Confessions of a Change Agent

October 30, 2018

No one wants to hear their baby is ugly. When it comes to change, we’ve realized organizations cherish their existing ways—no matter how inefficient. This makes change hard, and often leads to us overlooking the most significant aspect of change management—mindset. Follow along as we share some of our stories and the lessons learned along the way.

In today’s disruptive and fast-paced business landscape, the only constant is change. Yet many organizations still struggle to gain buy-in for their critical change initiatives. What’s the disconnect?

It’s not that organizations don’t prepare for change. In my decades as a management consultant and change agent, I’ve seen many businesses excel in three of the four elements necessary to effect change. First is adopting formal mechanisms—such as an proper structure, processes, systems, and incentives—and most businesses understand this imperative. Second is role modelling, where leaders commit to adopting the new behaviours to set a positive example for their colleagues. Third is building skills, which involves providing staff with the training they need to succeed in the new environment.

It’s the fourth element, addressing mindset, that tends to get overlooked. The challenge with changing mindset is that it requires change agents to go beyond the visible behaviours to understand a host of invisible elements that drive those actions.

From visible to invisible

Take the example of a manager who doesn’t make time to coach their team. While this is the visible outcome, this behaviour may be driven by thoughts and feelings—so the manager might care about people, but may not think coaching is a high priority. The manager’s values and beliefs also affect his behaviour—so they may not believe coaching helps people get ahead. Finally, they will also be driven by met or unmet needs—perhaps none of his bosses took the time to coach them.

Thoughts and feelings drive everyone’s response to change and unless leaders work to address them, rather than silence them, they are bound to face resistance from the very people whose buy-in they most require for their change effort to succeed. I should know. I’ve made the same mistake myself.

Your baby is ugly

Early in my career, I was asked to identify opportunities to reduce labour costs at a major Canadian governmental agency. After working hard on a two-week diagnostic, my colleague and I had uncovered a host of missteps we felt the agency had made which, if corrected, would result in significant cost savings.

We were excited about presenting these findings to the client, and more than a little proud. After our meeting, though, the manager of the facility took us aside and said, “Your conclusions may be right, but you don’t have to look so damn happy about it. You just told me my baby was ugly.”

It was a sobering lesson. It taught me early and fast that my attitude as a change agent has the capacity to influence how well other people will embrace my proposed changes. Winning hearts and changing minds requires humility and an acknowledgement that, even though there may be room for improvement, my client’s team has worked extremely hard to get to where they are.

You look like the enemy

One of my colleagues here at Farber had a similar experience working for a major Canadian food producer. The company was going through an organization-wide transformation to consolidate several of its plants into one central facility. Her job was to visit the plants slated for closure and speak to the staff to capture their knowledge about how various processes ran—so they could be smoothly transitioned to the new facility.

It was a sensitive time for plant staff and when she showed up with her clipboard, she was perceived as “the enemy”—someone who was there to get them fired—and refused to cooperate. It was not until she explained her role and what she was there to do that the staff began helping her. The lesson? Make sure your people understand your role if you hope to gain their support.

Sometimes it’s them

All that said, change agents need to recognize that you can’t win over everyone every time. I worked on one project where a specific manager lambasted me during a project review. When asked what motivated me, he said “Adam likes to watch his clients fail” and that I didn’t keep my word. I was extremely rattled by this. Yet, several years later, I heard from that manager’s closest colleague, who reached out to thank me for the work I did on that very project and told me that what I had taught her was career changing and allowed her to become a manager, breaking out of the technical roles she had held previously.

This helped me realize that there is always a percentage of people you’ll never reach. Those who are openly opposed are often easier to win over, because you can hear their concerns and address them. Those that work insidiously, however, have the capacity to create a lot of havoc or even derail a project. But if you stop the change because of them, you could miss the chance to create a hugely positive impact for other people who are interested in the opportunities that change often brings.

You should see my garage

The upside of these experiences is that they taught me the imperative of taking mindset into account when implementing change. When done right, the benefits it can yield are amazing. In one case, I helped a company adopt a new lean operating method. At the end of the engagement, one of the client’s staff members invited me to his house to see his garage. He had rearranged it using the principles of lean production. Every container was labelled, every item in its perfect place. Not only had he embraced change in his workplace, but he saw enough value in the methodology to bring it home.

Dialogue, not monologue

All these experiences have taught me that, to get mindset right, you need to truly understand people’s underlying motivations and engage in a dialogue, rather than telling them what must happen. In many cases, this requires insights into emotional intelligence—which is why our team works closely with a clinical psychologist who has decades of training and expertise in unlocking the path to shifting mindsets.

My biggest lesson over the years? Successful change requires careful planning, clear communication, the establishment of appropriate metrics, and training and role modeling from senior leaders. That said, it still may not be enough to invoke successful change, if you ignore the thoughts and emotions that lie underneath.

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Adam W. Silver is the Managing Director of  the Performance Acceleration practice at Farber. The Performance Acceleration practice helps executives and boards overcome operational and strategic challenges to uncover potential and unleash performance. Adam can be reached at 416.496.3734 and