5 Characteristics of a Change Agent

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by visualpanic

(change agents) – People who act as catalysts for change…

In my work through school and organization visits, I have been fascinated to see the correlation between the speed of change and an individual who is “leading” the charge.  The schools that have someone (or a group of people) helping to push the boundaries of what can be done in schools seem to move a lot quicker with a larger amount of “buy-in” through the process.

As Malcom Gladwell describes in his book, “The Tipping Point“, he states:

The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.

Although Gladwell talks about the “Law of the Few” (connectors, mavens, salesman), I do not believe change is solely dependent upon their skills, but also the culture in which they exist.  You cannot be a connector if you are in an environment where people do not want to come together.  So although a change agent can trigger growth in an organization, the culture in which they exist or are brought into has a huge bearing on their success.  If a school embodies itself as a true learning organization, change will happen much quicker.

With that being said, I have noticed that the individuals that are really successful in helping to be a catalyst for change certainly embody some similar characteristics.  Below is a list of what I have seen consistently.

1.  Clear Vision – As mentioned above, a “change agent” does not have to be the person in authority, but they do however have to have a clear vision and be able to communicate that clearly with others.  Where people can be frustrated is if they feel that someone is all over the place on what they see as important and tend to change their vision often.  This will scare away others as they are not sure when they are on a sinking ship and start to looking for ways out.  It is essential to note that a clear vision does not mean that there is one way to do things; in fact, it is essential to tap into the strengths of the people you work with and help them see that there are many ways to work toward a common purpose.

2. Patient yet persistent – Change does not happen overnight and most people know that.  To have sustainable change that is meaningful to people, it is something that they will have to embrace and see importance.  Most people need to experience something before they really understand that, and that is especially true in schools.  With that being said, many can get frustrated that change does not happen fast enough and they tend to push people further away from the vision, then closer.  The persistence comes in that you will take opportunities to help people get a step closer often when they are ready, not just giving up on them after the first try.  I have said continuously that schools have to move people from their point ‘A’ to their point ‘B’not have everyone move at the same pace. Every step forward is a step closer to a goal; change agents just help to make sure that people are moving ahead.

3. Asks tough questions – It would be easy for someone to come in and tell you how things should be, but again that is someone else’s solution.  When that solution is someone else’s, there is no accountability to see it through.  It is when people feel an emotional connection to something is when they will truly move ahead.  Asking questions focusing on, “What is best for kids?”, and helping people come to their own conclusions based on their experience is when you will see people have ownership in what they are doing.  Keep asking questions to help people think, don’t alleviate that by telling them what to do.

4.  Knowledgeable and leads by example – Stephen Covey talked about the notion that leaders have “character and credibility”; they are not just seen as good people but that they are also knowledgeable in what they are speaking about.  Too many times, educators feel like their administrators have “lost touch” with what is happening in the classroom, and many times they are right.  Someone who stays active in not necessarily teaching, but active in learning and working with learners and can show by example what learning can look like now will have much more credibility with others.  If you want to create “change”, you have to not only be able to articulate what that looks like, but show it to others. I have sat frustrated often listening to many talk about “how kids learn today” but upon closer look, the same speakers do not put themselves in the situation where they are actually immersing themselves in that type of learning.  How can you really know how “kids learn” or if something works if you have never experienced it?

5. Strong relationships built on trust – All of the above, means nothing if you do not have solid relationships with the people that you serve.  People will not want to grow if they do not trust the person that is pushing the change.  The change agents I have seen are extremely approachable and reliable.  You should never be afraid to approach that individual based on their “authority” and usually  they will go out of their way to connect with you.

That doesn’t mean that they aren’t willing to have tough conversations though; that also builds trust.  Trust is also built when you know someone will deal with things and not be afraid to do what is right, even if it is uncomfortable.  Sometimes trust is built when you choose to do what is right for your community or organization, as long as it is always done in a respectful way.

Should every school/district administrator have these qualities?  Probably.  But with that being said, positive change is not reserved to be the responsibility of any position.  The best leaders may have all of these qualities but also empower others to be those “change agents” as well to build a culture of leadership and learning.  I can think of many people that I have encountered who have helped pushed their organizations ahead that have no formal “authority” over any individual.  That being said, some of them do it in spite of their principal or superintendent and often feel that they are in constant conflict.  Things would obviously move a lot quicker if they had the support of their leader.  With that support, change can happen in an organization quickly, but if the leader does not “clear the path”, improvement will take a lot longer than it should.

What is important to note is that being a “charismatic leader” is not something that is essential.  Often, charismatic leaders lack many of these qualities that I have listed above and although they can seemingly lead change, it is not sustainable and does not permeate throughout the school or organization; it becomes too dependent upon one person.  For example, was Steve Jobs a change agent, or a charismatic leader?  Apple is not doing as well since he has passed away and their innovation has seem to slow down.  Steve Jobs was known for being notoriously tough to deal with and the trust that is essential to building a strong culture was probably lacking to some degree.  I believe that change agents will help to create more leaders, not more followers.

What qualities from this list did I miss?  Do you think that there has to be at least one person or group to help permeate change and growth in an organization?


50 thoughts on “5 Characteristics of a Change Agent

  1. Angela

    Thank you, again, George! All of the characteristics you listed above are those I have found in my very best principals! I firmly believe that the relationships, relationships, and relationships set the foundation for true change. Being a “servant leader” requires that base. Also, being a good listener (which goes along with being patient)…so often we want to jump in and fix everything by answering right away, but forcing ourselves to sit back–listen–reflect–then respond, can also be critical in establishing meaningful change. I am trying to be that change agent now, as a teacher, in a very traditional system, and it certainly is difficult, but my patience and persistence will pay off! Thanks, as always, for being the voice of encouragement to those of us stuck on an “island”!

  2. teachingcognitively

    Do we loose the possibility that teachers might be the change agent when we are evaluating in the ways teachers are now being evaluated? Is there a way to measure this or should it be measured? Does everything of value a teacher does have to have a way to be measured so they can prove it?

  3. Ron Ng

    Thanks George for the great precis: My leadership reflection and thinking about things I can and cannot change continues to make me wonder about whether great leadership is indeed also great social constructivism.
    Being resilient, determined, visionary and influential enough to change others, to be prepared to also change oneself and aiming really to change the world and society we live in. We have an Aussie term called ‘bloody mindedness’ and it isn’t meant pejoratively. It is about being focused, refocusing when in adversity and when coupled with true moral purpose, forms the foundation of service leadership, for the greater good. Another Aussie term is that one should not get too ‘full of oneself’, have one’s ego being the end rather than being able to be level headed, outcome focused, ready to laugh genuinely at absurdities.

    1. Eric

      Unfortunately too many leaders acquire positions of authority based on work experience and successes they have accomplished as a follower. The art of fellowship, to steer the galley from the rowing deck is probably a lot different that steering it from the top deck as a leader. I like Ron Ng’s point about social constructivism. Maybe we need more trained leaders as change agents, that can influence and direct an organization through its culture, rather than those that acquire leadership without understanding it and expect everyone to follow directions.

  4. Clifton Frolick

    Fantastic article. Sobering thoughts that provides the basis for managers to effect change

  5. Carole Mahoney

    Change agents don’t often find themselves in a conducive environment, whether it is the culture of a school or business . For that reason, there has to be someone pushing for a culture shift- many times this is the change that needs to happen so that more leaders can be created. The culture is what continues on long after a change agent has left, as you pointed out in the Steve Jobs example.

    What you have observed in schools is parallel to what I’ve seen in companies . It is most successful when it starts at the top. The smaller the org, the more likely you are to be successful. The larger, the more persistence it will take.

    Great list of insights .

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  7. Sabrina Graham

    Very good article. I am never inclined to believe that change agents are found at the top, within a school building. Most of the time, those at the very top, are not actively engaged at the teacher level unless there is, of course, a behavioral issue with a student. Change agents will help to create more leaders, in spite of.

  8. twitter_POUSDSupt

    I really appreciated your post. I agree that culture does play a part in either creating the fertile soil in which change grows or culture itself requires care and feeding. I found your comments on the importance of leading by example by showing, not just telling, to be helpful in thinking through the change process. As always, you have pushed my thinking. Thank you for sharing your insights!

  9. pauline curtis

    My experience is that there is a need for us to be taught “how to make change work for us.” Working in an environment where there is a great deal of change those who are on the frontline delivering the core business often feel that they have no control over their careers. What I have found interesting is that when we are encouraged to look for areas where we are able to exercise choice then this realisation can be transferred to how we feel about change in the workplace. For me change has allowed me to bring my passion2work. How have I achieved this? I have noticed the thing that really annoy me and come up with an innovative solution. So yes I am a change agent and as such I have made
    “change work for me.”

  10. Sue Guilfoyle

    Thanks George, after reading your comments I have a new clarity of vision as I head back to school tomorrow for our 2013 school year here in Australia. As principal, we can only serve our communities if we stop, reflect, regroup and redirect. Thanks for the shared wisdom and insight.

  11. Derek Suttie

    Thanks very much George – I must say, I greatly look forward to your blog posts…much to appreciate and enjoy!

    1. pammylou

      I like that they use the “Illuminati” one eye picture for the article,and a big one too!The change agent is a sneak!
      It is watching YOU! hahahaha

      Changing things ….just for kicks! They think they are like (clueless) secret agents! Get a real life. =-)

  12. Jill L.

    This is a great article and one every leader should read. As a former teacher, current school counselor, and future administrator, I would like to add a few words about the “power of influence”. A good leader is not someone who micromanages every aspect of teaching and learning but instead, a good leader is one who has the power to influence good teaching and learning by forming positive relationships with staff, empowering others to lead, and looking to improve things that have the most influence over student achievement. The focus of change in any aspect of a school should always be on what is best for the students.

    1. George Post author

      Couldn’t agree more…Micromanaging will shut many people down in my opinion, as opposed to make them want to rise up!

  13. DrJay

    Fantastic article. I love your perspective. It is definitely applicable in my world (outside the education arena), but it really makes me wonder how good my kids’ education could be if the administrators would take the handcuffs off of their “change agents”. They are there; contributing as much as they can, but they are too often stifled from the top.

  14. Ernest Esparza

    The Arizona State University Masters of Health Innovation degree is a perfect degree for those wanting to be a change agent. I speak from experience as i am enrolled right now in the online Masters degree right now.

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  16. Janice Driscoll

    Just last night I listened to a president of Xerox speak to a room full of educators about this very topic. One word that kept popping up was “disruption” as a driver of change. Do we want to be the disruptor or the disrupted? I liked his message a lot. It was “disruptive” to my thinking.

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  20. Kelly Wiseman

    Excellent! Clearing the path . . . Cultural change has to be part of the leadership plan for change to take strong roots.

  21. pammylou

    Change agents are the type of people who have any marketable skill.Anyone can go around complaining about things.The top change agents make the money from the horrible foundations that are ruining the world,and the rest of the useful idiots they enlist have no idea what they are doing.Corporations hire change agents and use them to make it appear as the movements has consent.The ends justify the means which is a dishonest approach.Alinsky was a change agent,and in his last interview ever with Playboy he said he was looking forward to going to hell! He couldn’t wait to organize it! Then he died shortly after.I sure hope he got his wish! And I hope you all can join him for a big party there!It’s where change agents go you know.The whole thing is based on the change isn’t so great,it’s the demonic process of ridiculing the people whose behaviour you so rudely try to change is all the fun! In other words….live it up useful idiots!

    1. Zandu

      Oh my ghost! All the faggots are loose and crawling now.

      Change or change agent can never change you, unless you change. And if you change because someone wants you to be changed, you are not living your life. You become a filthy faggot looking for the change. You change to even more filthy, dirty, cheap flies ready with another breed of faggots!!!

      I have leaders with the concept of changing the organization in which we work. Surely they can change but the position and location of stationery and furniture in our offices.

      They can never change us because we don’t want to change the way they want us to be. That is our RIGHT.

      Change to what you think is best for you and others and the institution or organization you work for will see a diverse, creative, and excellent change. Don’t you like to work with a group of people with different styles, qualities, attitudes and mindsets? If you do then just change to the changes you choose for yourself and the changes you look forward to see in yourself. No change is so real than the smallest changes you make in yourself. JUST CHANGE TO CHANGE!

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  31. Anthony Williams

    For the educated minds, this a great article. It is important to have change agents for the only constant is change. Knowing that, we do realized that things will change. So, change agents are needed to help guide that change in a positive direction.

    Thus, if you don’t like where things are heading, you should become a change agent to help guide change. Don’t be a complainer! We need doers. And the intelligent person knows there are positive and negative to every situation. Let’s become change agents of positive social change; as talk is cheap…

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