Secret (change) Agent Man

Joe —  Sun 24-Jan-10 — 7 Comments
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Secret Change Agent ManI had lunch this week with a friend that works in another company. Their firm was recently acquired which left him a bit nervous about his future. He decided it was time to leave. When he gave his notice his boss told him what an incredible future he had in this new acquisition because the new company’s team was mediocre at best and that he would shine like a star without having to do anything.

Hmmm, that was supposed to be his motivation to stay – being surrounded by mediocrity.

Actually, being surrounded by mediocrity may be exactly what you are looking for in a company. Not for the reason that my friend’s boss indicated,but because of your talents and desires. If you were a psychiatrist don’t you think that it would be a great opportunity to work in the prison system; how about being a doctor and working in a third world nation? You want to put yourself into opportunities that play to your strength.

If what you do best and enjoy is changing organizations, making something out of nothing or moving them in a direction they wouldn’t go on their own, mediocrity can be the anthill to an aardvark – but you have to know who you are and how big the opportunity really is.

My career has been built around being a change agent. I am often brought into organizations because they need things to be different. In this role I have had some incredible successes and a couple of abysmal failures. When I look at all of my failures, I find one common element – I could have predicted my failure before I accepted the challenge.

That sure sounds like I am not accepting responsibility for my contribution in the failure. On the contrary, I was fully responsible. My first and biggest failure was in letting my ego factor into the decision of accepting the challenge. “Wow, this is a huge challenge that only I could solve. Ignore the fact that three far more capable leaders than I have failed at this before me because I am Secret Change Agent Man.”

Ugh! Seriously – ugh!

As stated earlier, if you are going to take on the task of changing something you have to know who you are and how big the opportunity really is. It may be bigger than you. A former boss of mine was fond of saying Psychologist Lightbulb Joke“You don’t join the Army to change the Army.” While that sounds defeatist it is also very wise. Not every opportunity is the Army, but some are and you have to be able to spot them early on. In every opportunity to change a group there is a likely possibility that it may change you instead.

Back to the earlier conversation my friend had with his boss. If instead his boss would have told him that there is mediocrity in the new group and that he would have an opportunity to correct that, being an agent of change my friend would have been all ears. He would have been a fool to accept it though, as the acquiring organization had been around a lot longer, was much larger than his, and didn’t seem to think that anything needed to change.

He was more likely to become part of the Army – and he knew that.

Today’s Question
What indicators do you use to determine if a change opportunity is the right one or not?

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Joe

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  • http://higginbottom.com Paul

    Mediocrity is often just a way of saying that those considered mediocre are not in a role where they can shine.

    Have the right people in the right seats on the right bus (one that’s going in the right direction).

    Also, one’s ability to bring change to an organization is determined by the latitude one’s boss, other leaderships, and corporate culture allow or encourage.

    I was fortunate to join a company once that was actively seeking someone to bring new ideas, new ways of doing things, and change things for the better. with support and a mandate like that, it was a great role. That is, until my boss one day became constrained by organizational changes, new strict rules came into play, then my role was changed, and the constraints became suffocating. I left not long after that.

  • Joe

    We really miss you Paul!

    What kinds of questions and inquiry do you do early on to see how much latitude you are truly going to be given?

  • http://higginbottom.com Paul

    By the way Joe, I wasn’t referring to your (my former) employer in my post! Although some of it applies.

    About your question, rather than asking questions, I would hope those I speak with (during interviews and after starting) are somewhat open to sharing what the challenges are, and if there’s no sharing, then that right there is the biggest issue.

    I must also mention I once took a job (great opportunity), working directly for the CEO/Founder, and during interviews he was very candid about the problems/challenges, and I was confident they were solvable, and encouraged by his desire to solve them. After I started working there, I learned HE was the biggest problem, because a) he really didn’t want to change anything, and b) he micromanaged horribly to the extent of having an assistant watch and log when people went to lunch and returned!

    In hindsight I should have listened to vibes I was getting from others I interviewed with, the insecurity of the CEO, and the culture of fear (of the CEO) and lack of trust.

    Despite addressing some of the problems there, the CEO resisted and went behind my back and ‘panicked’ about who was managing my staff locally if I went away to a remote office to meet staff there! Crazy.

    On a more positive note I’ve worked for more supportive, trusting, and inspiring people than paranoid nut jobs. lol

  • http://www.andrewfuqua.com Andrew Fuqua

    What would be a /wrong/ change opportunity? Are you implying that any opportunity that in which there is a good likelihood of failure of a bad opportunity? One can learn a lot through failure, and have a good time, make some good friends, make a good go at serving the organization, and be gainfully employed in the process.

    One should certainly hope to have success, and should strive to have more successful ventures than not. But how can one grow without taking on some risk of failure?

    But to answer your question, about all I can do is take it all in, all the things that were said and how well I connect with the apparent power brokers, and go with my gut.

    • Joe

      Not necessarily, Andrew, but you have to define what your objective is then. Every opportunity has an opportunity cost. I wouldn’t enter a situation that had a 99% chance of failure unless there were no other opportunity or tack that was of better use of my time. It’s like teaching a pig to sing.

      In learning from our own mistakes – yes there is value in that, but that is likely not the goal of the exercise. There are many more ways to fail than succeed. I would prefer to learn from others’ failures and my own successes. But the sting of our own personal failure does tend to last with us longer.

  • http://user-assistance.blogspot.com/ Michael Hughes

    It is useful to know if the person recruiting you has been mandated to make change or if you are being invited in to be part of the “Change Sales Team.” I have taken some positions I thought were the former only to find out they were the latter. When conversations start sounding like last Sunday’s Dilbert (http://user-assistance.blogspot.com/2010/01/i-have-so-been-here.html) I get a nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach.

    • Joe

      Great strip, Mike. All too familiar, huh?