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Change Cham­pi­ons: Rebel with a cause



Krish­na Paupamah

Founder/Group CEO

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 [email protected]

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 [email protected]renoirgroup.com.

This col­umn was first pub­lished in Busi­ness Today.


Krish­na Paupamah

Founder/Group CEO

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