I often harp about how important it is to have leaders lead change effectively with a clear vision – a transformation programme can be broken if the wrong person is leading the charge.

However, equally important are the people executing the transformation. And often, it is the “change champions” of your organisation that are the key to making it a success.

These are the people who will provide the organisation knowledge and social support that will inspire change to happen from the bottom up. Their in-depth knowledge and proximity to the areas that need change will give the task force valuable insights on how to spot problems, identify opportunities and craft a new way forward. 

A lot of times the best change champions are considered “rebels” in their organisation. 

These rebels are not the ones who intentionally break rules for their own gain. Instead, these are the people who, when confronted with the statement “we’ve always done things this way” will respond with, “yes, but let’s figure out another way.” 

I once worked on a transformation project in the United States where the union and management were at loggerheads. My team and I knew that there will be difficult days ahead. As we interviewed for potential candidates for the transformation task force, we met with a shop steward, a union member who often challenged management on a multitude of different issues. Based on our experience, we realised immediately: we should make him a change champion!

While management had seen him as a thorn in their side, we realised that he was the kind of guy who would welcome change if it was the right thing to do. 

It proved to be a super success. The shop steward could already see things from the workforce’s point of view, but he was also able to see where management was coming from. He understood our perspective on the issues facing the company.

Because of this, and with his close relationship with his peers, he was able to affect change throughout the organisation. Eventually, his involvement in the transformation taskforce changed him as well.

That is why I believe change champions are vital to any transformation effort. When we start any project, we often “recruit” these people from the organisation itself. We carefully pick out change champions by interviewing candidates and watching out for these traits: 

1. They see change as an exciting challenge 

The change champion must have an innate desire to improve. This is almost always a mandatory requirement because he or she will be part of the transformation programme’s taskforce, and the work he’ll do as part of the taskforce will not be the same as the one he’s currently doing. So, this changemaker must be self-motivating, have a deep desire to learn and improve and is excited about the possibilities of a new way of work. They must also be unafraid to rock the boat – like the shop steward. So, we usually look for individuals who are bold to challenge the status quo, even if this involves challenging senior managers.

2. They are people-oriented influencers

Change champions use their great communication and leadership skills to pass on their enthusiasm and inspire people to change. I often look out for people who have a good sense of humour. Their optimism and positivity are very useful when the programmes inevitably go over stressful bumps. 

3. They are almost, always your star performers 

Change champions are often your star performers. As a result, managers will be reluctant to approve their secondment as they are highly knowledgeable and proactive, hardworking individuals.

But change champions are not always the “usual suspects”, such as the high-performing manager or the highly-praised team member.

In one analysis we worked on, one of the people who helped us was a wages clerk who had the traits of a good change champion. When the time came to select members of the transformation team, we realised that her name was missing from the candidates list our client had given us. When we asked them why she was not included, we were met with confusion.

“She’s a wages clerk. There’s no reason for her to be on the team,” they told us.

Paving the way for change champions

We disagreed and insisted on bringing her onboard. Fortunately, our client agreed, and she ended up being a superstar on the project because she really focused on helping to improve the business.

I will be remiss to not mention that while change champions are valuable, it is not always easy to find them or avoid the politics that can come from their appointment.

As I mentioned earlier, change champions often possess characteristics that make them valuable employees. So, managers may be reluctant to transfer them to the transformation programme. In this case, we try to impress on management with how their secondment will benefit the organisation in the long run. 

Sometimes, the candidate isn’t as eager. They think being a change champion detracts them from their career path. Some wonder how they are going to be appraised during the assignment or wonder if they will have a job to go back to. 

If necessary, working with the Human Resources department to smooth out these issues is the way. Sometimes, we even recommend that a “letter of comfort” be appended to their selection letter. 

As for clients, I always assure them that by building change champions, they will not only identify assets for their transformation efforts but also future talents for the organisation which will help significantly both with the long-term health of the business and with succession planning. 

George Bernard Shaw once said, “Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people.”

What do you think? How should we cultivate the rebels in our organisation so that they can help it grow? Send your answers to krishna.paupamah@renoirgroup.com.

Krishna Paupamah has worked with companies globally to transform their business for over 35 years. He is the Founder and Group CEO of Renoir Consulting. He can be reached at krishna.paupamah@renoirgroup.com.

This column was first published in Business Today.