How to be a change champion

Published on July 31, 2022   9 min
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Hi, my name is David Buchanan. I am Emeritus Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Cranfield University School of Management in the UK. This talk is about how to be a change champion. Who are the change champions, the change leaders in an organisation, and what does it take to be effective in this role? We have to recognise from the start that change is not always led from the top of the organisation.
Yes, we are familiar with the heroic, charismatic, visionary transformation leader who drives major change and saves organisations from failure. This stereotype is usually male, and we will have something to say about this later. But those heroic change cases are few and far between. Change is not always a sole performance. It's more often a team effort with leadership of the change or different components of the change distributed across the organisation. Indeed, change is often championed by the middle of the organisation, with middle managers operating behind the scenes below the radar. Why? Because middle managers often have a better understanding of frontline operations and of what needs to change than does a remote top team. What's in a name?
Change agents or change leaders have been given many other labels: change champions, disruptive innovators, ideas practitioners, and from a Swedish study, souls of fire. Those names give you a clue as to the nature of the role and the people who do it. Change champions tend to be mavericks, nonconformists, risk takers and rule breakers. They may even be seen as troublemakers. But organisations need people like this.
The role of the change champion has two main characteristics. First, this can be a demanding, challenging and stressful role. Not everyone will welcome the changes that you are trying to implement. You often have to deal with resistance and conflict. Expect to upset some people, to lose friends and make a few enemies. Also, if you are responsible for major changes, this will not be a nine-to-five job. There just isn't time in the normal working day for all the formal meetings, informal conversations networking and schmoozing that you will need to have. This role may also spoil your weekends too. If you're offered such a position, consider your other current commitments, family and social life as well as work, before you accept. Second, the role can be challenging in a positive way. It can be interesting, exciting and can be a significant learning opportunity. Again, if you are leading strategic changes, you'll be exposed to and become familiar with aspects of the business and to other people inside and beyond the organisation that you would not encounter in a more routine management position. This creates opportunities for networking and self-development and opens up future career opportunities. But a word of caution. In this important and visible role, you and your colleagues are vulnerable if things go wrong. Those in the driving seat get the blame if there's a crash. If you think that the change may not succeed, then you may want to pass up the opportunity to champion it. What knowledge, skills and attributes are