Chalmers St – Consulting

The Change Agent’s Role in Supporting Top Management

Years ago, I toured a Caterpillar manufacturing plant. It was a very cool tour. If you ever get the chance, I highly recommend it! The guide took us to the front of two lines that were next to each other and showed us their Gemba board and associated performance metrics. One line consistently outperformed, while the other was lagging targets. Our guide asked us what we thought was different between the two lines. We made some guesses but we really didn’t know. His answer was “culture” and more specifically management engagement. He said the line that consistently outperformed had a manager that started every day at the Gemba board with his team. He walked the line multiple times during the day and spent very little time at his desk. The manager of the underperforming line was just the opposite; he spent most of the time at his desk reviewing numbers with very little structure to his day. 


Leadership matters should be no surprise to anyone. There is a whole industry built around helping people become better leaders. I think what we get wrong is the idea that leading is an innate skill. We wrongly think that a leader is hired rather than a leader is made. We wrongly think that we cannot influence our leaders to create the structured practices that we as change agents know are so important to high performing teams. In this article I will outline what we know is important to leadership, what leaders often miss, and how we can help address these gaps as change agents. 


Top management must establish clear targets and priorities. This aligns the organization and prevents distraction. Vague goals, unmeasurable objectives, and too many initiatives leads to an environment of mediocrity where nothing gets accomplished. As change agents our job is to point out to our leaders where their directives lack clarity and where there are misalignments in the company. Misalignments are often not obvious, especially to leaders that are juggling a variety of tasks during a typical day. As change agents we are in the trenches, often seeing things that are opaque to our leadership. Additionally, we have the understanding of inner operations to what is being tracked and measured so that we can make sure targets are measurable and objectives are aligned and achievable. 


Top management must create an environment of high standards, structured practices, and demonstrate through their actions the importance of standards and practices. This varies greatly amongst different leaders. Pragmatic leaders tend to get this and follow consistent practices. Visionary leaders are often chasing the next big thing not focused on daily practices. Directive leaders are often pushing people to chase the whim of their latest order. Inconsistent practices distract from a repeatable cadence of habits that reinforce high standards. We might expect that leaders see the effect of their behavior on the organization, but this is not the case. One of my favorite lines is, “you cannot read the label from inside the jar.” They don’t know it. Our role is to help the leader see and establish and maintain those practices that we know are so critical to high performance. 


Top management must create the time and space for improvement work. The pull of the customer, the constant drum beat of meeting service levels, and making delivery dates, “when in doubt ship it out” is too often the reality of leadership. Leaders need to help the organization slow down and actually spend some time thinking. It is important to ask why the date is wrong on an order, why we mis-shipped the last item, why we keep incurring defects… why, why, why. All these problems, of course, are the reasons why everyone spends so much time working in the operation rather than on the operational processes. Top management can make the situation worse by creating pressure without any support. Creating this space is not just the job of top management. As change agents we have a role in helping leadership budget for continuous improvement. The budget must consider the people and the time to the annual, quarterly, weekly, daily plans that will allow for useful reflection on organization performance. Creating cross functional meetings, efficient and effective meetings, where issues are understood at a systemic level, and solutions are applied to the root cause. Top management doesn’t always have visibility to how their directives constrain or eliminate the organization’s capacity to perform continuous improvement. Our job is to create the structure needed to ensure this space exists. 


Top management must develop employees to see problems and gain the skills to solve problems. This is imperative and not simply a “nice to have” skill or capability in the company. This is obvious to the change agent, but for top management, they may see smart people around them and assume that those people will organically solve problems. They assume that smart people know how to effectively improve the operations and do not need any help. Change agents can fault our top management for not valuing development, but we also know that time and money spent on training does not always return results. This is on us and it quickly turns leaders off to further investments in developing employees. We have a role as change agents to ensure the investments made to develop people provide a real return on investment. We also must ensure that development goes beyond training and translates into actions and that leaders can see the connection between the investments in development and improved performance results. 


I am sure many of you can add to the habits and behaviors that top management needs, but all too often lack; however, I am not intending for this article to be a critique of top management. As change agents, we must not assume that our leadership is going to come in with all the answers and all the right behaviors. Frankly, if that were the case, they would not need change agents. As change agents we have the role of tactfully helping leaders see the holes in their actions and providing our leaders with the structures that we know help companies reach high performance. We must support the leader in the application of these best practices.