How to Become a Change Agent

I have always been fascinated by how information technology can be used to make an organization more competitive. And so I redesign existing business processes and design new processes and then try to get people to buy into these ideas.

In short, I am a change agent.

Sometimes I am welcomed like a new coach who the players believe can turn around a losing team. Other times I am received like a government tax auditor at a shareholders’ meeting. Leading change is a delicate business. We all agree that companies need to innovate and become more agile to compete in today’s global economy. But on the road between this general agreement and any new way of doing something, there are many pitfalls awaiting the change leader. Change stirs up a lot of resistance in people. As Mark Twain put it, "I’m all for progress. It’s change I don’t like."

A leader has to get past this resistance and convince others to embrace new ways of doing things. But first, he needs to get people to listen to what he has to say.

Leading by Doing

Some years ago I was hired to be a director of systems development at a company that distributed electric wire and cable and electronic communication systems. After I had been with the company for a few months, the COO called me to his office. He told me that the four regional sales vice presidents wanted to streamline the sales process, but that IT had saddled them with clunky, hard-to-use systems. So they had requested money to hire consultants to build the new systems they wanted. "They are not getting their own IT budget," the COO told me. "Your job is to figure out what they want."

When you don’t know what people want, you need to ask them. So I decided to spend time in the field. One day I was visiting a regional headquarters, talking with a salesperson about his job. He was telling me about the difficulties he was having with the existing computer system. I noticed the sales vice president watching me from his corner office.

After about 15 minutes he walked up to the cubicle where we were sitting and said, "Move over, Steve. Let Mike take your calls and see for himself what it’s like." I looked up at him and I knew he could see the fear in my eyes. He said, "Don’t worry if you screw up. We screw up too." Then he went back to his office.

It was clear to me that if I was to get anywhere with this project, I had to take his dare. I sat down in Steve’s chair and started taking calls. The afternoon’s customers were primarily building contractors who needed some cable or electronic gear in a hurry. My task was to sell them what I had at the greatest profit and at the same time be helpful and make them feel as if they had received a good deal.

The callers were busy, and they talked fast. I had to look up the products they wanted and see if I had them in stock. If something wasn’t in stock, I had to find something else that would fit their needs. At the same time, I was also supposed to quote a price based on the prices other salespeople had recently gotten for the same items, factoring in such variables as how much the customer wanted to buy and whether he would pick up his purchase himself.

What I Learned in the Trenches

It was too difficult to get all the information I really needed to make the best decisions. Navigating from one screen to the next was hopelessly complex, requiring me to remember cryptic commands and to know which function keys to press—and in which order—to find what I was looking for. Sometimes I quoted too high a price and people said they’d get back to me later (which they never did). Other times I was intimidated into quoting a price that didn’t have much profit in it at all.

In a stroke of beginner’s luck, I managed to make the company some money that day, but more important for my purposes, I understood what type of system would help the salespeople become more profitable. I realized that their job was somewhat like that of a stockbroker. Prices were always fluctuating based on many factors, including supply and demand. The salespeople needed different information at different times to get a good feel for the best price to offer a customer. The most important data had to be displayed on just a handful of easy-to-access screens. And navigation among screens had to be fast so that you could retrieve information while you were talking on the phone.

Call Me Mr. Credible

The story traveled over the grapevine: An IT guy had taken sales calls. An IT guy might actually have a clue. After that, the salespeople knew who I was. They opened up to me. They wanted me to know about ideas they had for this or that feature of a new system. I fit these suggestions into the overall design for a new sales support system.

People liked the designs I showed them. They could see their own ideas reflected in them. I was able to create a consensus for changing and improving the sales process among a broad audience that included regional vice presidents, branch managers and individual salespeople. So how did I, an IT guy, get buy-in and support from a group of end users who had been threatening to go their own way? I got them to trust me.

Here’s the take-away: In order to be a leader, you must first be seen as a leader in the eyes of those you would lead. This means people need to see that you understand them and care about them. They need to believe that you are open to their ideas and that you will do what it takes to get things done. In other words, you need to have credibility.

If you are currently (or soon will be) in the role of change leader, ask yourself this: "Am I credible in the eyes of the people I will lead?" If you are not—as I was not—ask yourself how you will earn that credibility. My advice is to spend time with the people you want to lead, listen more than you talk, and when they test you to see what you are made of, take the challenge. It hardly matters what happens. People just want to see if you can walk a mile in their shoes before they decide to follow you.

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