Thought Leadership

The role of advocates in change management

By Steve King

When I was first learning about change management and how it unfolds in large organizations I was mentored by change consultant Jeanenne LaMarsh. From her point of view, there were typically four players present in the change game: sponsors of change, change agents, targets of change, and advocates. Most of her writing and related change methodology focused on those first three players. But I was always drawn to that fourth player on the change stage — advocates.

Advocates are people within an organization who have serious ideas about what must change but wield no institutional power or resources to make the change happen. They are people in search of a sponsor.

My casual observation is that many advocates fail to find the sponsor they seek, while many others do. Why do some succeed where others fail? Certainly, luck plays a role — right place, right time. But beyond luck, successful advocates seem to share one characteristic: they are skilled influencers. They can successfully make a case for change either directly to potential sponsors or to those who can influence sponsors.

These influence skills are a complex array of interconnected competencies, knowledge sets and behaviors. But here are three aspects of influence skills that have stood out to me as I have watched skilled advocates do their thing.

  1. Data: They have the facts. They have the data. They know how to present it in compelling ways. But the best advocates I have seen present a balanced collection of data. They include data that both supports the argument for change and data that acknowledges the downsides of that proposed change. They then let the balance speak for itself. For example, I have seen technology leaders share data on compliance risk that convinced senior leaders to fund new technologies — even though there was countervailing data presented by those same technology leaders acknowledging the new spend would add little to achieving productivity targets.
  2. Experiences: Often advocates have personal experiences related to the change that sponsors do not have. They share these experiences as education devices, giving sponsors another point of view. For example, I have seen diversity officers, diverse themselves, share personal experiences with senior leaders that open senior leader’s eyes and paved the path to thoughtful diversity efforts.
  3. Assumptions and beliefs: Smart advocates are astute about any assumptions or beliefs they carry into their arguments for change. Assumptions and beliefs are opinions — perhaps rooted in a little data and a few experiences — but opinions nonetheless. Thoughtful advocates catalogue their assumptions and beliefs and willingly share them with potential sponsors. When they find sponsor assumptions and beliefs in sync with theirs, the path to successful advocacy is easier. When they are not in sync, the path gets bumpy and the burden of influencing sponsors falls back on gathering more data and expanding the pool of persuasive experiences. For example, I have seen divisional business leaders convince senior management to fund a new product line with few facts but convincing assumptions that seemed to tap into senior management’s core beliefs.
Advocates play such an important role in the change process. And the leveraged use of data, experiences, assumptions and beliefs are part of those advocates’ tool kit of influence. So whenever I talk with groups about the players in the change game I elevate advocates from featured-player status to starring role. I always put them on equal footing to sponsors, change agents and targets.
As Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO), Chief Learning Officer (CLO), Global Talent Management Leader and most recently leader of University based executive education, Steve King has a record of designing and executing learning strategies that enhance performance and profitability. A skilled leader in many business settings, Steve has a knack for building simple and practical solutions to achieve significant business results. He has proven success in financial, professional services, health care industries, and higher education. He serves as Academic Director for Kellogg Executive Education's Driving Organizational Change program.

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