Five Critical Roles for Change in Organizations

There are at least five distinctive roles in leading change in any organization: champions, change agents, sponsors, project managers and followers. Each has a critical role to play.

A champion is typically a key leader in the organization and can bring all the power and assets of leadership to leading change. They make decisions, demand and monitor performance, recognize and reward achievements. In associations and nonprofits this person is either the board chairman or the chief staff officer. No significant change can be achieved without this high level commitment.

Change agents support the champions. They can be an external consultant, which is what Signature i strives to be, or they could be an internal person with the expertise and determination to facilitate the change process. It is more difficult for an inside person to be accepted in this role. The advantage of an outside change agent is threefold: they bring perspective and judgment that is free of the organization’s limiting assumptions, they have a portfolio of tools and tactics to support change, and they are freer to speak and do what needs to be done. They have no job to lose.

Sponsors provide the financial and human resources to make the changes. The board typically plays this role in associations and nonprofits. Sometimes an outside philanthropist or corporate sponsor can provide the resources and impetus for significant change. Inside companies, it could be the division or unit leaders who put the money and people into the project. Their support makes the change feasible because they offer and protect the resources to make the change happen.

Project managers are the people who take on the day-to-day leadership of the change initiatives, whether this is developing new products and programs, implementing new processes within the organization or tackling a strategic issue that will shape the organization’s mission and future leadership.

Followers should never be overlooked. Every change initiative affects people inside and outside the organization. Champions and change agents must analyze who needs to be onboard with any change. An essential practice in any change process is communicating with followers and engaging them in new ways of thinking and working together. And they are the best source of the learning and feedback to adjust any strategies and activities to keep the change on course in the demanding world of daily operations.