“Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic self-hood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks—we will also find our path of authentic service in the world.”    —Parker J. Palmer

We normally think of the word “sovereignty” as applying to states or nations, but the concept can just as easily apply to people and, in particular, professional change agents. Whether we are discussing nations or an individual, the basic ingredient for sovereignty is independence—the capacity to operate primarily under one’s own authority. That is the subject of this blog series.

Professional change facilitators have two primary assets to work with:

  • The approach we use in our work
  • Our sovereignty as we deliver the work

Those who provide exceptional value to their clients demonstrate both deep expertise and a strong sense of autonomy. Those who produce marginal client value are usually lacking in one or both of these key ingredients. 

What tools do you use?

The particular approach you use on change projects (frameworks, concepts, techniques, etc.) constitutes the technical side of delivering value to your clients. These are the tools you use when practicing your craft. As professionals, we all place a high value on having the right tools to get the job done.

Practitioners without a designated, reliable approach (e.g., “I’m eclectic, borrowing a little from here and there as needed”), are unlikely to ever have more than a mediocre impact on their clients. If you don’t adopt an approach as your own (or aren’t particularly good at the one you use), you aren’t going to make much of a difference.

Mastery requires many cycles of repetition, which isn’t possible with an ad-hoc attitude toward diagnosing and addressing client implementation issues. You may choose an existing, intact approach; form a patchwork of borrowed components from other methodologies to create your own approach; or start from scratch and build a new one from the ground up. However you get there, mastery in this field requires that you dedicate yourself to an approach and stay with it so you can become proficient and eventually highly skilled at its application.

If you have selected a methodology you believe in and, after several years, are skilled in its application, then you are the intended audience for this blog. If not, Change Thinking in general and this series of posts in particular may not be of as much interest to you now as it might be later in your career.

As a professional community, we don’t lack for tools…we already have more concepts and techniques than we can use and be assured there are plenty more to come. What’s missing is the strength of our convictions to stand behind our approaches when clients want their changes faster, easier, and/or with less investment than is realistic. When we allow this to happen, we are failing to exercise our sovereignty.

Courage and discipline are as important as technique.

I am concerned by how quickly some practitioners who, although very skilled in their implementation approach and confident in its potential for success, cave the first time a client pushes back. Many practitioners won’t confront clients with the truth that the shortcuts they want are not in their best interests—what looks like a quicker, less-complicated route will not lead to realization success. What’s missing (assuming a solid methodology and proficiency in its application) is courage and discipline:

  • Practitioners must have the courage to be explicit when clients’ requests run counter to what their approach calls for. (“I agree it would be better to have strong sponsorship from our leaders, but that isn’t going to happen, so how do we make this change succeed anyway?”)
  • They must also have the discipline to stand resolute in the face of pressure to concede. (“If you want to remain assigned to this project, you’d better start accommodating the way we do things around here.”)

In this series, I’ll explore what I believe is largely behind the shortage of courage and discipline within our professional community. I’ll be examining why many of us lack the confidence to express the conviction we have for the approaches we use. In addition, I’ll offer ways we can take a more sovereign stance with clients as we advocate for utilizing our chosen methodologies—as they were intended to be applied.

It’s not uncommon for clients to push back.

As change facilitators, we face a challenging dilemma. On one hand, there is no doubt we are in service to the clients we support. They are the ones who decide whether we bring our knowledge and skills to bear during the implementation of their initiatives. More specifically, we are part of the execution process only to the extent they see value in what we do and how we do it.

On the other hand, much of the time, clients (especially sponsors) aren’t in a position to know what is in their best interest as far as which processes and techniques to use or when and how to apply them. There are three primary reasons for this: unfamiliarity, perspective, and personality.

  • Unfamiliarity

    Often, sponsors have no prior history with the change facilitators they are working with and are unfamiliar with the implementation process being followed. Because they don’t know what they don’t know, they are not in a good position to judge the practitioner’s performance. This can create a great deal of anxiety for the sponsor. Anytime one person relies on another to accomplish something important, but the first one lacks an understanding of whether the second one is doing his or her job suitably, stress, friction, and even outright mistrust can easily occur.

    This resulting tension between practitioner and client can be further complicated because some of the guidance being offered and actions being taken by the practitioner may be counter-intuitive for the sponsor, and counter-cultural at the organization. This can produce a double disruption to expectations: Not only is the agent helping the sponsors navigate the unfamiliar and treacherous waters of the change itself, but sometimes the viewpoints and activities the agent recommends during the implementation are also foreign.

    Sponsors have a lot at stake, yet are being counseled by someone they don’t know that well and given advice that isn’t always comforting. Regardless of the specifics, unfamiliarity can generate an environment where sponsors closely scrutinize each move the change agent makes.

  • Perspective

    Even when sponsors are familiar with and comfortable following both the practitioner and his or her approach, being in the eye of the storm can undermine their confidence. If the endeavor is more complicated than they have dealt with before or if the political gamble is great, sponsors might disregard advice they would otherwise accept. The greater the pressure, the more likely sponsors are to follow their own instincts instead of the suggestions of their change facilitator.

  • Personality

    Some sponsors aren’t open to practitioner guidance because they believe they have all the answers…usually about everything. These leaders deal with every challenge, even ones they have never seen before, as if the situation is well within their capabilities. They don’t often turn to advisors but when they do, the purpose is usually to confirm that what they have decided to do is correct. Suggestions to the contrary are not well received, and specialists who persist in offering opinions that don’t support the sponsor’s bias typically don’t last long.

Regardless of the reason, many of the leaders we support are not in a position to really know what is in their best interest and, as a result, they sometimes push back against or completely reject our advice. The fact that this happens is not the problem. Sponsors should question anything they are uncomfortable with. We are there to “guide,” not “enforce,” so sponsors should weigh what we have to say against their own perspective. The frequency of discarded advice is an important indicator for assessing our trusted advisor status and the degree to which our counsel is considered empowered input by sponsors, but there is nothing inherently dysfunctional about a sponsor declining change agent recommendations.

The situation becomes problematic when he or she not only turns down our suggestions but then tells us to pursue an alternative path that is inconsistent with our personal or professional boundaries.

Boundaries are necessary.

Should we expect that clients will always follow our advice? Absolutely not. Should we do everything possible to accommodate the client’s request when he or she asks us to modify our recommendations so they are more consistent with what is preferred? Without question.

Therefore, by no means is it a problem for a client to say no to our suggestions and/or want us to cut in half the time or effort involved in taking the next step. As much as we hope to generate value by providing insightful suggestions that are acted on, our primary function isn’t to ensure clients do as we say, it’s to help them make informed decisions.

That said, there is a line we should avoid crossing in our relationship with clients. A point can be reached where, instead of being asked to be flexible and creative about how to apply our skills, we are asked to actually ignore altogether some aspect of our craft that we consider vital to realization success. This boundary is undetectable to clients, so it is up to us to be vigilant about knowing where it is.

The partition between appropriate and inappropriate elasticity in the delivery of our work is not always easy to recognize, even for us. Sometimes, our desire to be helpful or our commitment to seeing a change succeed can cloud our thinking. Other times, it may be our unwillingness to be honest with ourselves that gets in the way. No matter what the reason, we should remain clear about the line that separates legitimate pliability on our part from unproductive pandering to sponsors’ requests. Just because we are under pressure to make the implementation process appear faster, easier, or less expensive than is actually required to be successful, this is not a reason to toss in the towel and with it, our integrity.  

The problem isn’t always that we fail to see the distinction between healthy adaptability on our part and abdication of our responsibility to make the case for what needs to be done. The line is sometimes all too apparent—it’s our lack of courage and discipline, not unawareness, that more than likely prevents us from taking a stand. There is a long list of things we can put ahead of the incorruptibility of our work—minimizing tension, ensuring we are seen as likable and easy to work with, job security, etc.

That said, the demarcation between permissible and out-of-line client requests can sometimes be difficult to define, and, without a doubt, maintaining the fidelity of the standards of our work can be risky. These challenges, however, don’t lessen our responsibility to do the right thing. It is in both the client’s and our best interests for us to be unwilling to conciliate past a certain point. Standing firm against pressure to do otherwise requires us to claim what I’m referring to in this series as our sovereignty.

In the next post, I’ll offer some background about the role sovereignty has in a person’s life, as a lead-up to a discussion of how it applies to professional change agents.