Leading change: are you a change agent or an integrator?

We’ve seen many personalities in changing organizations over the years – but the two most prominent are the change agents and the integrators. 

They have very different, yet equally important roles, and their relationship is a pretty good indicator of how the change is going to go. 

Do any of these personality traits look familiar?

The change agent

Usually the new CEO or lead elected official (may also be a board member). They are often hired by the board, or elected, with a mandate to instigate change.

Change agents tend to:

  • Focus on the big picture and big declarations.
  • Look for results early and often.
  • Have a higher appetite for risk.
  • Have a high public exposure.
  • Be focused on external audiences / opinions.
  • Ask the organization to move on multiple fronts.
  • Be mid-career.
  • In their careers, move from one change opportunity to another.
  • See mistakes as a cost of business.

Change agents often think: ‘if enough things are moving and a few fail, we’re still good overall.’

In the best cases they are:

  • Excellent at building support for a strong, clear, vision.
  • Motivated by personal integrity, declared principles and beliefs that align with the organization.
  • Willing to take a ‘tough love’ stand that may not be popular.
  • Comfortable managing expectations, internally and externally.
  • Protective of the organization and the people.

Sometimes they:

  • Get too far ahead of the organization.
  • Can’t adjust their own expectations.
  • Overestimate the organization’s capacity for change.
  • Burn out the people around them.

In the worst cases, they can be:

  • Unpredictable and erratic.
  • All about the show.
  • Bullies behind closed doors.

The integrator

A member of the C-suite, sometimes the CEO. They have usually risen up through the organization by building trust as a steady, knowledgeable team player.

Integrators tend to:

  • Align with a change agent (it’s important they pick the right one).
  • Know the organization inside and out.
  • Understand how to manage the chaos.
  • Use the desire for results to gain and align resources.
  • Build the systems that ensure the changes stick.
  • Be mid – late career.
  • Stay with the organization long enough to see the change through.

Integrators think: ‘if we resource this properly, get buy-in from key people, and are patient, I believe this organization will get there.’

In the best cases they are:

  • Expert at managing expectations vs. capacity and resources.
  • Motivated by the organization’s purpose.
  • Understanding of people’s individual motivations.
  • Surrounded by a leadership team they can rely on.
  • Welcoming of bad news.
  • Highly respected by the board.
  • Personally removed enough to be objective.
  • Instinctively knowledgeable communicators.

Sometimes they:

  • Are asked to advance change they don’t trust or support.
  • Become burned out by politics and expectations.
  • Collaborate too much.
  • Take it all on themselves and work too much.
  • Expect too much from others.

In the worst cases they can be:

  • Controlling and micro-managing.
  • Manipulative and personality-based.
  • Empire builders.

With the often-cited failure rate of organizational change at around 70%, it is critical that change is initiated from the very top with clarity, credibility and accountability – and that communication between the change agent and the integrator is open, respectful and solution-focussed.