13th July 2017

Who are change champions and how can you spot them?

The Australian business landscape is littered with failed examples of organisational change. Each year we see a list of companies that have failed in the arena of managing and leading change.

In Australia this list of recent corporate collapses includes Masters Hardware, Hillgrove Mining, Clive Palmer’s Queensland Nickel, Topshop Australia, Payless Shoes and Dick Smith Electronics.

While this is the extreme end of organisations failing to handle change, smaller battles are being won and lost everyday across the country.


This challenge of managing change in the workplace has two distinct parts:

  1. Picking the right direction of change
  2. Making that change happen

Big or small, minor or major, evolutionary or revolutionary, all change efforts require a strong leader to champion them.

Apple’s Steve Jobs is well known as a visionary. Yet, what is often left out of his story is his role as a change champion who drove his vision to reality. Whilst his leadership traits may not have been pretty, he rescued an ailing company and turned it into one of the world’s most admired and most profitable corporations.

In Australia, we also have social change champions such as Rosie Batty who has been a passionate advocate of leading change for other victims of domestic abuse. And former AFL footballer Adam Goodes in the fight against racism.

While in the long term it’s desirable to grow your own champions of change, hiring one may be a perfect way to spark a specific and sustainable change right now.

A change champion holds the vision for a possible future in their hands and becomes an advocate for making it happen. They may or may not have the official title ‘Change Manager’.


Leadership traits of change champions

A champion of change is likely to posses the seven leadership traits outlined below:

1. Comfortable leading with new ideas

Any change for the future is built on a new idea about what is possible. To be effective in this context, the change manager needs to be able to deal with novel situations, new ways of behaving and be able to share the way forward with others.

2. Powerful project management skills

Organisational change is always created by running distinct projects with specific deliverables and deadlines. This makes project management skills one of the basic management competencies for a change champion.

3. Strong networking ability

While leading change from the top is important, often the real organisational change occurs in informal ways. This could be during casual coffee conversations or outside the meeting room. A change champion therefore needs to be able to influence people through informal channels and through their own network of people. Julia Battlina and Tiziana Casciaro provide a useful framework for change champion networks here.

4. Influential and engaging with others

Organisations are not plans. They are a group of people coming together to implement a plan. It follows that one of the most obvious leadership traits for champions of change is the way they interact with others. In particular, can they present a vision and engage people to pursue that vision. This may include coaching your fellow employees.

5. Superb problem solving skills

Organisational change is always tricky because any plans for the future rely on assumptions and presumptions that may not turn out as one might hope. The ability to be creative and solve situations as they arise is crucial to leading change.

6. Willing to take managed risks

Any change is risky. You are leaving the relative comfort of a known situation and heading out on a potentially rocky and unknown journey to a foreign destination. A top change manager must be willing to take the leap of faith required to lead the way.

7. Emotional management of self and others

The key factor that derails managing change in the workplace is our emotions. A change champion must be able to manage their own response to uncertainty as well as feel empathy for others who may be struggling with the changes happening around them.


How to spot a champion of change in an interview

Whilst it’s relatively easy to create a list of characteristics a champion of change has on paper, how does one spot the champ in an interview?

Here are some questions you might like to ask to determine whether you have a change champion in front of you:

  • Would you rather implement a small change that sticks or a large change that partly works?
  • Which is more important – the right plan or the right people? A good change manager will acknowledge that all plans are flawed in some way.
  • In your experience, what aspects of project management make the biggest difference to achieving your desired outcome?
  • Which leadership traits make for a good change manager? Listen for how they collaborate and engage with others.
  • Do you prefer to create plans or follow them?
  • What are some of the risks you have taken in your career so far?
  • Share an example of when you felt empathy for another person that made a difference in leading change
  • Select a scenario that is relevant to your change project and ask the change champion to sell why you should implement it.

Read more about what to look for in a resume when hiring someone for leading change here.


How to create a change champion

Building champions of change involves recognising and developing change advocates within your organisation. Make sure you:


Create specific change champions

  • Define responsibilities for specific types of change champions
  • Allocate change champion roles to nominated team members based on their skills and experience level
  • Make sure change champions are spread throughout all levels of the organisation

Train your change champions

  • Design training to provide the skills and information needed to be effective at managing change
  • Address these common change agent mistakes in your training

Foster teamwork & reward champions

  • Devise ways for the change champions to work together
  • Launch and promote a network of those leading change
  • Reward and acknowledge those managing change in the workplace – during the process as well as at the end.


The importance of leading change

Change management is crucial for the survival and growth of all organisations. As well as selecting the right direction to head in, we also need to build the capability to make that change happen.

And we can do that directly by growing or hiring change champions to boost our chances of ongoing survival and future success.

To find out more, download our new ebook about the impact of emotions on change resistance in contemporary organisations. Simply click the image below to get your copy.


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Paul Bethell

Paul Bethell

Paul Bethell is a Managing Partner in our Sydney office. A strong and dependable Kiwi, Paul has more than 25 years HR experience working in organisations across Australia, New Zealand, Asia and North America. He’s a bit of a specialist in talent acquisition, business integration, restructuring and change management.

Categories: Designing Organisations

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