Change Whisperer – Gail Severini, Symphini Change Management Inc.

Top 10 Competencies for Change Agents

What competencies should leaders and agents excel at to be successful? Are you building a Community of Practice or Centre of Excellence?  What’s on your list?

Below is my top-ten list for change agents―with a bonus for change targets. A previous post provided my top ten list for change leaders.

Late addition: Some might ask why there is no mention of methodologies or tools here—to which I would like to quote my friend Tamara Moore “A fool with a tool is still a fool”.  Perhaps the two single most critical success factors in executing change are the quality of the sponsor and the agent.  So what makes for “quality”?

Change Agents

  1. Trustworthiness—As change agents, we need to earn the respect of leaders quickly so they will seriously consider our advice and factor it into their decisions. This is the foundation of a relationship of partnering that recognizes the value each brings to the relationship. It begins with being trustworthy and demonstrating this every day, in every way―from being on time (i.e., reliable) to being insightful (i.e., adding value). More in “10 Tips for Becoming a Trusted Advisor in Change Management”.
  2. Resilience—Think of the old TIMEX slogan “takes a licking and keeps on ticking”. “Resilience is the ability to absorb high levels of disruptive change while displaying minimal dysfunctional behavior. Resilient people sidestep the dysfunctions of future shock because they are pliable and have a high capacity to rebound.” (“Human Resilience During Change”, Conner Partners White Paper). All individuals in the change benefit from developing resilience. Because change agents are in the fray, I believe they benefit most from this.
  3. Conflict management—Stress often leads to dysfunction that, at its most extreme, expresses itself in conflict. The ability to remain calm and objective and to help others work out their differences in constructive and healing ways is important. Rick Mauer has an insightful summary in his work on resistance: “level one—I don’t get it; level two—I don’t like it; level three—I don’t like you”. Change agents must develop the ability to understand when behaviors expressed as “I don’t like you” (anyone in the vicinity, but particularly change agents) are actually resistance to the change.
  4. Coaching—Few resources (leaders, agents, or targets) in the change process have all the competencies necessary to transition. Great coaching helps resources understand and develop in specific areas. Change agents need to be able to earn the trust of others and confront the difficult conversations through coaching with respect and candor.
  5. Facilitation—Change is about moving people’s thinking. Often this happens in meetings. The role of the facilitator is to objectively structure and run events such that energy is focused on the topic and all relevant participants are heard.  Information and perspectives are shared.  Analysis is generated and decisions are made.  Individuals enter the room with their own isolated starting position and leave with a fuller understanding of the group’s perspectives. Agreement is not necessarily required, but engagement informs the participant’s decision regarding his or her own level of commitment.
  6. Advanced communication skills—Not broadcasting, but rather two-way engaging dialogue, listening and talking. The ability to surface resistance and help individuals talk through it is essential.  Sometimes people don’t want to commit to the change. Getting them to the point that they will make a decision is difficult, and essential (even, perhaps especially, when the answer is “I will not commit to this change”).
  7. Emotional Intelligence—“The ability to manage oneself—to have self-awareness and self-regulation—is the very basis of managing others, in many ways.”  (“Daniel Goleman on Leadership and The Power of Emotional Intelligence”, Forbes, Sept 15 2011). If EQ is important to “managing others” imagine how important it is to helping others transition change.
  8. Tolerance for ambiguity and the ability to manage polarities—One of the distinguishing features of transformational change is that the change is constantly changing. The phrase “we are building the bridge as we walk on it” comes to mind. The varying high levels and dynamic nature of ambiguity and constant changes in direction wears on people. It wears on leaders, agents, and targets. Beginning with a high awareness of the nature of transformational change and resilience helps.
  9. Service mindset—Change agents act in service of the organization, specifically the sponsor. They must develop analysis, advocate for recommendation, and support decisions.
  10. Love of learning—The fields of strategy execution and change management are so broad and so deep that the path to mastery can be both fulfilling and long.

Knowledge Base

  • Nature of change—While this is only one bullet, the content behind it is huge. Understanding different magnitudes of change, and how humans respond to it, is a deep science.
  • How organizations work—Organization design—and how they really work (politics and other human dynamics)
  • Consulting Skills
  • Project Management
  • Business Analysis 

Bonus List—Change Targets

  • Nature of Change—Change is first an individual journey. An understanding of the nature of change empowers people to take more control in their own lives and in their careers.
  • Resilience (as noted above)
  • Personal responsibility—Employees who take responsibility for themselves make informed choices and they accept responsibility for their actions, and non-actions. They figure out whether they will participate in the change and are self-aware enough to avoid victimization.

If you still want information on methodologies and tools please have a look at the Strategy Execution Methodologies series.

Note: Many organizations promote a paternalistic culture that perpetuates the notion of “corporate loyalty” (i.e., “If you do a good job the company will provide you with a job for life” [exaggerated for effect]). This is perhaps a well-intentioned but never sustainable premise. If your organization has remnants of this culture, it should be addressed.

A special thanks to partner-in-change T.J. Rzeszotarski for his thoughts on this subject.

Getting something out of this? Please do share with your network by forwarding this post over email or over social media using the buttons below.  Thanks!


Now available for 2014: ‘Change Coaching’ and ‘Building Transformation Capability’

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” -African proverb

Email me and we can design a program for your team –


Reference Material:

  1. “Identifying and Developing Change Agents” with “Change Agent Selection Form”, Change Thinking Blog, Daryl Conner
  2. “Becoming a “Mindful” Practitioner”, Change Thinking Blog, Daryl Conner
  3. “Change Practitioner Competency Model”, Change Management Institute (CMI)

Related Posts:

7 Comments so far
Leave a comment


Great list! I would add systems thinking and influence to top competencies for change agents.


Comment by Heather Stagl

Thanks Heather. Great additions.

All: Heather does a great radio show and blog – you can find them from here

Comment by Gail Severini ©


When I grow up, I want to be just like this. 🙂

I also agree systems thinking could be useful. Coming from the trenches, seeing interrelatedness of different parts of the organization and peripheral interdependencies help root out and solve core problems. It’s messy when you’re unraveling the problems but the positive changes have better traction and the structure is stronger as a result.

Great post!

Comment by Helene

Me too – this is also my professional development checklist. You are certainly well on your way.

I also agree on systems thinking – it was in my mind when I selected “the ability to manage polarities” but it is far better to call it out.

Comment by Gail Severini ©

[…] Top 10 Competencies for Change Agents, Gail Severini’s latest post is a to do list for Change Agent improvement. […]

Pingback by Change Agent Competencies | Horizontal Change Management

Great list Garrett! I especially appreciated seeing curiosity and empathy there.

Comment by Gail Severini ©

[…] my last post, I highlighted Gail Severini‘s Top Ten Competencies for change leaders.  It is an accurate list.  It is a useful list.  But, it is an incomplete […]

Pingback by The Most Important Competency for Change Leaders: Acting with Integrity | Collaborative Acumen

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