Congratulations. Your organization has selected you for the important task of serving as a Change Agent. This is a position of great responsibility, as the leader of change will help to define the future of the organization for many years to come. Whether your selection came from within the ranks or from outside–the White Knight spirited in to save the Princess–your choice can only mean that you have impressed key individuals with your insight and intelligence. You have been elected to the small circle of People Who Can Make a Difference.
You will understand–at any rate, you will come to understand, I assure you–that my congratulations are necessarily tempered with sympathy. This is because the role of the Change Agent is a loveless one. Your organization–all organizations–that are not failing outright have an undigested mix of perspectives and personalities, and these differing points of view and people compete for hegemony. Your office is the battlefield upon which these rivalries will be fought. Consensus reigns only at an organization that is already dead. Not everyone will be convinced that change is necessary; few will agree as to what change is necessary. As a rule, change is something we seek in others in order to accommodate our own parochial interests.
It is important not to confuse the Change Agent with the Turnaround Artist. The Artist enters an organization whose situation is existential. Everything is on the table. The Artist is fully empowered. On the first day at the new assignment, the Turnaround Artist walks the corridors and wonders silently how many of these people, crouched in their cubes, will be gone within the month. There is no room for sentiment, no clinging to the past. Whereas many people look for leadership to be insightful and intelligent, for the true Artist the primary qualifications are decisiveness and ruthlessness.
The Change Agent, on the other hand, has been put in charge of an organization that is stalled but not dying. Standing before us today, but staring at a point three years, perhaps five, in the future, the Agent will usually make the mistake of trying to persuade everyone that what he or she sees–that chimera on the horizon–is imminent. But this is to no purpose: not until the coffin slams shut will everybody fully realize that something must be done. There is no coffin in sight here, there is nothing that is screaming for urgency. The challenge for the Change Agent is to protect the established organization even as it is led to a new and more vigorous set of activities. The position is inherently political and rarely provides a safe opportunity for a full-throated outburst. Everyone must be kept happy and smiling even as they are asked to do more, to do things differently, to forego perquisites and prerogatives sanctioned by tradition.
To complete this typology, we should mention the Founding Visionary. The Visionary is an object of romantic veneration in our society (think of Bill Gates and John Lennon), and many, many people, legends in their own minds, aspire to this exalted status. The Founding Visionary has nothing in common with the Turnaround Artist, who is more Shiva than Brahma, and views the Change Agent as a hopeless bureaucrat. The Founding Visionary is the essential individual in the right context (which only the Visionary can define), but is disruptive to the established order. For this reason the Founding Visionary is usually something of a low-level sociopath (think of Bill Gates and John Lennon) and not suited to the task of revivifying an organization. The role of the Change Agent is prosaic in comparison to that of a true Visionary; thus it is critical that the Agent tempers ambition with humility.
During the course of my career I have had the opportunity to act as both Artist and Agent, but now I mostly serve as the Trusted Advisor. The Advisor acts with detachment, sending the sons and daughters of others into battle. As in chess, where it is essential to protect the King, much of the time the Advisor admonishes the Artist and Agent to look out for their own interests. It is the Trusted Advisor who is writing this letter.
As you embark on your new assignment, I urge you to consider that some of the very things that brought you to the attention of the people who selected you may now be inappropriate; indeed, some of these things could undermine your success. If you are associated with a particular point of view, that point of view could alienate some of the very people you must nudge in new directions; if you are famous for insight, you must now make a show of deferring to the intellects for whom you are now responsible. The measure of your success is the extent that others think that it is their success.
Most of all, please avoid unconstructive provocation. Outside of school, no one wins points for having the right answer. Let others win the points for moving in the right direction. Fight on few fronts (but fight), one if possible. Never trumpet victory, only the strong efforts and successes of others.
This is a letter of congratulations, not an epitaph. If you prove to be a successful Agent, few will recognize your achievement for what it is; often heroes are unsung. But some observers who know you and the challenge before you will be watching. Play to them. It is their applause you should be seeking, as they understand what is at stake and how high the mountain is to climb.