Don’t Hire That Change Agent!

Photograph by Andy Ryan/Getty Images

I can understand an executive’s temptation to hire a shake-’em-up Change Agent when big things need to happen. But haven’t we learned through harsh experience that this strategy backfires 99 percent of the time? Leaders hire Change Agents—charismatic people with blue-chip credentials and backbones of steel (we hope)—and watch them fail within a year. The patron saint of Change Agents could only be Saint Sebastian, whose portraits always show him pierced by arrows. What is it about the Change Agent approach that causes things to go so badly, so often?

The first question to ask: “If I care so much about change, why haven’t I changed things around here myself?” CEOs and vice presidents delude themselves into believing that the reason they haven’t driven the organizational transformation they seek is that they’ve been too busy with other things. A leader whose reason for hiring a Change Agent is time-related is a leader who’d rather talk about change than experience it. The truth is that if the executive wanted things to be different, they’d be different right now, long before the Change Agent hits the scene.

The second common excuse is that change happens far down in the organization, on teams the executives have little contact with. That sounds nice, but it’s unconvincing in real life because the people on those teams take orders from people two or three levels higher in the organization. When change is a corporate priority, the CEO and everyone else is talking about it. It isn’t just an issue for the rank-and-file workers.

The very notion of a designated person to drive change is pathetic because real change in organizations isn’t one person’s job and doesn’t happen under the guidance of any one executive—even the CEO. When change is a real priority, it’s the central topic in every staff meeting. It’s the No. 1 item against which people are evaluated, and the CEO and her team are singing about it from the rafters. When the change is more lip service than conviction, a handy (and handily dispensable) Change Agent might help an uncommitted-to-change executive feel as though he’s trying to do something useful without putting his career at risk.

We know better. When change is a corporate imperative, the senior executives will be driving change themselves, and everyone in the joint will act as a Change Agent, in one way or another.

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