Digital butterflies: Assistants as change agents

Executive support professionals can step up and play a critical role in any transformation process, explain Julia Schmidt and Evon Wood

Increasingly, Assistants are being invited to take part in large transformation processes in our organizations. As part of a changing world, a volunteer army of individuals needs to be leading change to accelerate business. All executive support professionals must understand that we need to constantly seek opportunities, identify initiatives to capitalize on, and complete them quickly – as agile professionals.

Transformation is a great word that promises action, movement, renewals, shifts, and new shape. Two fundamental goals underscore most organizational transformations:

  • increase revenue/profits or decrease costs
  • become more effective or efficient

Executive support professionals are essential resources in giving organizations additional capabilities to lead change processes successfully. They are very often asked to be part of the large volunteer army from up, down, and across the organization to be the change engine. But are we conscious of the responsibilities this carries? Are we embracing the role of change agent with confidence and enthusiasm? Are we willing to take extra responsibilities and provide positive energy to change processes? Can we feel inspired by the desire to contribute to a larger cause? 

Understanding the Process and Designing Our Contributions 

Transformation can be seen as crossing a bridge, and the journey of the crossing – that is transformation. This journey is dynamic and full of continuous adjustments, challenges, and impediments. All players must collaborate to succeed in crossing the bridge, allowing everyone to find their contribution and responsibilities in this team effort.

How can we create an environment in which we can enjoy the transformation journey? How can we apply our competency and abilities throughout the crossing? We can do that by understanding that organizational transformation is a collective process that will push us outside our comfort zone. The mechanisms must be in place, but the people – employees and managers – bring the organization to life. Each one of us has a part to play. We are the heart and soul of an organization. We can make or break the transformation. So, on which side do you want to be? We hope you become a change-maker, make a difference, and cross the bridge successfully. 

The Big Opportunity

The eight-step process introduced by Dr. John Kotter – also known as the 8 accelerators – is fundamental for understanding how we can contribute to transformation processes. All professionals need to make change happen, not be the ones who create obstacles. Executive Assistants, as business partners, must support their executives, teams, and departments to succeed in the transformation.

It is about embracing the vision, creating strategic actions, being innovative, celebrating successes, and performing essential managerial processes. Leadership and managerial skills are needed. Management is not leadership. According to Kotter, management makes a system work, while leadership builds systems or transforms old ones. 

Below, we share tips on how to be genuinely on board so that the transformation can take off with your support.

Create a Sense of Urgency

This is the core of organizational change efforts. If the people in the organization see no necessity for the change, they will resist it, and may even seek ways to protest the transformation by sabotaging change efforts. As executive support professionals, part of our role is to promote organizational priorities and initiatives. We must understand the scope and timeline of the transformation and how the various areas of the organization will be impacted.

How to contribute

  • Help ensure that the leadership transformation sponsor remains engaged with the initiative. Lack of sponsor engagement is a death knell for transformation projects. Further, the sponsor can help keep leadership on track and assist in removing any financial or system roadblocks.
  • Offer to track transformation priorities. This gives you an overall view of the project and enables you to assist with addressing resistance or re-focusing concerns on the big picture and how the transformation will help/advance the organization.
  • Promote the benefits of the transformation. Focus communications on how the initiative will make the organization more competitive, cut costs, improve productivity, bring an antiquated system up to date, or improve customer/client service.

Build a Guiding Coalition

All transformation is a group effort. Creating an alliance of people to help guide transformation efforts is an important element of change. Just having a plan does not automatically mean that the people of the organization will embrace or follow that plan. Having a coalition that understands the mission and vision of the transformation and actively promotes and moves the process forward is critical. As the heart of every organization, executive support professionals should be part of these important teams, bridging the intent of leadership and the interests of the wider organization.

How to contribute

  • Seek the support of your manager to join the transformation team. Executive support professionals possess a unique view of the organization because their relationships span from leadership out to every department. Their participation in change initiatives can be a strong connecting force for the group’s efforts.
  • Suggest coalition team members to the transformation change manager. A well-rounded team is key to ensuring that the group receives input from diverse voices. Encourage the inclusion of individuals who offer diverging opinions and who help make sure that key aspects of the change initiative are not overlooked and do not become barriers to implementation.
  • Be an active transformation team member. Research similar initiatives by other organizations and offer ideas to the group that promote robust discussion and help to flush out the potential for resistance.

Form a Strategic Vision

Every change initiative must have a vision that reflects:

  1. the current organizational state;
  2. the needed transformation;
  3. the steps of change implementation; and
  4. the future organizational state as a result of the transformation process.

This vision must be clear and easily understood by every member of the organization.

How to contribute

  • Be the voice of the organization’s people. Ensure that leadership sees more than just the big picture of the transformation, but also considers how these changes will affect the people who make up the organization. Decisions will need to be made about workforce size and scope, training or re-training programs, technology installations or upgrades, etc. These all affect the organization’s people and will require supports from emotional to financial to help them through the change journey.
  • Executive support professionals are planning and communication gurus. Review implementation plans and suggest ways to streamline the stages of rollout. Ensure that the transformation leader communicates the change process frequently and through multiple channels: email, intranet, newsletters, etc. Also, help your manager to cascade information about the transformation down to their teams and encourage them to discuss individual questions during their 1:1s.
  • Be a strong voice for the transformation. Executive support professionals are the organization’s bridge between leadership and the larger organization. They usually have the pulse of the people and are able to positively communicate organizational priorities and initiatives to a broader audience.

Enlist a Volunteer Army

Your transformation coalition is the foundation of your change effort, but they can’t do it alone. Mobilizing a volunteer army around your initiative is critical. Getting widespread buy-in is accomplished with the support of this group of individuals. They are the promotion engine driving enthusiasm for the change throughout the transformation process.

How to contribute

  • Every organization has “influencers” who can affect the success of organizational initiatives. Getting these people on board with your transformation can have a snowball effect on your change effort. Take time to inform your influencers about the implementation, highlighting the organizational benefits to be realized once the future state has been reached. This will help them to mobilize their followers toward acceptance of the change.
  • There are always employees who prefer to contribute from behind the scenes. These are often powerhouses who choose to let their work speak for itself. Tap into these individuals. They may not like the spotlight, but they can be quiet and consistent change enablers through their actions.
  • Consider customers/clients or community partners that will benefit from your organization’s change initiative. Will there be a significant improvement in services or products? Will the transformation be better for society or the environment? Will more funds be generated for employee development or charitable endeavors? Include these entities in your volunteer army as advisors and promoters to the organization at large.

Enable Action by Removing Barriers

People often slip into comfort zones after years of doing things the “same way.” Facing a shakeup of all their previous knowledge and systems is extremely daunting and breeds deep uncertainty and fears about what the transformation means for them and their position within the organization.

Along with this employee anxiety, there can also be organizational barriers such as technological, financial, or operational pushback to change efforts. Humans are creatures of habit and do not easily embrace change. Instead, it is often met with distrust and worry. Executive support professionals excel in the soft skills that bridge disparate agendas and help guide them toward the organization’s priorities.

How to contribute

  • When conflicts arise about elements of the transformation, be a neutral voice for competing views. Ask clarifying questions for opposing thoughts. Often, having to talk through exactly why they are resisting the change can help the person become open to hearing the reasons why the change is necessary and how it will eventually benefit the organization. This process may also provide insight into problems that the transformation team may not have considered.
  • If you support a member of the leadership team, enlist the help of your manager to remove operational roadblocks. Department heads can often become very territorial when facing changes to their areas. Having the “weight” of a senior leader promoting the change, tying it back to the organization’s mission and vision, and promoting the initiative can go a long way to soothing ruffled feathers.
  • Call on your tribe! Executive support professionals have some of the strongest teams within an organization. They understand the value of collaboration and teaming. Having the organization’s administrators on board with the transformation and promoting the processes and procedures to their departments and teams can help keep the change engine moving forward.

Generate Short-Term Wins

If people don’t see that the transformation is having a positive effect, they will quickly turn against change efforts and resistance will begin to grow again. Sharing short-term wins frequently throughout the process will reinforce the transformation and highlight the benefits of the change for the organization, its people, and its customers/clients. This is another opportunity for executive support professionals to promote a shared organizational vision.

How to contribute

  • Offer to highlight a person or department embracing the change in the company’s newsletter or on the organization’s intranet. Consider using an interview format that allows the people successfully navigating the change to talk about how it has affected their work and the improvements being realized. This can be a powerful motivator for those employees still on the fence. Hearing positive experiences from their cohorts can have a more lasting impact than formal announcements from the transformation team or leadership.
  • If the change positively affects customer/client relations, suggest getting positive feedback from those who are experiencing the benefits of the transformation at various stages of the process. This could be a simple 2-3 sentence statement that’s shared with the larger organization on a recurring schedule, maybe every other month or quarterly. This brings home how the change is truly furthering the organization’s mission.
  • Suggest highlighting a member of the transformation team each quarter. Use a format similar to the interview suggested above. Have them talk about resistance encountered while implementing the change and how the team has worked to overcome it. Focus on the people of the organization and the importance of listening to the concerns of resisters, ensuring that they are heard and fully informed of the vision and mission of the transformation.

Sustain Acceleration

As change efforts move forward, the coalition and volunteer army team members will continue to support the transformation as the stages of change are implemented. This becomes even more important as challenges are faced, roadblocks are removed, and small wins are experienced. This is where processes, procedures, and habits begin to solidify and resistance decreases as the people of the organization fully accept that the change will continue forward.

How to contribute

  • Continue to be a cheerleader for the transformation process. As the stages of change are implemented, champion the development, promote it among your executive support teams, and highlight the wins in conversations and any organizational communications.
  • With every change effort there will always be those long-standing naysayers. They will complain openly (or privately). In worst cases, they will passively try to sabotage the transformation. Commit to discuss and promote the positives of the change with these individuals. Make a concerted effort to shift the conversation to the benefits of the transformation, how their job and/or knowledge can be enriched, and how the organization will be better off after implementation. Keep the focus on the benefits for them, for the organization, and for the customers/clients. This is the best way to address those who choose to resist to the end.
  • Become a power transformer! Volunteer to learn everything you can about the initiative and be a change expert for those with questions or concerns about the effort. Executive support professionals are usually the first stop for anyone inquiring about organizational initiatives. Commit to understanding all that you can about the transformation so that you can help to lessen apprehension from the very beginning of the change.

Institute Change

So, you’ve reached the point where most people are actively implementing the change and any remaining resistance has become negligible. Your organization is operating in the new state and the benefits of the transformation are obvious. Great work! But your efforts don’t end there. Now begins the work of “freezing” the new state into the organization’s people, processes, and culture.

How to contribute

  • During your work with the coalition and/or volunteer army, be sure to track these important aspects of the change process: 1) main reasons for resistance, 2) frequent roadblocks encountered, 3) any challenges recurring at various stages of the process. Discuss your observations with the transformation team. Your insights can be invaluable in helping them to connect the process with the people in future change initiatives. This is where executive support professionals can highlight their prowess as organizational bridges of communication.
  • As a follow-up to the above, share your observations with leadership as well. You can speak from a unique perspective that serves to supplement the transformation team’s reporting – again, bridging the various stakeholders of the organization.
  • Offer to monitor finalized processes and procedures. As the change continues to solidify within the organization’s day-to-day operations, the keen eye of executive support professionals can uncover ways to streamline the process and boost productivity even more. Use these insights to further strengthen the organization’s new state.

In Conclusion

Executive support professionals play a critical role in any transformation process, from bridging communications, to fielding employee concerns, to offering keen insights into the implementation process. Jump into these opportunities wholeheartedly. They allow you to immerse your strengths in the critical areas where you excel: organization, planning, and communication. Be the bridge that helps drive initiatives forward and improves your organization for its people, its customers/clients, and the community.

JULIA SCHMIDT is an award-winning Executive Assistant with over 20 years of experience working in different industries. She is known for being a passionate advocate for people development and in helping others succeed and embrace their leadership skills. ... (Read More)

2 comments on “The Big Opportunity: Assistants as Change Agents

  1. Richard Arnott on

    Excellent article Julia and Evon.

    Assistants sit at the crossroad of change and are in a prime position to contribute positively. They are usually privileged that they have access to more knowledge about what is going on in the organisation both at executive level but also on the shop floor than many of their colleagues. They are the eyes and ears and should be able to identify when messages are not being heard at either level.

    I have always said that Kotter should have a 9th principle which is “Benefits Realisation”. He does mention it, but too many change programs end up being change for change’s sake and organisations lose sight of why the change was happening in the first place. The assistant should constantly ask their executive and the transformation team how success is being measured. For example if the change was about improving productivity, has it happened and what proves that it has happened?

    I always separated out responsibility for benefits measuring from the transformation leadership otherwise you have people measuring their own success (or hiding failure). Assistants can bridge the gap between the team and the change sponsor and should volunteer to be the guardian of benefits measurement. This will provide a strong link between the executive team and the transformation team and ensure independent scrutiny of benefits is in place.

  2. Julia Schmidt on

    Thank you, Richard. With this article, we wanted to encourage all Executive Assistants to understand the value they can bring to organizational transformation processes as agents of change and show them how to do that.


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