as you know, not all leaders are change agents. Which brings us to three other traits that strike us as essential:

First, true change agents see a future no one else does, and that vision won't let them rest. They don't lead change because it "makes sense" or because change is "necessary." They lead change because they believe their organization must get ahead of an approaching "discontinuity" in order to survive and win. In some, such foresight can present as a kind of paranoia. But most real change agents don't get that rap. Typically, they've risen through the ranks because they've seen around corners before, and they're recognized for what they are, serial visionaries.

Second, change agents have the courage to bet their careers. Some leaders will sit around all day talking about the future and how the organization might adjust for it. True change agents are willing to take bold action—and accept the consequences. They know that leading change can be messy, with few clear-cut answers about how events will play out. They understand that pushback accompanies any change initiative and that they will take the brunt of it if things go wrong, termination included. That doesn't stop them, either.

Finally, change agents have something about them that galvanizes teams and turns people on. Perhaps the biggest misconception about change agents is that they're Lone Ranger types. In fact, the most effective change agents have a fervent core of supporters, cultivated through intensity and caring. No doubt, along the way, change agents have learned that whether they deploy fat raises or kicks in the pants, change happens faster and deeper in organizations when people are emotionally engaged—and they have a knack for making that happen. In the end, you know a true change agent when you see their people buy into a change effort not to avoid punishment but to reap its great reward.

And what is that reward? For some change agents, it's the organization's survival. But for many others, it's not nearly as dire. It's growth, and all the good things that come with it: more and better jobs, new products, global expansion, not to mention their byproducts—excitement and fun.

Whoever wins the Presidential election must navigate Congress and negotiate change. In business, change agents with authority don't have to wait. They just have to see the future and have the guts and the followers to go for it.

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