3 Skills Change Agents Need
Are you starting something new where you need to drive change?
At one point in my career quite a few years ago, I worked for a large publishing and multi-media company as an internal organizational and leadership development consultant. I supported a group of newspaper publishers and local television station executives and their leadership teams across the country, helping them build and enhance their leadership muscle, team cohesiveness, strategic focus, change resiliency, and organizational culture.
You can imagine my surprise when one day, out of the blue, the Chief Human Resources Officer of the company called me into his office to ask me to take a job to start up and lead the Human Resources function for one of the company publications.
“We need your organizational development skills,” he explained.
“This is a department that does not currently exist, so the department and processes need to be built from scratch. And this group hates HR, so we need someone who can build credibility quickly, be an active part of the executive team, and demonstrate the real value HR can bring with what I would label a “demanding, sophisticated and irreverent group.”
Perhaps you have experienced this before–being asked to take a job you had not ever thought you would want or would have the skills for. The thoughts going through my mind were all over the place.
On one hand, I was flattered that the CHRO of the company saw me as the person who could handle this tough assignment.
But on the other hand, what did I know about real, day-to-day HR stuff? I didn’t even know my own benefits, and compensation spreadsheets with salary schedules made me dizzy.
He must have read my mind.
“You can learn all the day-to-day stuff that is necessary and/or get people who do know that stuff to help you. What is difficult to find and is critical to this job is someone who understands things from a systems lens, connects all the dots, builds confidence and credibility quickly, and influences and consults with others from that place. Spouting policy doesn’t help you do that, but your organizational development skills do. This is a start-up–so we need to drive change.”
I did take the job, and had a very successful experience setting up the HR department for this group. To this day, I still keep in touch with and am friends with the former CEO of the publication that I worked for in that assignment.
Why do I recount this story to you?
The assignment I described was essentially one that required me to set up something new, build credibility, help shift people’s mindsets, and create a new set of processes. Whether it was to do this for an HR or a Marketing department, the fundamentals were the same premise and require a specific set of organizational development skills.
Organizational Development skills are essentially skills to help organizations and the people in them change.
Here are three basic organizational development skills that are foundational for anyone working as an organizational change agent—and really apply to any leadership role in organizations, not just in Human Resources.
1. Systems Thinking
Our common tendency working in organizations is to look at whatever problem we face and jump in to apply a solution. With a bias for quick action and a tangible, immediate result, we react to a solitary issue and seemingly “save the day” with our ability to solve or tackle it. While that analysis and implementation of a single part approach may seem efficient and can work as a band-aid, failure to take into account how that solution influences the whole organization has major implications. Smart, experienced, and savvy people who work in department silos apply solutions every day that have unintended ripple effects across the organization. The ability to see the whole system, how decisions affect other parts of the organization, see patterns, and apply broader solutions that take all of these things into account is critical for anyone trying to influence and drive change. Peter Senge’s classic book, “The Fifth Discipline”, is a fundamental read for those interested in building systems thinking in organizations.
When we affect how others think, see things, or behave, we are influencing. Sometimes we think formal authority suffices for influence, as people will behave a certain way because you tell them to in order to avoid negative consequences. Real power, however, comes from the informal influence someone has on others. We can see this phenomenon in our children—-as much as parents have formal power and authority, the influence of their peers on their behavior is undeniable.
In Terry Bacon’s book, “Elements of Influence”, he describes 28 skills associated with influencing effectiveness, and breaks them into four skill categories. They are communication and reasoning skills, assertiveness skills, interpersonal skills, and interaction skills. It’s worth reading.
3. Conscious Use of Self
Any person in a “helping” profession such as counseling, psychology, coaching, or organizational development will tell you that the first and fundamental part of their training is learning to manage and get further along the journey of trying to master themselves. Being able to listen deeply, move past one’s own assumptions, values, and beliefs, manage one’s own emotions and impulses, and refrain from judgment are all elements of being able to serve as a change agent for others. The ability to take “me” out of the equation and serve others only happens when one hones the ability to manage one’s own “ego stuff” in interaction with others. Senge refers to this premise in “The Fifth Discipline” as “personal mastery”, and leadership literature refers to a similar essential skill.
I’ve said it before, but I think Gandhi described it best in his classic phrase, “You must BE the change you wish to see in the world.” Consciously choosing the most appropriate behaviors that are suited in a situation rather than just reacting from impulse are essential in order to embody this statement and be a true agent of change.
So what about you?
Are you honing and drawing upon these three skills as you try to drive change and start something new?
As always, I’d love to hear about your experience…