A change agent brought in from the outside needs more than being a change agent from the outside

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In my previous post, I explored the management “design” of hiring someone from a successful organization to bring change to your org.  It’s a great idea – hire from the best, and you get the best.  And presumably, this person is a top performer.  Win-win!  However, this can be a perilous design, as the organization you’re hiring from perhaps created great performance through the org processes and culture.  The success was not necessarily via the individual’s greatness, but from the collective efforts of the previous org.  But that’s what you’re hiring for when you hire this kind of expertise – change and improvement.  So you need to be committed to it.

Let’s imagine that you hire a change agent who is ready to bring in the successful ideas and practices of the prior org to the new org.  What more needs to be done to help this change agent be successful?  Let’s take a look.

a)      Does the person hired from the outside have the ability to actually bring in those processes that made the other org successful?

It’s great to bring in someone from a successful org, but did they have a role in the forming of that successful org?  Or did they arrive after the org, systems and processes were in place?  You may be bringing in someone as a “change agent,” when in fact their main skill was executing on an existing strategy and processes. 

b)      Are you going to support the person in bringing in these systems and processes?

In this scenario, the person is brought in from a successful competing org.  That person is likely to believe that she was brought in to solve the problems of your org.  That means that she will be, upon arrival, unimpressed with what you currently do, identify the issues, and want to change the way things are done.  Are you willing to give this support and power to an outsider, when there will be resistance by the rest of the team, when it will cost time and money to develop the processes and infrastructure from the superior org, and is likely need a different team culture?  If you actually expect the person to bring in the “success” from the other org, you have to be fully bought-in to many of the things that created that success. Do you have the stomach for this, or do you have the unreasonable and untenable expectation that the new person overcomes differences by keeping things the same?

c)       The change agent subverts your own success

As an extension of the prior point, the new hire is not likely to understand or value what was done previously in your org.  After all, the existing hiring manager has been successful in the existing org.  Why change?  But when you hire someone from the outside, you are in essence asking to change the way things are done in your org, and you must subvert the conditions of your success and require you to change your ways.  Are you ready for this?  Not many managers/leaders are.

d)      The new person will be speaking an entirely different language

As a more subtle point, the new person will be talking about doing things that will seem alien.  They will use vocabulary that is different, talk about processes and cultural elements that are different.  The person will seem like an alien with their alien ways.  While these may indeed be superior to your local ways, they will seem different, strange, difficult, and as such, ineffective, stupid and unnecessary.  The new person, is by definition, alienated as they try to bring in their alien ways.  Will you move toward the outsider, or will the outsider have to move toward you?    

e)       What happens if you don’t care what it was that made the person successful elsewhere?

The challenge is to support creating the change necessary to generate similar success that you presumably hired for.  On the flip side of the same coin, what if you, the hiring manager, don’t care what those things are?  What if you bring the person in for their “talent”, but not their insights on how to do things better.  This is a common scenario: the new employee has many suggestions, but the management just wants that person to go to work and not bother them with talk about the things from that other place.  The downside to this common attitude is that you are missing opportunities.  The other downside is that you are going to frustrate your highly prized top performer new employee.  The other downside is that the new highly prized employee will perform at the same level as your existing employees, making the effort to recruit this person pointless. 

f)       Other “change agents” will be competing. 

If you bring in people from lots of different places, you imply that you want their expertise in how to do things.  With multiple change agents, there will be many competing ideas on how to do things.  You have to mediate this and identify the best route for your org.  From the perspective of the “change agent” employees, you will be necessarily diluting their ideas.  It will take skill to take the best of each change agent’s ideas and methods to create something even better than what you have already in place.  This can be done only with a strong management strategy and clear expectation-setting for the newly formed team.  Unfortunately, few leaders are prepared for this.     

The new change agent has challenges in adapting to the new place, and the new place has challenges in adapting to the new person.  Without a concerted effort, lost will be many of the things that made that person successful before.  The most likely scenario is that the strong performer in the prior organization becomes a mediocre performer in the new organization.  Is that what was intended? 

To a greater or lesser degree, bringing in someone from the outside will create change.  Some will bring bold ideas and others small.  But all will want to help to some degree to make things better. 

A great management design will systematically find ways to explore and encourage positive change when new expertise is brought in.  Unfortunately, this is performed usually on an ad-hoc basis, and many opportunities for improvement and tapping in to expertise are lost.  Equally, the strategy and reason for why things are done currently aren’t discussed with the new employee.  Commonly, the explanation is “that’s just the way things are.” 

Have you switched from one org or company to another? Were you able to bring in change that created similar success?  What were the resistances and how did it work out?

Related Posts:

Management Design: The “designs” we have now: Recruit someone from a successful comparable organization

Management Design: The “designs” we have now: You can manage only if you’re from here

Management Design: The “designs” we have now: Hire the premier technical expert

Management Design: The “designs” we have now: Promote the top performer

Management Design: The “designs” we have now: You’ve managed a team before? We need you!

Management Design: The “designs” we have now: MBA graduates and Consultants


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About Walter Oelwein
Walter Oelwein, CMC, CPT, helps managers become better at managing. To do this, he founded Business Performance Consulting, LLC .


2 Responses to “A change agent brought in from the outside needs more than being a change agent from the outside”
  1. Enjoyed your “Management by Design” Series re: Inside-outside manager selection…valuable lists of advantages/disadvantages…all the possibilities can work effectively if there is a “manager feedback” data system that goes beyond financial & technical data feedback…

  2. Hi Richard,

    Stay tuned for articles on the topic of what a manager can track when it comes to observing and providing performance feedback!

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