When you hear the term "change agent," what comes to your mind? Maybe you think of a motivational speaker that comes in with a stockpile of buzz-words and feel-good phrases, leading your employees in a "team-building exercise" involving a bed of fiery coals. Or maybe you think of a 30-year-old, wearing a power suit and perfectly coiffed hair whose only job is to beat up your sales reps for not closing to their full potential.
Here's the good news. Neither of those images represents what a change agent truly is.
A change agent's main goal is to affect powerful, lasting change in the organization. That can't be done through a dictatorship. Rather, a change agent must have the right attitude and skill set to do the job properly. That means being open-minded and respecting everyone's seat at the table, without exception.
Basically, a change agent must sincerely listen to each team member's input. In fact, he or she should welcome and actively seek such input. Only with the insights from and support of your entire team will you be able to effectively discover opportunities for improvement, align your teams and departments toward those newly discovered goals, and implement needed changes.
Three Key Qualities of a Change Agent
It's important to consider a change agent as a guide, rather than a boss. Think of the change agent as an "investigative reporter" rather than a "mechanic." The mechanic's job is to find the problem and fix it, even if it means disassembling the engine in the process. The reporter's job is to ask questions until they clearly understand the facts.
Similarly, some business-minded people want to approach their sales department as a "machine" that needs fixing. However, it is almost always more helpful to approach organizational improvements as a "developing story," one that needs to be thoroughly investigated before any definite conclusions are reached.
With that in mind, here are three key qualities that a change agent needs to display during the process of discovery, alignment, and implementation.
1. Seek to Understand
A change agent must seek to understand, first and foremost. That means active listening, both to individuals and groups. It also means asking some penetrating questions.
Language is a prime example of why deep understanding is so vital to organizational change. Take the word "partner" as an illustration. A lot of companies talk about "partnering with their customers" — but what does that really mean?
To one sales rep that may mean 24/7 availability; to another it may just be an insubstantial buzz-word. Only by asking those probing questions, and really listening to the answers, can a change agent find and define common ground — a foundation from which the entire team can build together.
One of the best questions that a change agent can ask is: "What's showing up for you?" It's open-ended enough that the other person can interpret it in different ways. At the same time, it invites honest feedback on the content and direction of the conversation.
A simple question like that, used skillfully, can highlight different opinions between team members in a neutral way. It's a great step towards ensuring that everyone is on the same page moving forward.
2. Hold the Vision
By seeking to understand where team members are coming from, the change agent can guide them as individuals and as a collective. The change agent directs them toward the ultimate destination — achieving the company's vision.
Of course, any long journey comes with its share of "hiccups," a detour here, a traffic jam there, a delayed flight up ahead... you get the idea. When those hiccups do happen, the important thing is to stay focused on the goal. This is where a change agent can prove to be invaluable.
The change agent has to hold all stakeholders accountable to the vision. If interdepartmental alignment is a clearly stated goal but communication is slipping, then the change agent may need to call management out on this issue.
It's okay if team members or managers occasionally lose sight of the end goal. After all, the sales industry gets real busy, real quick. But when that happens, someone needs to right the ship and remind everyone of where they want to go. Usually, that someone is the change agent.
3. Consistently Build Trust
When a company is struggling with misalignment, employees are going to experience some level of frustration, disappointment, and other negative feelings. In turn, those negative feelings are going to inhibit the company's "improvement team" from sharing potentially painful, but sorely needed insights with their managers and colleagues.
This is where the change agent comes into the picture. He or she absolutely must create a safe space in which everyone can express themselves without fear of judgment or retribution.
Maintaining confidentiality is a huge part of this — and it's an ongoing process, not a one-and-done task to check off the list. If a team member vents to the change agent, the rep's trust would be completely shattered if his or her manager comes by the next day and says: "I heard you were unhappy about this issue." Once that trust is lost, so is any hope the employee will contribute something that could lead to lasting change.
Besides confidentiality, the change agent has to know the culture of the company — and even the personalities of the individual team members. Would people feel comfortable expressing themselves in a large group? Would smaller groups be better? Or would one-on-one breakout sessions be most appropriate?
How the change agent structures team interactions will play a subtle but important role in whether all members of the team ultimately buy into a culture of trust and change.
Why Does Your Sales Organization Need a Change Agent?
The simple answer? Without the right person leading the charge, any changes you want to make will have less impact and a shorter lifespan, than they could have had otherwise. Of course, whether you yourself, a designated team member, or an outside expert should be your organization's change agent is a judgment call that you'll have to make. But when you give your change agent the freedom to understand, question, remind, and nurture, then your entire company will benefit as a result.
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