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Harbinger Leader Insights: Identifying and Cultivating Informal Change Leaders

Change champions are individuals who have the power to influence their peers often without formal authority and are also the people who truly believe in the change itself. They can vouch for the change from within their own networks and move progress along much faster, despite having no formal obligation to do so.

It’s important to identify and explore informal change leaders because they can have a very significant impact on the success of your change and the ultimate result of whether your initiative will stick around for the long term. Identifying your informal change leaders is only half the battle, its important to understand how to empower them to guide your team in the right direction, towards the desired result.

The most obvious choices for change leaders are usually the employees in senior positions, your managers, team leads or executives. However, there are plenty of other strategic resources companies can use informally. Leaders and effective influencers exist within teams, departments, and business units all around us regardless of their formal position in the company hierarchy. Informal change leaders are typically employees who are well respected amongst their peers, they are proactive and often encourage a cohesive company culture. They have enough experience within their role or department to have already taken some responsibility helping others, guiding them through problems or issues, and engaging with their team personally. Informal change leaders have a variety of different traits that have crafted them into unofficial authoritative figures. Traits such as trustworthiness and approachability help build their credibility amongst their coworkers. They are also good at their job, they have trusting relationships with those above and below them, and other employees feel confident asking for guidance from them. These individuals are coachable and can truly make a difference when leveraged to help reduce resistance to change.

When identifying your informal change leaders, it is also important to analyze the social network and construct of your employees. Gaining inside knowledge on how people are connected and how they share information can reveal a common individual that may be very valuable for communicating and supporting change. When you map out the social connection between your employees you will see that it will form a web of contact and interaction rather than a formal organizational structure. This will help you understand how to effectively communicate change throughout the right social channels and how to target specific people within the chain. An informal leader who is well connected to a variety of people in the network acts not only as a vessel for communicating information, but they can also reveal crucial information about real issues employees are concerned about. Informal change leaders enable you to adjust your strategy to better support areas of challenge for your employees and collect feedback on the change as the initiative progresses.

So how do you empower your informal change leaders to steer them in the right direction? Sometimes they need to be persuaded and encouraged to become a change leader by first helping them understand the cause. If they are going to help inspire others to believe in the change, they need to believe in it too. To do this, it’s important to listen to their concerns and advice about the change initiative. Often, you’ll receive some important feedback that you can make before implementation. These change leaders will be more inclined to take on a leadership role if their opinions and suggestions are considered or integrated into the strategy, thus providing a sense of ownership.

Just as informal leaders cultivate strong relationships with their peers, doing the same between you and them builds trust and understanding. Interacting with informal leaders consistently keeps them in the loop, builds trust in what you say and makes them more likely to spread the word because of their relationship with you. Without constant involvement, they may not hear the right message or might not be equipped with the right tools for change. They also want to know that their contribution matters; you’ve recruited them to be informal leaders so let them flourish in this role by building the relationship and empowering them to communicate and lead.

Another important factor to consider is that not all influencers make effective change leaders. Just because an employee has pull in the network, does not mean they are suitable or responsible enough to help you lead your change initiative in the right direction. Some influencers may not desire the extra responsibility or have the willingness to do the extra work, others may have too much on their plate at the time of change. Lastly, your informal leaders must understand the benefits of the change and its impact on their roles and peers.

Although there are plenty of attributes to look out for when trying to identify your informal leaders, there is no formula or unique leadership style that pinpoints the most successful leader. Each informal leader will have their own strategy based on their personal style and skill set. They understand their peers best and which communication styles work for them, so giving them the autonomy to guide their peers as they would normally do in their role is essential. Let’s look at some common examples of informal leadership styles here:

  1. Influencers help their colleagues see “what’s in it for them” as a result of a successful change program, they help reduce skepticism and clear rumours about the change before it gets off the ground with clear benefits and advantages.

  2. Informal leaders build a consensus, they inspire others by explaining what, why and how the change is going to happen. They communicate how the change initiative will affect the long-term success of the company as a result.

  3. They encourage their colleagues to share concerns and challenges they see with the change. They foster a community of open feedback and discussion which ultimately shapes the change strategy and provides ownership to employees.

  4. Informal leaders use enthusiasm and commitment to success to simply convey their dedication to the change. They are well respected and leverage this to broaden the level of devotion among their colleagues to the program.

Overall, change is constantly evolving and while higher-level employees are able to articulate a clear and compelling vision for change, this isn’t always sufficient enough for the program’s success. Identifying, recruiting and empowering informal change leaders in support of the vision can significantly increase its likelihood of success. Informal leaders are an invaluable asset in their own community and network as their voice and impact has the power to define your change and implementation strategy.



Gregory Roth Managing Partner Toronto



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