5 Rare Signs You're A True Change Maker

In the midst of disruption, the only viable strategy is to adapt.

Woman invoking change by identifying a problem Africa images, designer491 | Canva

Chances are, you work in a square-peg business because that’s the best way to make money. You work diligently to improve the pegs and to get them to where they need to go better, faster, and cheaper. It is through quality and consistency that you can best serve your customers, beat your competition, and win in the marketplace.

The problem comes when your square-peg business meets a round-hole world. When that happens, following traditional best practices will only result in getting better and better at doing things people care about less and less. Round holes don’t concern themselves with how good your square pegs are or how efficiently you can produce them.


Make no mistake. Eventually, every business eventually finds itself in a round-hole world. That’s why good companies fail. Not because they become stupid and lazy, but because the world changes and they lose relevance. Clearly, in the midst of disruption the only viable strategy is to adapt and shift from a traditional manager mindset to a changemaker mindset.

Here are the 5 elements you're a true change-maker:

1. You don't look for a great idea, you identify a good problem

“Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door,” Ralph Waldo Emerson is said to have written and since that time thousands of mousetraps have been patented. Still, despite all that creative energy and all those ideas, the original “snap trap,” invented by William Hooker in 1894, remains the most popular.


We’ve come to glorify ideas, thinking that more of them will lead to better results. This cult of ideas has led to a cottage industry of consultants that offer workshops to exercise our creative capabilities. They walk us through exercises like Brainstorming and SWOT analysis. We are, to a large extent, still chasing better mousetraps with predictably poor results.

The truth is that every great change leader starts out with a problem they just couldn’t look away from. Change doesn’t begin with an idea. It starts with identifying a meaningful problem. That’s why it’s so important that before you start an initiative you ask questions like, “What problem are we trying to solve? Is there a general consensus that it’s a problem we need to solve? How would solving it impact our business?

Make no mistake. Change isn’t about ideas. It’s about solving meaningful problems that people care about.

RELATED: The 9 Rules Of Innovation


2. You anticipate resistance

The biggest misconception about change is that if everyone just understood it, they would embrace it. That’s almost never true. Make no mistake, if you intend to create a genuine impact, you will get pushback. Some people will hate it with every fiber of their being. Not for any rational logic, necessarily, just because for whatever reason, it offends their dignity, their identity, and their sense of self.

In Rules for Radicals, the legendary activist Saul Alinsky observed that every revolution inspires a counterrevolution. That is the physics of change. Every action provokes a reaction because, if an idea is important, it threatens the status quo, which never yields its power gracefully. Clearly, if you intend to influence an entire organization, you have to assume the deck is stacked against you and anticipate resistance.

A simple truth is that humans form attachments to people, ideas, and other things and, when those attachments are threatened we tend to lash out in ways that don’t reflect our best selves. As much as we may hate to admit it, we all do it from time to time. Anyone who has ever been married or part of a family knows that.

That’s why anytime you ask people to change what they think or what they do, there will always be those who will work to undermine what you are trying to achieve in ways that are dishonest, underhanded, and deceptive. Once you are able to internalize that, you can begin to move forward.


3. You identify a keystone change

Every change effort begins with some kind of grievance: Costs need to be cut, customers better served or employees more engaged. Wise managers transform that grievance into a “vision for tomorrow” that will not only address the grievance but also move the organization forward and create a better future.

This vision, however, is rarely achievable all at once. Tough and significant problems have interconnected root causes, so trying to achieve an ambitious vision all at once is more likely to devolve into a long march to failure than it is to achieve results. That’s why it’s crucial to start with a Keystone Change, which represents a clear and tangible goal, involves multiple stakeholders, and paves the way for bigger changes down the road.

​​For example, when Paul O’Neill set out to turn around Alcoa in the 1980s, he started by improving workplace safety, which also paved the way to improvements in operational excellence. At Experian, when CIO Barry Libenson set out to move his company to the cloud, he started with internal APIs. In both cases, the stakeholders who were won over in achieving the keystone change also played a part in bringing about the larger vision.

Focusing on a keystone change allows you to get out of the business of selling an idea and into the business of selling success. When people see that something is working, even on a small scale, they want to be involved. They can bring in others who can bring in others still. That’s how you can grow your initiative to create the critical mass that moves the system toward widespread change.


RELATED: Yes, You Can Learn To Embrace Change — But Why Not Learn To Love It?

4. You mobilize people to influence institutions

In the early 1990s, writer and activist Jeffrey Ballinger published a series of investigations about Nike’s use of sweatshops in Asia. People were shocked by the horrible conditions that workers — many of them children — were subjected to. In most cases, the owners lived outside the countries where the factories were located and had little contact with their employees.

At first, Nike’s CEO, Phil Knight, was defiant. “I often reacted with self-righteousness, petulance, and anger. On some level, I knew my reaction was toxic, counterproductive, but I couldn’t stop myself,” he would later write in his memoir, Shoe Dog. He pointed out that his company didn’t own the factories, that he’d worked with the owners to improve conditions, and that the stories, as gruesome as they were, were exceptions.

The simple truth is that change rarely, if ever, starts at the top because it is people with power that create the status quo. They are attached to what they’ve built and take pride in their accomplishments, just like the rest of us. That’s why, to bring about genuine change — change that lasts — you need to mobilize people to influence institutions (or those, like Knight, who yield institutional power).


Eventually, that’s what happened at Nike. The protests took their toll. “We had to admit,” Knight remembered, “We could do better.” Going beyond its own factories, the company established the Fair Trade Labor Association and published a comprehensive report on its own factories. Today, the company’s track record may not be perfect, but it’s become more a part of the solution than a part of the problem.

If you want to create change in your organization, think about the institutions — both internal and external — that can bring it about. Which departments have budgets that can be deployed in service of change? Which external organizations, whether those are partners, suppliers, customers, industry organizations or regulators could impact your change environment? Then think about who you can mobilize to influence those institutions.

RELATED: The Most Undervalued Life Skill, According To CEOs

5. You shift your mindset

Most of the time, we operate with a manager mindset and that works fine. We build consensus and execute with predictable outcomes. Our colleagues are motivated, customers are satisfied and everybody is happy. However, in an era of disruption, it’s only a matter of time until we need to adapt and drive transformation. That’s never easy.


To pull it off we need to shift from a manager mindset to a changemaker mindset in which we no longer assume an environment of predictability, but explore unknowns in an atmosphere of uncertainty. Not everybody will be willing to make the journey with us, so rather than relying on a consensus, we will need to build a coalition and leave some people behind.

We start not by trying to convince skeptics, but by going to where there is already energy in favor of change. Once we identify those who are already enthusiastic about change, we can empower them to succeed and build on that success until we hit a tipping point (about 10-25 percent of the organization) and the transformation becomes self-sustaining.

What makes our current era so challenging is that we often need to operate with both mindsets simultaneously. We can’t afford to put everything on hold while changes are underway, so we need to approach some things as managers and some as changemakers. It can be difficult and stressful, but it’s what needs to be done.


Perhaps most of all, we need to internalize the reality, proven time and time again, that transformation is not only possible but that it does not have to come from the top. Anyone, anywhere can achieve enormous change. But first, you need to adopt a changemaker mindset.

RELATED: Forget Everything You've Been Told About Success, And Have This Mindset Instead

Greg Satell is Co-Founder of ChangeOS, a transformation & change advisory, an international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017.