Cultivating Future Leaders by Encouraging and Supporting Change Agents

As part of Social Media Week London in September this year, we hosted a discussion about the role of internal change agents in companies and how and why they should be acknowledged and supported in playing this vitally important change role. Leadership does not just come from above in organisations, and cultivating leadership behaviours at all levels is important if you want to create a culture of action and ownership.

One of the best dynamics we have seen in organisations that want to modernise and support new and better ways of working is where a visionary senior leader creates permission and a protected space within which new ways of working can begin to develop, but also encourages the development of a change agent network (or what John Kotter calls a guiding coalition) to drive the culture change rather than just handing off to middle managers to implement change as a project.

Change agents who embody the values and practices of open, collaborative, connected ways of working play a vital role in transformation of any kind, but especially the internal aspects of digital transformation. They tend to be natural network weavers and connectors, but at the same time, they are often not in formal management roles – often they come from internal comms, learning and development, IT, KM or general operational roles.

We built the Shift*Groups community precisely to better support and celebrate the work of these hidden heroes within organisations, but also to better understand what stands in the way of them being rewarded and acknowledged by the formal management structures.

We have had a good discussion on this topic within the community, and one member highlighted the specific problem of power continuing to lie within vertical silos:

“1. The change often has an impact on organizational silos and silo thinking. They usually act across silos and disciplines, connecting all the forces willing to change. The silos usually don’t like this, and they have powerful players. These will claim successes as their own and downplay the role of change agents.

2. The change agents have generally little visibility in the power realms of the organization. Again this is because most organizations distribute and focus attention through established silos. In a way that is also a blessing, because the change agents can now act unbeknownst to the powers that be to create grass floor changes. I call them “change ninjas”.

Another question seems to be whether change agents have a day-job and perform their ‘change role’ as an additional voluntary contribution (in which case this is less well appreciated by the organisation) or whether it is indeed their main role, as another member suggested:

“I don’t feel the need for formal recognition even though it has been my formal job. I get a high off the lightbulb moment when people see the possibility or see how work has improved by working differently. Perhaps that’s because my formal role aligns with what would be a personal goal if it wasn’t my formal role?”

Or could it be a question of age and seniority?

“Well, I think the symptom that change is typically driven by junior/young people is not so surprising. We find this everywhere in society – it’s mostly the young, energetic people that drive change and seek improvements from their perspective and for their future – in whatever direction. So why should it be different in a company? Look at all the start-ups. Most of their CEOs and executives are rather “junior”, not necessarily having 20+ years of business experience.”

In my experience, management development programmes are starting to catch up by incorporating a strong element of transformation culture and behaviours into their programmes and teaching people how to exercise leadership within network-centric structures, but I would also like to see change agents recognised and perhaps also given formal development programmes of their own to signify that their role in helping the organisation evolve is a valued and important one.

Arguably, these are the future leaders of the organisation that we are seeing emerge from within, rather than from above.

In addition to the community and the knowledgeable of tools and techniques we are developing to help change agents in their work, we also want to meet more of them face to face and hear their stories, challenges and ideas for solving them, which is why we would love for you to get in touch to discuss this and other related issues.
Image by Eric Haglund


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