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How to become a change champion

Flailing toward insolvency in 1997, Apple somehow managed to revive itself. Just one year later, the fumbling tech giant generated over $300 billion in profits. The catalyst to this notorious turnaround? Apple had a change champion.

Steve Jobs didn’t just manage change; he demanded it. Champions like Jobs help once great, but now failing brands rebound. They harness the collective ingenuity and excitement of an organization. They initiate innovative ideas. They pull companies out of old cycles and inspire experimentation.

Change champions guide employees through uncertainty and upheaval while inspiring a culture of exponential growth (Steve Jobs didn’t stop at the iPod).

IBM recently found “people factors” are the biggest barrier to change. Executives cited mindsets, attitudes, culture, and lack of senior management support as factors in nearly half of all failed business transformations.

Change champions are the loudest and most persuasive voices on behalf of their employees, and their results can be astounding.

In this article, you will learn:

  • The role of leadership in managing constant change.
  • The five traits of a change champion and how leaders can develop
  • How to enact a champion mindset and lead through unexpected upheaval
  • The three questions all leaders should ask when preparing for change.


Are You a Leader or a Champion of Change?

True champions come in many forms. There is the CEO, who communicates the purpose of transformation and models the desired changes. Then there are senior leaders who redefine processes with input from employees. And let’s not forget about the front line champions and individual contributors who represent the best the company has to offer.

Leadership alone cannot enact lasting change.  Effective evolution requires a team of exceptional individuals, committed to seeing a transformation through from start to finish. To lead that team, executives and managers need a champion mindset to:

  • Actively review processes, risks, and growth opportunities.
  • Address change resistors, with a supportive, hands-on approach
  • Provide all members of a team with adequate resources.
  • Personally solicit feedback and amplify your top contributors.
  • Communicate the value of every step of the process.
  • Deescalate conflicts that may arise during major transitions

The Top Five Traits of a Change Champion

Champions perform outside the lines of traditional success metrics; they initiate change that elevates the entire organization.

According to Dr. Ronald E. Riggio, a Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology, this level of influence and impact can be coached,“Although certain qualities do predispose some people to attain leadership positions and be better at leading, effective leaders actually hone their skills through experience, conscious self-development, education, and training.” These are the champion traits you should look to build upon:

  • Strategic Intelligence – Key at all management levels, leaders must envision a cohesive strategy and translate it into a reality that reflects the company’s mission.
  • People skills– Leaders are continually building relationships with both internal and external stakeholders. A champion needs to have a progress pulse at every level of the organization. Exceptional collaborative skills are critical for implementing change initiatives.
  • Social Consideration – Radical change can be disorienting for your team. Senior leaders must take into consideration the individual impact of their decisions and how their employees might Business psychologist, Dr. Douglas LaBier, encourages social awareness for success, “The higher up you go in companies, the more you’re dealing with psychological and relational issues. Successful CEO leadership requires astuteness about others.”
  • Trust & Transparency – The best leaders build and spread trust throughout the organization. They create successful partnerships that break down silos while building up their best managers and contributors.
  • Personal and Organizational Values – Leaders translate an organization’s shared values into action. They don’t abandon their own but find a way to create a single, cohesive voice.

These five traits can manifest in multiple ways.

  • They improve the interface between operations and strategic considerations. Jeroen van der Veer led the change team for Shell in the early 2000s and implemented sweeping changes that influenced 80+ operating units. Van der Veer gathered a group of technical experts with strong backgrounds in change leadership. As spokesperson of these change efforts, Van der Veer soothed the thousands of units whose operations and staff would be affected. He credits his success to “A to B” communication. “A is very simple: you take stock of where you are today — You should be able to explain that in one or two minutes to all the operators and workers of the refinery — But that’s not leadership. Then you have to work out, what is position B? The art is to explain that in the same one to two minutes in very credible terms and you give some key arguments why position B is a good place.”
  • They help you selectively choose the right projects, at the right time, in order to achieve an overarching vision. Patrick Doyle successfully repositioned Domino’s Pizza’s brand when he took over as CEO in 2010. He oversaw a series of significant changes, including a new name, logo, store layouts, and an ordering app. Doyle famously appeared in a series of TV commercials directly addressing the company’s poor reputation and their hopes for the future. Today, Dominos is the second-largest pizza chain in the world with a share price of $236, an increase of more than 2700% since it’s all-time low in 2010.
  • They manage the pace of change and the development of new projects. Taiichi Ohno, an engineer for Toyota in the 1950s and 60s, helped transform Toyota into the world’s largest auto manufacturer. He championed a shift to just-in-time manufacturing, reducing the energy, overhead, and space needed to manufacture automobiles.

Activating a Champion Mindset

Under Steve Jobs, Apple’s motivational mission statement was, “To make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.” Influential leaders who can institute and inspire meaningful change represent the very best their organization has to offer. They do this by:

  1. Fully acknowledging the reason for change and the organization-wide impact it will have.
  2. Setting clear goals and outcomes to accomplish through the proposed changes.
  3. Understanding and planning for forces that might work for or against you.

In short, the reason change management champions succeed is because they gather opinions and insights from every corner of the organization, and then act decisively.

The ideal of a change champion riding in to save the day is too dramatic for successful managers in corporate America. True champions are representatives of a greater whole. They may be the faces and voices of a new product, service, or brand. But they stand and speak on behalf of a larger team.

Change Never Ends – Choose the Best to Lead Through It

Constant experimentation is needed to discover what works best, and how to stand out in a crowded field of competitors. To do this, leaders must strategize, coordinate, and delegate change in an impactful way.

For a company to succeed in today’s environment, calculated risks are a must. But failure can be costly. Champions of change realize it’s always risky, but successful growth builds morale and creates new opportunities for everyone.

Download our guide to Building Leaders At Scale to learn how a leadership coaching and mentoring program can help you cultivate more change champions in your organization.