Because organization-wide change and innovation frequently goes beyond existing organizational subunits and lines of authority, change champions often need to go beyond their existing authority in order to get things changed. To do this, they need power, which can be thought of as the capacity to mobilize resources and people to get things done. And just as absolute power corrupts, absolute powerlessness on the part of change champions also corrupts in the sense that those who are more interested in turf protection than in the overall organization are not challenged to think and behave in a bigger fashion. 1
The advantage the change champions bring to the table is their deep knowledge of how things actually are and how things need to change to make the change vision a reality; the disadvantage that they have is their inadequate power base to influence those with whom they have no authority. Consequently, organizations that are “built to change” hire, retain, and promote change champions in sufficient numbers to counterbalance the equilibrium-seeking rest of the organization. In short, change champions are masters of influencing others without the authority to do so.
The first people change champions need to influence is their superiors and the top management team. Not all middle managers know how to “manage up,” but this talent is essential. There is a phenomenon operating to varying extents in all organizations known as “CEO disease.” This organizational malady is the information vacuum around a senior leader that gets created when people, including his or her inner circle, withhold important information. This leaves the senior leader out of touch and out of tune with the rest of the organization, its environment, or both. 2
Change champions are adept at selling strategic issues for senior managers to address. Change champions are also courageous enough to challenge senior executives when they are off track or misinformed. And change champions obtain the “sponsorship” of executives to act on the executives’ behalf. All of these behaviors require sophisticated political skills and the character to do this well.
In addition to influencing senior executives, change champions must also influence other middle managers to consider and adopt organizational changes. In this case, informal networks of influence must be created or expanded in order to bring about change, neutralize resistance to change initiatives, or both. One of the key ways that change champions do this is by the creation of alliances through exchanges of currencies.
Allan Cohen and David Bradford have written the seminal book on influence without authority, which is the ability to lead others when you do not have authority over them. These authors argue that many different currencies circulate within organizations, and that money is just one of those currencies. Those non-authority-related currencies include such things as inspiration-related currencies (e.g., vision, moral, or ethical correctness), task-related currencies (e.g., the pledge of new resources, organizational support, or information), relationship-related currencies (e.g., understanding, acceptance, or inclusion), and personal-related currencies (e.g., gratitude, comfort, or enhancement of self-concept). 3
In particular, they emphasize the role of negotiations in creating win-win intraorganizational alliances and partnerships. To do so, they argue that you as a change champion must (a) know and communicate what your goals and intentions are to your potential ally, (b) understand your potential ally’s world and what his or her goals and intentions are, and (c) make win-win exchanges that prevent organizational changes from proceeding. 4
Finally, change champions must influence frontline workers who are not under their direct supervision if the organization is to become change capable. Whenever change initiatives are launched, there are multiple “narratives” that flow through the organization because communication from the “top” is almost always inadequate, and listening from the “bottom” is often filtered. Change champions help to make sense of those often conflicting narratives so that frontline workers feel less threatened by the changes. 5
Similar to other middle managers, change champions, in order to get changes adopted, can also trade currencies with frontline workers over whom they have no authority. Since frontline workers often feel oppressed and ignored within many hierarchical organizations, the softer skills—such as expressing sincere gratitude, including frontline workers in the change process, and understanding and accepting them—are particularly important to change champions if these alliances are to be maintained.