Blue Beyond Consulting

How To Cultivate Change Champions in Your Organization

A strategy-centered approach to change management is critical to executing organizational shifts that align with business priorities and drive impact. But because many strategic plans prioritize the operational aspects of the transformation, it’s not an uncommon misstep for organizations to leave their people in the lurch, however unintentional. 

The result is change initiatives that appear foolproof on paper but crumble when put to the execution test, which can cast long-lasting reverberations through the organization. It’s why nearly one in five employees consider leaving their jobs in the wake of significant change. 

That’s where your change champion strategy comes into play. An effective change champion network prevents businesses from leaving their people before, during, and after significant disruptions by helping your employees understand, process, and navigate the transformation process. 

In this article, we’ll discuss what change champions are, why they matter, and how you can cultivate teams that successfully champion change in the workplace. 

What Is a Change Champion?

A change champion is an employee who helps their organization facilitate and move through transformation. For many employees, change can be a stressful and uncertain process, but the best change champions are those who feel invigorated by change and are willing to help their colleagues process change from beginning to end. 

Change champions are also known as implementation champions, change management champions, and culture ambassadors.

Why Change Champions Matter for Today’s Organizational Transformations

Before we discuss how you can roll out your change champion network, it’s essential first to understand why change champions are more crucial than ever in today’s constantly changing world.

If you’ve ever navigated a major organizational shift — with your people, strategy, structure, or otherwise — you know executing change that drives successful outcomes and a lasting impact is no small feat. In fact, a third of organizational redesign efforts fail, according to research from McKinsey. 

The post-pandemic, change-constant work landscape has particularly felt the brunt of ineffective business transformations, as shifting employee mindsets and behaviors have only exacerbated the reasons underlying failed change initiatives. McKinsey’s research contends that poor management performance and employee resistance to change are the most significant contributors to failed change in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, (VUCA) world.

The solution, for many, is to recenter change management strategies around your business and your people. A human-first approach to change not only mitigates common roadblocks to successful transformation but can also propel your organization forward by cultivating enthusiastic worker buy-in, aligning internal and external stakeholders, and encouraging organizational shifts that last and drive impact. Your change champion efforts should, accordingly, layer into and further broadcast your existing change leadership work by assisting your people as they move through organizational disruptions.

To learn more about engaging your people through change, view our webinar on creating an organizational vision that inspires change that drives outcomes.

5 Steps To Cultivate and Grow Your Change Champion Network

Given their extensive reach across an organization, implementing new change champion networks (and growing existing infrastructures) is as challenging as it is essential. And although your change champion network will need to shift with the change effort at hand, establishing your process today will give you the framework necessary to respond to initiatives as they arise and cultivate champions around it.

Follow these steps for a change champion process that is iterative, actionable, and scalable. 

1. Lay Out Your Appointment Process

Change practitioners — both internal and external — who are tasked with cultivating change champion networks must first decide how they will appoint eligible candidates into change champion positions. No method is inherently better than the rest. However, one of the following options is likely advisable over the rest based on the nature of the change and the characteristics of the people you employ.

  • Manager nomination. With a manager nomination approach, your people management teams will be responsible for hand-selecting their ideal candidates to fill your change champion seats. This approach offers a natural pathway to engage management teams around the transformation and helps them begin thinking about both sides of the change coin (strategy and people).
  • Self-nomination. In this approach, individual contributors can self-appoint themselves to a change management position based on their interests or career aspirations. While this method can help your star contributors develop leadership capabilities, you should be intentional with the number of change champions you accept through a self-nomination approach; too few can strain your newly appointed members, while too many may dilute your efforts and introduce unnecessary complications.
  • Application. A formal application will require more upfront work, but this approach can help you better qualify your candidates and set clear expectations for the role in advance. Should you take this route, you’ll need to ensure your team has the bandwidth necessary to create, process, and review applications.

2. Create a “Job Description” for Your Candidates

The most effective change champions are those employees who come prepared for their positions and are aware of expectations. An internal “job description” should help you determine responsibilities and, as a result, help you better filter for the best candidates should you opt for a self-nomination or application process. 

An informal job description provides the secondary benefit of ensuring you and your fellow change owners are aligned on outcomes and the role your people will play as the transformation rolls out. In practice, that means your job description should clearly define expectations around position requirements (such as the approximate time commitment per month, whether champions will need to lead meetings, and how long they should expect to hold this position).

At the same time as you develop responsibilities, your managers should also begin to consider the skills and attributes they should look for in a change champion, such as individuals who:

  • Show strong leadership and communication skills
  • Are excited by projects outside of their day-to-day
  • React positively to change
  • Are a trusted, “go-to” person within their work circles
  • Are able to adapt with ease and understand the greater strategies at play

3. Engage Them (Don’t Just Tell Them)

Change is the only constant, and chances are, your change champions have navigated organizational shifts at a previous point in their careers. So, what will make this transformation different from the rest? The answer is a change communications plan that goes beyond checking off the internal communications box.

Here is your opportunity to engage your change network and answer the “so what?” behind your efforts. How will this decision impact how your employees work — both today and in the long run? What are the positive outcomes your change champions and their colleagues will enjoy? Are there chances to learn new skills, build new relationships, or grow into new positions thanks to these decisions?

You can further galvanize your change network by sharing the benefits they’ll enjoy as official ambassadors for the initiative, including the tangible and intangible rewards that come with the position (think of opportunities like developing a stronger connection to the company, having early access to program information, and sharpening leadership skills).

4. Design Your Change Champion Network Structure

Once you’ve developed an outline of how you’ll enlist your first change champions, it’s time to consider how you can grow your efforts into a full-fledged network. The key here is to meditate on a solid structure that works for both current- and future-states. This will involve defining specific roles for individual champions, determining leadership-level culture sponsors, and assigning culture captains — or change champions who can help govern this body and keep work moving forward.

This step should either validate that your network promotes ease of scalability or will help you pinpoint pieces of structure that, when implemented en masse, will create inefficiencies.

5. Equip Implementation Champions with the Right Information

In order to engage, unite, and guide their fellow employees through the transformation, your change champions must have access to information on the change that answers how people may be impacted and how leadership plans to operationalize their strategies. Consider the following resources for your next change campaign:

  • Culture kits help organizations distill their culture into a digestible resource that your change champions can, in turn, leverage to explain the change campaign within the larger context of your culture.
  • Change calendars should document upcoming change ambassador events and focus areas.
  • Visual communications are a highly impactful resource when you need a better way to tell your organization’s change narrative and elicit an emotional response from your audience.

Frequently Asked Questions

Want to learn the ins and outs of change champion networks? The frequently asked questions below are here to help.

How Does a Person Become a Change Champion?

Organizations have a few options when determining how they should assign change champion roles. Choose to have managers and other leaders nominate direct reports who best embody your change initiatives. Or, conversely, you can arrange an application or self-nomination process.

What Is the Difference Between a Change Agent and a Change Champion?

The terms “change agent” and “change champion” are used interchangeably by some change professionals. Compared to change champions, however, change agents typically bear higher-level responsibilities for executing change initiatives. 

As such, organizations often assign change agent responsibilities to mid- to upper-level leaders, while a change champion can be anyone within an organization or external to it (if, for example, you’ve enlisted the help of a change management consultant).

What Are the Characteristics of Effective Change Champions?

The ideal change champion agent should exhibit the same defining traits as the best change leaders in your organization. They should display a high capacity for empathic leadership, effective communication, agility, adaptability, and goal-setting.

Build Your Change Management Champion Network With Our Help

When executed correctly, change champion networks become a powerful force for change and a bridge between your people and your strategy. As today’s organizations pivot their strategies toward the future of work, leaders who invest in their champion networks now will find themselves best positioned to adapt to disruptions in the years to come.

To learn more about how you and your fellow leaders can better enact change, request a copy of our change management framework.