Chapter 5 OCC Dimension 3: Capable Champions

Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you’re not, pretend you are.

Muhammad Ali

Top executives increasingly create cross-functional task forces comprised of respected middle managers to serve as a guiding coalition for major change initiatives. However, even when the top management team personally leads a change initiative, such as in life-or-death turnaround situations, individual change champions within the middle management ranks must “step up” if the change is to be successful. Consequently, the “vertical” chain of command, addressed in the previous two chapters (the hierarchical leader–follower relationship), is not enough to create a change-capable organization. Because organizations are removing layers of bureaucracy and because we are moving from an industrial economy to an information-based economy, “lateral” relationships and leadership are becoming more important. This chapter examines one essential part of that lateral relationship, namely, “capable champions.”

A capable champion is a middle manager who is able to influence others in the organization to adopt a proposed change without the formal authority to do so. In a systematic study of change champions conducted by McKinsey and Company, they found that these middle managers are different from the typical manager. While traditional managers always seek to make their numbers; change champions seek to satisfy customers and coworkers. Traditional managers hold others accountable; change champions hold everyone accountable, including themselves. In addition, traditional managers are fearful of failure; change champions are not afraid of failure and understand that they have career options outside of this job. In sum, traditional managers analyze, leverage, optimize, delegate, organize, and control with the basic mind-set that “I know best.” In contrast, change champions’ basic mind-set is to do it, fix it, change it, and that no one person knows best.Katzenbach (1996).

Clearly, organizations need to be both managed well and led effectively if they are to be successful over time. However, most organizations are overmanaged and underled,Bennis and Nanus (1997). and capable change champions are one of the best antidotes to this organizational imbalance. As Rosabeth Moss Kanter states,

Senior executives can come up with the most brilliant strategy in history, but if the people who design products, talk to customers, and oversee operations don’t foster innovation in their own realms, none of that brilliance will make a whit of difference.Kanter (2004), p. 150.