How To Hire A Change Agent

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By Jas Singh

Perhaps the biggest enquiry I receive from leaders today is finding experienced people who can lead effective change management. Someone who can either take the company to the “next phase” in growth, turnaround a failing business or reposition an exisiting player in the market.

Change management is a modern day buzz word although in truth companies have always had periods of change – it’s part of the life cycle for any business. However nowadays it is fast becoming a more common issue due to the increased impact of technology, globalization and ultra-fast communcation. How can we need build a digital business quickly? Can the new CRM tool be fully integrated by the end of the quarter? How can we launch in China before our competitors?

Whether it is implementing a new technology infrastructure or redefining an entire companies strategy, leaders need to be more flexible than ever.

Change management is hard work. People don’t like change or rather the uncertainty associated with change. This is even more true for the top performers – why should we change when I am doing so well?

Leaders need to be extremely diligent when hiring candidates to undergo change management roles. Here are a few things we should look for:

1) Can they implement change at the right pace?

Most change management fails because change agents move too quickly. New hires have aggressive targets, unrealistic timelines and don’t make an effort to understand the business before making strategic decisions. Existing employees become afraid and are often either reluctant or unable to follow through.

Occasionally (although in my experience less common) the opposite is true. People can suffer from “analysis paralysis” and change can take too long. In situations where there are time pressures – for example entering a new market – this can be disastrous since by the time change may have been implemented the opportunity may be gone.

Leaders need to make sure they hire people who have implemented change at the right pace on a step-by-step basis.

2) Can they sell the change effectively internally?

Key to successful change management is the ability to get support internally. Change agents HAVE to be strong managers – people who can inspire co-operation, trust and the vision of a better future for everyone.

The best example of this is a CEO I have worked with who was hired five years ago by a company that was suffering massive losses and needed a complete turnaround both strategically and operationally.

On the first day in the job, he went down to the shop floor and called a meeting of all 1200 workers. In front of the entire company he totally disclosed the finances of the company and how the business was set for a hard few years ahead – with up to 40% of the company set to be laid off. Many of these employees had been there for upto 30 years. He only had one question – “This is your company. You know this place better than I ever will . What should we do?“.

For three whole days, not a single machine was operated. Everyone contributed and he went round meeting everyone. Although difficult as expected, the company was made profitable within 18 months and is now a top player in it’s industry today.

Change needs 100% support before it can be implemented.

3) Will they retain the top performers?

This is critical to success. Leaders must ensure that newly hired managers are able to retain the top performers during the change management process.

The most obvious and common way to do this is often through increased financial incentives. It makes sense – lock the best people down and they are more likely to stay right?

Wrong. Various studies including this one by McKinsey have shown that financial incentives rarely work. Often these payments can be viewed as desperation on the behalf of the company and also they are usually “one-off”. People take the money and then leave.

Employees are more motivated by career opportunity. A chance for ownership and growth. Strong change managers are able to enlist the help of top performers and make them an integral part of the change management process.

4) How much autonomy will we give them? And for how long?

Perhaps most important of all, hiring managers need to have a plan. Change agents only work if they are given autonomy to make changes. Far too often, leaders hire change agents with a view to grow only to then not let them make the changes required. They still need to have the final say. Obviously this doesn’t work. The best hiring managers learn to let go.

But that’s not to say leaders need to sign their lives away. The best leaders hire change agents according to a pre-determined plan or timeline. Maybe it’s a 12 month sales structure turnaround or a 6 month re-branding project.

There always needs to be a plan – can we assure this person the required autonomy and when will we re-assess?

Conclusion

The fast moving world is constantly changing. More than ever before, leaders need talent that is able to implement change quickly and reliably.

Hiring managers need to ensure that newly hired change agents have the right skills to deliver. Usually they only get one chance.

Will you take your chance?

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