The Manager as Change Agent: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: July 11th, 2011 by bobmorris

The Manager as Change Agent: A Practical Guide to Developing High-Performance People and Organizations
Jerry Gilley, Scott Quatro, Erik Hoekstra, Doug Whittle, Ann Maycunich, Scott A. Quatro, Jerry W. Gilley, and Doug D. Whittle
Basic Books (2001)

Your Own Yellow Brick Road Awaits

This book really does offer a thoughtful and cohesive guide to “developing high-performance people and organizations.” After an introductory chapter (“Becoming a Change Agent”), the authors organize their excellent material within three Parts: Beyond the Smoke and Mirrors; then Philosophy, Practice, and Responsibilities of a Change Agent; and finally, Integrating Resources, Roles, and Competencies.  A majority of those I have worked closely with are the only or at least primary change agent in their respective organizations. This book will help them to develop change agency competence among many (if not most) of those whom they supervise. In fact, the insights and counsel in the book can help to accomplish that worthy objective at all levels and in all areas, whatever the size and nature of an organization may be. Of course, the book will also be of great value to senior-level executives in large organizations, including non-profits.

For me, one of the most entertaining as well as informative chapters in the book is Chapter 4 (“Beware of Flying Monkeys and Poison Poppies”) in which the authors suggest correlations between the adventures encountered by Dorothy and her companions en route to the Emerald City and what all managers encounter in today’s business world. “Flying monkeys are those unexpected characters, events, and situations that jump up and attack you at the most untimely moments…..Flying monkeys come in all shapes, sorts, and sizes. They can be people, events, activities, and attitudes….Perhaps the most important potential monkey for you to be aware of is the cultural flying monkey. [As the authors have explained earlier in the book], culture is defined as the underlying beliefs, values, and assumptions held by members of an organization and the practices and behaviors that exemplify and reinforce them. In other words, ‘the way we do things around here.'” In Figure 4.1, detailed information about “Miscellaneous Flying Monkeys” is provided within an ingenious grid.

With regard to “poison poppies”, the authors suggest that so many change initiatives fail because managers are “seduced by the promise of a quick fix”, a short-cut, etc. Time and again when retained by a corporate client to help solve problems, I find that the client’s managers are preoccupied with the symptoms of problems rather than focused on determining the causes of those problems. Stated another way, many managers seem to think that wet highways cause rain.

The authors begin Chapter 11 with a quote from John Kotter (“A good rule of thumb in a major change effort is: Never underestimate the magnitude of the forces that reinforce complacency and that help maintain the status quo”) and then use Figure 11.01 to illustrate what they call a “Holistic Model for Change Agent Excellence” featuring the brain, the heart, courage, and vision. All are necessary to overcome the aforementioned “forces.” More specifically:

1. Provide strong, highly visible, and personal leadership
2. Institute employee involvement early and often, at all levels
3. Build a clearly articulated, shared vision
4. Provide frequent, consistent, and open communication
5. Leverage talented, and trusted employees as co-change agents
6. Set measurable operational and behavioral goals
7. Celebrate successes and re-address shortcomings

The authors carefully explain each of these “Seven Keys to Successful Organizational Change” in detail and then shift their attention to what they characterize as a “list of absolutes in the quest to develop gained wisdom”: Tap into the wisdom of the “elders” in the organization, build a wisdom war chest”, patiently and progressively wield your wisdom-based influence on an organizational level, and finally, share wisdom with others on an organizational level. The authors no only explain how; they also explain why.

Appropriately, the authors conclude their brilliant book as follows: “As in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s vision was to somehow return to her beloved Kansas. By casting her eyes on that goal, she was able to energize and solicit support for friends and foes alike along her journey. In the end, she achieved her goal, as you will in your effort to [italics] becoming a change agent.” Through their book, the authors can accompany you on your own journey. The Yellow Brick Road to high-performance for people and organizations awaits. Let the journey begin!


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