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

- posted April 27, 2023

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 and 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.

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