Affecting change in an organization is possibly one of the most mysterious and baffling parts about professional life. There are countless books, podcasts, and blogs available about how to influence others, how to maximize your impact on the company, and how to grow your team. The lessons provided in that wide sea of content are fantastically valuable if applied in the right way and in the right context.
In my experience, there are three types of Change Agents: The Contributor, The Manager, and The Leader. Each one of these roles has a distinct pattern of behavior, a certain amount of organizational leverage, and a relationship to the change they are trying to make. The most effective individuals in an organization know when (and in what capacity) to employ these different traits to various situations and create change.
The Contributor’s job is to create. Many times, this word “contributor” is preceded by “individual,” and for good reason: being a Contributor can, and oftentimes is, a solo activity. The Contributor’s impact on the organization can largely be measured by what they have produced, either individually or collaboratively.
A Contributor’s ability to affect change is directly related to the problem at hand. The work that he/she is producing is a direct manifestation of the change they want to make, but otherwise the organizational leverage for affecting change is limited. In this role, the aim is not to change the behaviors or actions of others but only to change what is in their immediate control. This could be writing the code for a new product feature, performing the analysis on a large dataset, or compiling competitive analysis on a new product line.
Developing one’s skills as a Contributor is relatively straight forward. Attending classes and training, self-study, and simply “rolling up one’s sleeves” and experimenting are all simple ways to learn a new skill or get to the next level.
The Manager’s job is to facilitate. His/her contributions to the organization in this role can apply to project management (e.g. keeping track of all the moving pieces of an initiative), team management (e.g. helping a team work more productively or efficiently), and of course people management (e.g. having career conversations and finding professional growth opportunities). The Manager’s relationship to the Contributors is relatively well-defined, but the Manager does not affect the output in the same way.
An effective Manager has a deep understanding of the flow of information within a system. With that knowledge, this person can manipulate, redirect, and reinforce events that are happening in real-time. In the case of a disagreement between team members, a Manager will recognize this breakdown in the system and facilitate a conversation or some other type of remediation of the conflict. The Manager of a program may identify unaligned expectations between two sets of stakeholders and work to gather the latest information and build a new shared understanding. A Manager may notice that a team member in their charge is lacking a skill necessary to make them a more effective team member; this manager will help find opportunities for that training and mentoring.
The key to success for a Manager is their ability to design and improve systems across people, processes, and technology. If done properly, these systems improve communication between individuals and offer the right visibility to both the Manager and all stakeholders. The organizational leverage that the Manager has comes from the systems he/she is utilizing: these systems touch and interact with many other systems and individuals who will all be affected by newly-introduced change.
The Leader’s job is to influence. The Leader’s success hinges on his/her ability to establish trust and set an example that demonstrates a track record of objectives being met. The difference between the role of a Leader and the role of a Manager or a Contributor is that Leadership is earned through certain behaviors that often emerge from time, experience, and battle scars.
When it comes to influencing people, Leaders are adept at wearing three different hats: trainer, coach, and mentor. Acting as a trainer is the most hands-on of these strategies; this is the direct transfer of skills and knowledge to another person in the organization. Coaching, on the other hand, is helping an individual learn from various situations. Mentoring is the act of advising and guiding based on personal experiences, successes, and failures. By demonstrating expertise and knowledge as a trainer, providing timely and relevant redirection as a coach, and offering personal anecdotes and experiences as a mentor, a Leader is able to build rapport and trust with individuals in the organization. That trust is the single most important element crucial to any Leader’s ongoing success.
The ability to influence strategy and organizational change is largely dependent on the Leader’s ability to influence the people who will either implement, or be influenced by, the change. A Leader is not only expected to be able to articulate a vision, it is paramount that they are able to rally the organization behind it. This gives the Leader a tremendous amount of potential organizational leverage, even though they are much more removed than the Contributor and Manager from being able to make the changes themselves.
It’s understandable to imagine that there is a continuum from Contributor to Manager to Leader, but a continuum implies that there is a path to follow between roles and an individual exists somewhere along that path. Instead of visualizing these three roles as points on a line, consider them to be ingredients that can be combined in various quantities, providing a recipe for how someone can respond to various situations. For example, one can simultaneously be a Contributor and Leader (think: leading by example), a Manager and Leader (think: mentoring a direct report), a Manager and Contributor (think: a project’s lead developer), or combinations of any/all of these ingredients.
A fallacy with visualizing those three roles as a continuum is that it becomes very tempting to equate it with an increasing amount of Positional Authority (where “authority” is the ability to unilaterally make change, and this particular type of authority comes from having a certain title, rank, or status). The reason it’s so easy to conflate “leadership” with “authority” is that many of the underlying principles for demonstrating leadership also help someone to advance through the organizational ranks: expertise, experience, and influence. But, it is important to remember that correlation does not imply causation. Being a leader does not make you an authority figure, and being an authority figure does not make you a leader.
Going back to the ingredients metaphor, the amount of authority someone brings to any situation correlates to how much they choose to incorporate the roles of the Contributor, the Manager, and/or the Leader. The Leader arguably has the least authority of the three to affect change, as their success is often predicated on their ability to influence others. As a result, the Contributor has the most authority, as they are closest to the problem they are trying to solve and can affect change much more directly. The Manager, naturally, falls somewhere in between.
So, how can someone apply the knowledge of these three roles to affect change in the most productive way possible? They must start by realizing that each of these roles has a distinct “blast radius.” As a Contributor, the ability to affect change is much more localized to the problem at hand affording more unmediated control. The Manager has the ability to affect change on a larger scale but has less direct control over the actual work product. The Leader has a much wider scope of influence, but affecting change can be slower and more indirect. By mastering these roles, an individual will be able to craft a strategy that will affect change in the most productive way possible.