Change has always been a contradiction. It’s inevitable. It’s the only constant. Then again, it’s also slow and hard to implement, sometimes hamstrung by bias and fear of the unknown.
Yet systematic change was imposed on us all during the COVID-19 pandemic and continues to gather pace as humanity faces the existential threat of climate change.
So it’s unsurprising now that there’s a new generation of changemakers committed to altering how we think and live and, crucially, how we do business for the better.
Expert in leadership and change Professor Alex Budak of Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley and author of Becoming a Changemaker, defines a changemaker as someone who leads positive change from wherever they are.
“My definition is radically inclusive, and while it absolutely includes and often is anchored in areas of positive change beyond social and environmental, it also provides room for many other areas of impact, including artistic and technological,” he says.
This beyond-values-based approach demonstrates how far we are moving away from the time when business leaders focused on shareholder concerns and maximizing the bottom line.
According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, people expect corporations and CEOs to continue addressing the most pressing social and political issues, even now that the pandemic is over.
“We’re witnessing a new generation of changemakers coming through and also a movement, which they’re calling democratization of the workplace,” says Kris White, a behavioral psychologist with ap2 consulting.
“The visionary leaders and top CEOs know the younger people are values-driven, so want to empower them.”
White is the co-researcher of the ‘On The Minds of CEOs’ report commissioned by Changemaker Companies (a partnership between strategic advisory Ylios and non-governmental organisation Ashoka), where 40 CEOs of international companies that had 1,000-plus employees and a turnover of more than US$542 million were interviewed to find intrinsic drivers and barriers to sustainable business transformation.
It makes good business sense as both the Changemaker report and the Edelman Trust Barometer found that individuals have more influence on business as potential employees than consumers.
White puts this down to the competition for talent.
“Attraction, engagement and talent were mentioned as key drivers of business transformation by most business leaders. Talent now chooses to align their values with the companies they work for,” White says.
According to Budak, those changemakers are shaking up the status quo, looking for new and different ways of approaching challenges and opportunities.
“Changemakers innovate at the edges of disciplines, approaches and perspectives,” he says.
“If you think about the big, meaningful challenges to be addressed this century, from racial justice to clean water access, no single discipline or approach has a monopoly on solutions.
“Instead, changemakers are able to see connections across, between and among all of these fields, often developing fascinating new collaborations along the way.”
Implementing changes and positively impacting the world is also about business survival, whether meeting conditions imposed by investors and regulatory bodies or increasing consumer and media scrutiny of ESG policies.
“Business is used to discussing growth and future direction, strategy and growth. But now risk is prevalent in leaders’ minds as they negotiate these incredibly complex decisions or, as they’re known, wicked problems,” White says.
“Now we are in the messy business of complexity. CEOs also listen and pay attention to the world around them. They know that it’s essential.”
Changemaker companies are identifying and supporting individuals within a company to be empowered.
“The changemaker model is identifying people who are driven and want to have an impact, and then equipping them with the tools internally to be that voice in the organization and change it from within,” he says.
Budak notes it is not pie-in-the-sky thinking either.
“We are absolutely starting to change the way business gets done, but we are not there yet,” Budak says.
“One of the markers of an impactful changemaker is their ability to help those around them become changemakers, too.
“So the shift may begin slowly, but it will grow exponentially as we step into our changemaker potential.”
He says there are a few ways to get started, even if someone lacks the traditional power to affect change.
“A powerful way to influence is to ask questions instead of telling someone what to do,” Budak says.
“Provide a decision-maker with two options for engaging in the change – both of which you find acceptable – so they feel a sense of agency in deciding.
“Or start by asking for less. Instead of trying to get everything you want all at once, try to get a small win through a more limited ask and then use that initial success to build momentum for greater change.”
Budak also says it’s important to find allies.
“Changemaking is a team sport, so instead of going it alone, especially in the face of power dynamics and hierarchies, engage peers to be part of your change so that you can advocate for change together.”
CEOs and senior leaders need to create a safe space for teams and their management to challenge a direction or a strategy in an open forum and debate it.
“Be real about the challenges and be transparent about it,” White says. “Open up and invite solutions rather than just going on as business as usual.”