IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

3 Tools for Meaningful Organizational Change

True change agents must connect with other employees, listen, and keep their minds open.

Usually organizational turnarounds don’t happen by themselves. They are steered by change agents, people unafraid to take the reins and move forward. Like Moses liberating the Jewish people from slavery, a strong leader shows his people the way.

Despite the valuable role they play, though, most change agents aren’t rewarded with a permanent place in their organizations. (Even Moses didn’t make it to the Holy Land, and he got hundreds of thousands of people to follow him into the Red Sea.)

This happens for one of two reasons: Either the organization can’t handle a Moses — management makes noise about change, but doesn’t really want it — or it purposely hired a seagull. As Ken Blanchard put it decades ago, “Seagull managers fly in, make a lot of noise, dump on everyone, then fly out.”

Either way, the trouble with these change agents begins on day one, when they “swoop in,” their arrival announced by a senior executive. Said change agent (let’s call the person Joe) is heralded as “an expert in this area,” and we’re reassured that he’ll “get to the root of the problem and fix it!”

Upon meeting the executive team, Joe smiles confidently, shakes everyone’s hands and assures them everything will be fine — “I’ve done this before.” He promptly makes his assessment, produces a report and begins “implementing the necessary changes.”

Joe should be winning an award. But instead, before you know it, he’s gone!  

What happened to Joe? Did he get promoted, “lured away” by a competitor or run over by a car?

Guess again. Joe’s been doing this for many years and knows his role is inherently short term. That’s why he’s already paved the way for his next gig, and can clean out his office in the time it takes most people to line up for a latte.

Joe’s a traditional “change agent.” He comes along and makes some changes — perhaps critical changes for the organization. But he isn’t a leader; he dumps on everyone, then leaves.

Indeed, change agents’ tenure is quite short. Already by 2001, as reported in The Change Agents by Elizabeth Nickles, the percentage of long-term CEOs — those who stay six to 10 years in a job — dropped from 41 percent in 1980 to 23 percent in 1998.

Federal CIOs haven’t fared much better. A 2007 survey by the Information Technology Association of America, reported in InformationWeek, found that nearly 72 percent had held their jobs for two years or less — up 30 percentage points in just one year.

Change is important, often essential. The difference between leaders and seagulls is that leaders are one with the people, while seagulls are disconnected from them.

When a major transformation is at hand, it’s vital to engage people, not just foist new rules on them. It may seem convenient to rely on the chain of command, but doing so without getting buy-in is risky. Rush things, and you may be seen as a double agent with a secret agenda, ultimately undermining all you’re trying to accomplish.

I’ve found that there are three tools leaders use to effect long-term, meaningful change.

First, they communicate unity with the people. They share in the change process, making it clear that “we’re in this together.”

Second, they listen throughout the process, which lets leaders understand how transformation will affect the organization’s stakeholders. And they make changes based on the feedback.

Third, they keep open minds and ask questions. “Where are the pain points? What are the causes, and how do you know your assessment’s right?”

In sum, seagulls are generally the product of organizations that aren’t serious about change. They hire “change-agent-Joes” so they can make gestures, but in the end it’s about pushing him through the revolving door.

In contrast, organizations that are committed to change look for stable, dedicated executives who are seeking a company to join. Senior execs support them in developing a shared vision of the change that’s needed, in making the effort with them, and even in taking some level of sacrifice, if needed.

Moses successfully changed an enslaved people into a nation, and he shepherded the Israelites for 40 years in the desert. That’s the kind of change agent a premium organization should seek.


Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.