Virtual Learning Resource Centre

Change activist: Make big things happen fast

Book cover

by Carmel McConnell, Pearson Education Limited, 2003.


The author believes that large organisations that exercise greater social responsibility will gain consumer trust and ultimate market advantage. The skill of the social activist is needed to accelerate change in organisations. Success, profit and principle are mutually achievable.

(Reviewed by Kevin Barham in March 2003)

(These book reviews offer a commentary on some aspects of the contribution the authors are making to management thinking. Neither Ashridge nor the reviewers necessarily agree with the authors’ views and the authors of the books are not responsible for any errors that may have crept in.

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What do Anita Roddick of Bodyshop, A. John Bird, founder of The Big Issue, and the residents of Hinchley Wood, Surrey have in common? The answer, according to Carmel McConnell, is they are all, in their different ways, what she calls 'change activists'. They are role models from whom we can learn a great deal about taking responsibility for our lives and careers, influencing business outcomes and finding new, more socially responsible ways to do business. Roddick is well known for her crusade against animal testing and environmental protection. Bird established his street magazine to help homeless people; he sees himself as a force for change in helping business and the community work together and in creating new forms of investment such as a social bank that will provide start-up capital to recycling businesses and community resources. The community of Hinchley Wood successfully fought a campaign to preserve its village way of life against a proposed drive-through car park and hamburger restaurant.

Carmel McConnell is herself a long-time change activist, having been involved in anti-nuclear (Greenham Common) and anti-racism causes, and working latterly as a global corporate consultant. Her perspective also derives from her management experience in large organisations. She says her major interest is in the link between social justice and big business and helping large organisations to learn and apply greater social responsibility in the belief that consumer trust is the ultimate market advantage. If the 1990s were about building bespoke customer relationships, the early 21st century is about greater stakeholder inclusion and ethics as part of the brand package. Ethical business results can be achieved through value-driven activism.

Trust as competitive advantage

The concept of trust as competitive advantage has gone 'from nice to mainstream', says McConnell. In this 'worldwide webbed marketplace', you have one true source of competitive advantage - the answer to the question 'Can I trust you or not?'. Business leaders have to demonstrate their trustworthiness to investors, employees and customers. You have to run your business honestly, hire honest accountants and communicate openly because you have nothing to hide. Leadership brand value is highly market sensitive. If the leader of a publicly-quoted company demonstrates less than impeccable character, this is increasingly linked to company value. The leader who is willing and able to demonstrate a change activist capacity has a source of competitive differentiation in the marketplace. Internally, leaders who can articulate direction and create a structure within which people feel sufficiently valued to contribute. Scary bosses get told what they want to hear so they can't take action until it's too late.

McConnell defines a change activist as someone who takes action outside their comfort zone. The benefits of change activism are the opportunity to create personal profit, with principles. Success comes from making big things happen fast. Fulfilment comes from doing not only the big thing, but also the right thing. Social activists are experts at both. They know how to grab headlines, plan effectively, get people on their side and make a difference. McConnell says we can all use activist tools to get results fast, and how success, profit and principle are mutually achievable - 'you can have your job and give a damn'. Employing activist tools can improve your 'trust making' abilities, challenge your business assumptions and improve your profit levels. Profit, principles and success are mutually achievable.

Traditional approaches to change management don't work, says McConnell. Who can attempt a lifestyle turnaround or real change in the workplace when faced with the daily in-tray? There is a better way based on the principle of change activism. This is about taking control at a personal level - McConnell says her book shows how to apply activist principles to your working life so you can become successful and change your mindset to a more positive, pro-active state. We are all timid about business and personal change, she says, but action is still the only way to make things happen. Change activism 'turns up the volume on the things you care about'. Activists have a passionate connection to what needs to be done and a huge sense of fulfilment which is what happens when your contribution comes from the heart. Your fulfilment level is directly linked to your contribution level.

The boss doesn't have all the answers anymore

Trust will replace fear because trust is more effective and cheaper. Market pace needs speed of light decisions, taken by people who are then courageous enough to act. Corporate leaders who can state their objectives clearly and live by values that are authentic and visible tend to grow the kind of employee commitment necessary for fast market response. Companies without trust don't usually produce world-beating performance. Business needs the brainpower of passionate, powerful, practical people.

An activist mentality brings a range of benefits at work and in business. Knowledge encourages one to network and build a support base in a company and to engage others in ideas and across boundaries. Creativity helps drive innovative approaches to challenges. Persistence helps get things done despite barriers and recognises that one failure is not a failure of the idea, but only of that attempt, and that from that one can learn and make the next attempt more effective. Being proactive involves acting in stealth mode and hiding intentions from the formal power holder until it is necessary to make it public. Planning means always thinking in terms of contingencies and what could go right and wrong. Integrity says don't compromise principles or purpose in pursuit of the objective. Care with money helps gets things done on a lean budget. Employee satisfaction helps engage people's participation partly through monetary rewards but also through 'people rousing' skills. Respect for diversity is a litmus test and is just one aspect of the growth of the principle of 'to thine own self be true' in the workplace.

For campaigns to succeed, the activist has to be smarter and faster than the institution or individual being challenged. Activists usually have fewer material resources. The advantage has to come from inner, rather than outer resources, such as 'outrageous creativity', the ability to trust each other and 'simple, quiet bravery' when it comes to the event. The activist sees life from a more focused viewpoint and there is an urgency to each day. Activists are 'juiced' on values and that gives a huge boost to performance - values are the fuel for our careers and our life achievements. If your job doesn't rotate around them, it will start to rotate around something that allows you to escape.

A toolkit for change

Based on her own activist experience and learning about other campaigns, McConnell proposes a core set of skills and attributes that make up a change activist toolkit. Successful activist campaigns have the following in common:

  • Clarity of objective.
  • Motivation and motivational leadership.
  • Trust and care - emotional intelligence.
  • Inclusive ways of working.
  • Communication.
  • Sense of self-esteem and worth in the world.
  • Physical stamina.

The skills needed to make campaigns are not new and you probably have a combination of them in your organisation already. The challenge is to develop activist capacity, based on a wide enough coalition of common purpose, within an environment where risk-taking and innovation are seen as critical to learning.

The activist skill set can be used to accelerate change in your organisation. It can also be used to make changes in your career path. For example:

  • Ability to think of the wider context - connecting thought's and experience to a greater whole and taking action that results in real improvement in people's lives. To develop this skill, McConnell recommends doing your own research and get a good grip on a news or business story - ask what you can forecast, contribute to and comment on. A sense of the wider context gives you real decision-making power.
  • Making decisions and acting quickly - slow decisions are like no decisions in today's fast-track business. Change has to be fast change. Change activism is about speed - speed of thought, speed of decision, speed of action. You can do things faster - keep on pushing your daily comfort zone into action.
  • Determination and perseverance - sometimes to the extreme - is the hallmark of activism.
  • The ability to care - McConnell draws on the work of Daniel Goleman (whose books have also been reviewed on the VLRC) on emotional intelligence - the capacity for recognising our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships. Spend time with the team, she recommends, talking about feedback from customers. Be available to discuss things informally with newer members of the team. As the Web brings even greater integration between suppliers and customers, emotional intelligence will be the invisible glue holding the virtual process together.
  • Being able to simplify complex subjects - so everyone can understand and take action. As an exercise, define your current job on a slide using one slogan and one image. Ask people to guess your current role - ask 'why?' if they fail to guess correctly.
  • A determined leader - make sure the effort has something important to achieve and that there is appropriate sponsorship; push the benefits again and again; talk with passion about how much better things will be when the goal is accomplished.
  • Clarity on career/life objectives - all our objectives should be SMART: Specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and with a timescale.
  • Active versus passive thinking - believing every week is an invitation to get things done; being honest with yourself and getting feedback; focusing on the things that really matter.

You have to create an action orientation where you work. Go through the activist toolkit at your next team meeting and ask members to score the team on each element. Ask what might be stopping necessary action taking place in the team. Remember that change activism starts at the top.

Change fluency

Senior managers and intrapreneurs have to be change fluent. They need a passion for learning and clarity on all kinds of investment. They have to be able to build diverse coalitions of stakeholders. They must expect high performance and success and have a proactive approach to work in terms of organisational and market perspective. They will also have a very strong sense of personal responsibility for outcomes. These are all facets of an activist mindset.

Taking control of your career

How important to you, asks the author, is the adage 'to thine own self be true'? Very few people, she maintains, think anything about their lives beyond the next couple of months. Those that do, have a real advantage. What you hold in your mind becomes the world you live in and what you think about each day is your future. So, the questions you ask and the thoughts you choose can make you victim or hero. You have to find out what you really want (McConnell provides exercises for doing so). Self-esteem grows from action. A rich, full and happy life comes from changing, working out what you want and taking action. It's what you think and do today that makes a difference.

We are raised to seek approval externally, but in our search for external validation we often fail to consider what we would really like to do. So, says the author, stop and consider: What would I most want to do with my life if I really knew I was guaranteed success? McConnell recommends using Edgar Schein's 'career anchors' as one way to determine what you want out of your career. If you spend time figuring out where you want to get to and what is important to you, you will know your destination and will have your route map.

We are all involved in change, says McConnell. See yourself as a personal activist, get passionate about your choices and you will become more powerful. She certainly writes with passion herself and delivers her message in a fast-paced, entertaining fashion with lots of exercises and checklists for the aspiring change activist. She is donating all her royalties from this book to the Magic Sandwich, a new child poverty charity she has founded to provide nutritious food and food education to underfed school children in the UK. A percentage of the publisher's profits will also go to this cause.

Ultimately, being a change activist is about belief and hope. The villagers of Hinchley Wood were told there was nothing they could do to stop an unacceptable land development proposed by a global corporation and condoned by the local council. They took the view, however, that if you don't try, you don't have any chance of achieving what you want. They actually won.

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