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What to Do Before Accepting That Change-Agent Job

It’s a fact of corporate life that high-achieving VP’s sometimes reach a plateau in their organization and realize there simply isn’t abundant upward opportunity.

Even in a large enterprise with multiple businesses, how many open and available C-Suite roles can there be?   So, when a recruiter calls to describe a search she’s performing for a high profile multinational seeking a “change agent” with a direct line to the CEO, it can sound pretty appealing. After all, what better way to demonstrate C-Suite readiness at the new place than to take on a high profile gig of strategic importance?

Organizations frequently source outsiders to drive course corrections or all out direction changes. Sometimes that’s natural; they may simply lack the needed talent internally. For example, if a traditional company commits to developing Digital channels to market, Digital might represent a new competency to them. On the other hand, there are also times when an organization looks outside, not realizing that it’s because they can’t stomach having to push the needed changes, themselves. Not to sound alarmist, but from what I’ve observed, it’s often the latter. This is something you’ll want to figure out beforehand.

How can you know which one you’re facing? How do you improve the odds the new gig will be not just compelling but also winnable?

When considering whether to step in as change agent, be unsentimental in your analysis and perform your upfront prep. Here are three recommendations for how to navigate the organization and set yourself up for success even before you accept the new role.

1. Test for clear, aligned expectations

First – and I’m not kidding, here – make sure the top of the house is in agreement on the change they’re seeking. Do they describe it the same way? Are they consistent on why it’s imperative and urgent? Watch out when key leaders define the underlying rationale for your prospective role differently and sound like they’re hiring for slightly different jobs. It’s okay to tolerate a little ambiguity; not confusion.

Make sure that your prospective role is explicitly spelled out. Have they articulated the goals and performance targets against which you’ll be measured? Who owns the change, besides you? Don’t go it alone.

Finally, is the CEO, in effect, the Chief Change Evangelist? Have a conversation up front with her to hear it from the horse’s mouth.

2. Gauge leadership’s change elasticity

Assess how the organization handles disruption. How did they fare on the last big change? Has anyone previously held your prospective role and failed? Check that leaders have made the requisite shifts of mind to drive the change with you. Identify at least two other “true believers” in influential roles.

Feel free to turn the behavioral event interviewing back at them. Ask questions such as, “Tell me about a time when key leaders stood up to the status quo and implemented necessary change. How did the organization do? What did it learn about itself?”

Finally inquire into how senior leadership handles conflict. Are their meetings replete with healthy idea sharing where honest and open inquiry is promoted? Driving change will demand it.

3. Formulate your resistance

Once you accept the role, it’s not a question of if there will be pushback, but rather what kind and how strong it will be. First, master your composure. Your co-workers will be scrutinizing your cues. If you’re anxious, deal with that before you’re on the job. Project confidence without arrogance and respectfulness without hesitancy.

Second, anticipate specific anti-change tropes and master your rhetoric. In their co-authored release, Buy-In: Saving Your Good Idea from Getting Shot Down, John Kotter and Lorne Whitehead warn of the four predictable resistance lines: fear mongering, death by delay, confusion, and ridicule. Which will it be in your case? Prepare your responses before Day 1 on the job and manage your messaging.

To sum up: do your due diligence. This might just turn into the most exciting job of your professional life.

So what I want to know is, in light of what you’ve read here,  what are you going to do to assess whether to step into a change agent role?  Leave me a comment.

I hope you found this piece useful. If you like it, share it with your colleagues or someone else you believe might benefit.

If you want to learn more, take our “C-Suite Roadblock Audit,” which will help you identify mistakes you might be making right now that could be hurting your C-Suite prospects. You can also download our “Team Optimizer Checklist” to help get your directs aligned. Alternatively, if you’d like to have a brief complimentary call with me feel free to reach out for a 15-minute Strategy Session.

Ephraim Schachter