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In response to evolving conditions, you came to realize your organization must change. You are now ready to move into action. As the organizations chief, one of your first and most critical decisions is to appoint the team that will lead the project. Typically, the leadership consists of a project director with overall responsibility, seconded by project managers focusing on specific aspects. These people will be your change agents - the ones upon which the success of your initiative will rely. What makes a good change manager then?

When assessing potential candidates, you need to ask yourself three questions: Do they have the right attitude? Do they possess the appropriate knowledge? And do they master the necessary skills? Lets look at each of these viewpoints.

The Right Attitude

A change agent cannot succeed without great persistence. Change is a complex and laborious process that arouses strong feelings and emotions. Angry people, frustrated teammates, conflicting priorities, unforeseen problems or behind-the-scene resistance pose daily challenges. A project manager cannot lead her team through these minefields without determination and stamina.

To avoid mid-course changes in leadership, the person must be fully committed to see the project through completion. A good way to ensure that is to appoint an ambitious individual who presents substantial potential for career advancement within the organization. She will look at the challenge as a terrific career-building opportunity and will be highly motivated to succeed. The benefits will actually extend well beyond the projects time horizon. Indeed, the initiative will provide this high-potential employee with a broader understanding of the business, an extended network of relationships and stronger leadership skills.
In term of attitude, there is one aspect that is often overlooked. The change manager must be prepared to stand up for the project, even if it means tactfully challenging powerful executives C including you. In a previous article ( From the Abyss to the Lighthouse C The Six Fundamental Principles of Effective Change Execution), we stressed how critical the sponsorship role is in any change projects. We said that implementation problems are often due to the sponsoring executives underestimating the significance of their duties.

Here are typical issues:

  • The sponsors might not be doing enough to sanction the change and build the case;

  • They might be reluctant to commit the necessary resources;

  • They might send conflicting messages about the importance of the change by failing to apply enough pressure to those who resist, or considering mid-way through the process a new top-priority initiative.

When any of this occurs, the project is in serious trouble. It is the responsibility of the change agent to raise the issue with the sponsors; otherwise the project will end up failing. An effective change agent we worked with captured this attitude as follows: My primary goal is to ensure this project succeeds no matter what. My secondary objective is to preserve my personal relationships with all senior executives. If I must choose, I will have no hesitation: the former objective takes precedence. This might sound extreme, but the best change agents really are diplomats with a strong spine.

The Appropriate Knowledge
The project director should be a seasoned change agent with a general understanding of the business. However, project managers should be subject-matter experts in their respective area of responsibility. Having someone with excellent project management skills is simply not enough. They will crash due to lack of detailed understanding of the subject area. Expertise also brings the credibility and respect much needed to succeed in their role.

For example, if you have decided a major overhaul of your brand, you might consider appointing the following experts and breaking down the project accordingly: a marketing specialist to handle external and internal communications, a training expert to ensure employees can deliver the brands promise, an organizational development professional to align the management systems (e.g. performance assessment, rewards and recognition), and an operations specialist to adjust or redesign the pertinent processes.
In addition to the relevant expertise, a change agent should be well connected throughout the organization. These active relationships are instrumental in communicating effectively with stakeholders, developing supporting coalitions, and designing a successful rollout.

The Necessary Skills
Change is not for the faint of heart. With so much at stake, the pressure on the project leadership is always tremendous. A change agent has to operate under a huge amount of instability and uncertainty. She has to manage conflicting priorities, multiple constituencies and fast-approaching deadlines. She is responsible for guiding the organization through the numerous challenges of the transition. Therefore, in order to survive, a project leader must possess the proven ability to remain highly effective under intense fire. We have seen otherwise outstanding project managers collapse under the escalating pressure. Most often, the breakdown occurs when that person is overseeing a critical phase, so the whole project can be delayed. And beyond the individual drama, a burnout has a negative impact on the morale and cohesion of the project team.

As with any other projects, the days of a change agent are filled with problems to solve. Consequently, the project leader needs outstanding analytical skills in addition to be very organized and disciplined, both in her thinking and her actions. At the same time, a good change agent must be flexible enough to workaround roadblocks and handle evolving priorities. In other words, a disciplined yet flexible approach to tackling challenges. Lastly, because the evil is in them, attention to details cannot be overlooked.

DaCare is the leading bi-lingual executive search firm in China. Ranked top 10 in China by People's Daily.