The case of the undercover change agents

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new” – Socrates.

It started with a conversation ...

Rainy day. Low temperature. Pre-Covid-19 good old days, where we could meet a new client in-person. Free coffee at every client meeting! Woohoo!  

– (Client): … we don’t know who tomorrow’s leaders will be! I’m fighting a very traditional culture here.  

– (Us): Do you have a Tom, Dick, Harry, Susan, Helen, and Amy identified as the next in line? You know, high-potentials?  

– (Client): We don’t know. On paper, everyone always gets glowing reviews.  

[Fast forward some discussion]  

– (Us): How about we create a type of assessment/development centre for you? We will be assessing them along the way, while developing them to fill in their skills gaps. But it will be masked as a learning academy, which is the ultimate purpose anyway. We’ll identify the right people to join and then do whatever it takes to get them up to shape. But this is a long-term intervention; not a “Friday-workshop-and-Monday-you’re-back-at-work-doing-the-same-ole-thing” kind of engagement.  

– (Client): But how do we break down the traditional mindset and culture? Another intervention?  

– (Us): Doesn’t have to be. Two birds, one stone. Developing your high-potentials, and getting them to indirectly work on changing the culture.  

– (Client): But culture change is a big thing. I don’t see how that can happen!  

– (Us): Easy. We won’t fight the culture. We’ll focus everything on how tomorrow should look like. We’ll make these high-potentials change champions. But, in the background. Have them indirectly affect the culture. We’ll get them to be your company’s undercover agents of change.  

– (Client): I like the idea of…  

– (Receptionist): Does anyone need coffee or tea? Some nice biscuits?

The cave, the plan, the brainstorming ...

Back to our underground lair of learning innovation, we started throwing around ideas. Like this? Like that? Could we do this? What about that? Two days and two nights, and lots of club sandwiches consumed on the go, we toiled and cried and laughed. And by the rising of the sun on the third day, we had a plan. Kind of. Well, more like a jumbled-up mess of sticky-notes and illegible scribblings and cute little hand-sketched cartoons, all over our brainstorming wall.  

OK. Our client needed change to their culture. They needed to prepare their next-in-line leaders. A full learning academy, to identify these professionals and get them trained on a crazy variety of skills and concepts, all the while warming the bench for them, to be ready to jump into more managerial shoes. Oh, and we also wanted to make them undercover change agents; to have them indirectly influence the culture at as many levels and corridor corners and watercooler hangouts throughout the world as possible.  

Easy. Pffff.  

We created an 18-month academy, with multiple interaction points. Seriously, multiple. As a timeline, they took up too many screens on our Miro board (there was a lot of scrolling and zooming in and out involved). And we built flexibility into the Academy, because each high-potential (HiPo) professional, obviously has different needs. And these would need to be addressed.  

– (Deano): Whatever it takes dude?  

– (Paris): Whatever it takes.

An "interaction point" walks into a bar ...

Online courses to introduce new concepts, in-person workshops to drill down into new skills and behaviors, a Corporate Retreat Boot Camp to bring everyone together as a team, virtual workshops to hammer in even more skills and knowledge, small-scale HR projects for teams to work on and drive throughout the company, back-at-work solo assignments to practice skills and transfer learning to others in the company (multiplying factor), group coaching, 1:1 coaching, ad-hoc tasks for them to work on (that came from company’s strategy along the way), switchable buddy systems to build relationships, Mentors to open up doors for them, a six-month Innovation Sprint to de-risk new business ideas, and a Graduation Demo Day to present their entire journey and final business ideas to senior leadership.  

We called it the HiPo Accelerator.  

We obviously tore this plan to shreds every 2 months, as we adapted to our HiPos’ needs and the new company initiatives we wanted them to be a part of. Back to the drawing board and back with a new plan. Over and over again. Because that’s what was needed to deliver this. Over the next 18 months of our lives, we gave them everything we could. And it was a beast of a program.

The dawn of the change agents ...

We successfully managed to transform our HiPos into undercover agents of change. All the projects, ad-hoc tasks, and assignments we created for them, were based on HR and company-wide initiatives that had, until then, been met with great resistance. With our HiPos driving these re-imagined initiatives forward, they were successful in engaging other professionals around them. Positive gossip about what was happening throughout the company spread like wildfire. And our HiPos, well, they were people you wanted to listen to and you respected enough to be willing to participate in whatever they championed. The multiplying factor at its finest. Low satisfaction scores on culture surveys? Low response engagement with company’s attempts to give their people a voice? Low acceptance and resistance towards co-creation of a solid induction program? Difficulty getting people on board with structured interviews and creating solid Interview Guides? No worries. Our HiPos championed all these initiatives. And more.

It ended with a bang ...

Hamburg. November 2018. Cold. Cloudy. Rainy. But awesome! The Demo Day Graduation Event scheduled for that night was to see all senior leadership and some invited VIP clients attend, to witness three business idea pitches. Three HiPo teams presenting. And then dinner and cocktails (and a really amazing blues band providing the soundtrack for our night of innovation and accomplishment). Never before did the company hold such an event and also invite clients to something that was an unknown.  

We spent the entire morning, lunch, and early afternoon on pushing our HiPos to the extreme on their pitches. VIPs attending, C-level people, lots of pressure. Coaching. Pitching. More coaching. Some more pitching. Obviously, plenty of water throughout (hydration is important!).  

Fast-forward to 7pm. Lots of buzz from the crowd. Crackling in the air. HiPos sweating and mumbling their pitches silently, over and over again, looking as stiff as boards.  

And then the CEO walks up to the stage. Silence in the room. Conversations cut short, mid-sentence. He taps the mic (as we all do, to make sure it’s working). Thump thump. The CEO starts speaking. And gives us chills, when the message he conveyed to the audience, was the exact vision we had 18 months ago, when we were pouring our hearts and brains into creating the Accelerator. “It seems our HiPos have been working on more fronts than one. It seems our HiPos have been pushing us to change, but we never knew it was happening. Right under our noses. And I think something has happened. And it’s good.”  

The teams pitched. The judges scored. Deano shed a tear, but blamed it on a fleck of dust. Paris remained composed, like the diplomat he is. The HiPos were radiant. Our HR Batwoman, well, she was as excited as can be. And the band started playing. Some shaking of behinds and head-bobbles going on. Dinner was served. And yet, everyone stayed. Fancy looking cocktail glasses and bottles were thrown in the air and shaken and stirred by cool bartenders. And yet, everyone stayed. The night kept going and the enthusiasm in the air lingered on. And yet, everyone stayed.  

Our HiPos had the time of their lives, having given powerful presentations and enjoying the chance to interact with senior leadership!

And the culture? Well, the small fires we had set throughout the company, had managed to spread to all corners of the world.  

And that’s how we helped our client kickstart their way towards change. Towards embracing a new reality.

Fast-forward 6 months

One of the business ideas was pushed forward and executed and was now a healthy business, using the company’s key strengths to tap into some value propositions, that were unrealized up until then. Another business idea was OK’d to proceed to piloting further. Great bottom line results!

Does your company need a HiPo Accelerator?

If this ultimate Learning & Development program sounds like something you need, visit our Bespoke Academies for more info, or Contact Enterprise Sales!