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Five Characteristics of an Effective Change Agent

March 13, 2008 - Harry J. Martin and Dennis F. Lekan

As part of her research on organizational change, Kanter studied leaders who had a track record of success implementing change. She considered numerous innovators from a variety of organizations, at various levels, who implemented different kinds of changes. In each case, she found a set of common traits that distinguished these leaders from less successful innovators.

1)  Successful innovators are comfortable with change. They understand that change is a fact of organizational life, are not threatened by it, and even enjoy the stimulation associated with change. They know change is required for personal and organizational growth. They also have a high degree of self-confidence and see themselves as being able to cope with change.

2) The leaders Kanter studied set clear goals and direction for themselves and those involved in the change effort. They knew the key indicators of success in their areas of responsibility and managed against those measures. They set difficult but attainable goals for themselves and their co-workers but used their optimism and self-confidence to build positive expectations in others. They let people know how changes or innovations would help them succeed and incorporated this into their visions for future success.

3) Successful innovators prepare thoroughly. They invest the time and effort to do their homework and get the facts regarding changes or innovations. The leaders Kanter studied analyzed who the important stakeholders were in their situations and how to get their acceptance.  These leaders considered how the change would impact people and empathized with their concerns. They thought through the innovation and were prepared to answer “what if” questions from various constituencies.

4) It isn’t surprising that successful innovators use a participative management style. Successful organizational change requires involving others to improve the idea, secure cooperation, build trust, and deal with fears and concerns. Kanter’s leaders were willing to talk to others about the change and listen to their ideas. They involved others and were willing to give people important jobs to do in support of the change. They were careful to give people credit for their contributions and recognized groups often for their achievements.

5) Successful innovators are persistent.  A leader must overcome skepticism, complaints, criticism, politics, resistance and foot dragging. They run a gauntlet of nay-sayers and sometimes have to wait months, if not years, before seeing their ideas implemented. However, they won’t take no for an answer and find ways over or around obstacles. They are willing to modify the innovation to address people’s concerns and deal with resistance and criticism in a positive, problem-solving fashion. They are thick-skinned and don’t take negative comments as personal attacks.

Many people comment that they can’t be effective change agents because they don’t have “that kind of personality.” Although personality factors are correlated with these characteristics, none of them are determined by personality. Instead, they are driven by an individual’s skill, training, energy, desire and attitude. While they may be enhanced by one’s personality, anyone can learn to be an effective innovator.

Leaders must understand that change is a process, that you must have a compelling story, that you have to use a variety of strategies to get people to buy into your plan, and that there are some key characteristics that successful innovators should try to emulate.

Need help implementing effective change agent strategies within your organization? Contact OI Global Partners today, or reach out to us @OIGlobal. We can help.


Harry J. Martin, Ph.D., is an associate professor of management at Cleveland State University and president of Harry J. Martin & Associates. Dennis F. Lekan, Ed.D., CMF is former managing partner of OI Global Partners - Corporate Leadership Associates LLC (Cleveland). Martin & Lekan are co-authors of The Best and The Worst of Leadership.

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