2017-03-16 23:46:46 Robert E. Smith, PhD, Founder, The Change Shop
Challenger vs Defender Leadership Roles when Leading Organizational Change
Successful transformational change often begins (and ends) with effective change leadership. Organizations that select the right person or team to lead their change efforts will reap the rewards in terms of higher levels of change commitment and less employee resistance. Knowing whether you are the right change leader to 'drive the bus' often begins with some personal reflection and determining whether or not you are a change “challenger” or “defender”.
Change “challengers” have a knack for coming up with and laying out a vision for inventive business models that make competition or current way of doing things obsolete. These individuals are at their best when blasting apart existing organizational silos or figuring out new revenue generating models. Sometimes they may be perceived to be overly critical or “complainers” but this is only because in their heart of hearts they know there’s a better way to do things and they’re eager to see that new vision come to life.
Change “defenders” are the ultimate efficiency experts. They look for new, innovative ways to improve existing processes and expand them to new areas. Defenders are good at seeing what works well then figuring out where else those practices/processes can be applied in the organization. Sometimes defenders can be seen as 'stuck in their ways' but this is because they know that if something isn’t broken, why fix it?
But who shall lead?
The secret to selecting a challenger or a defender to lead a change effort is determining the level of alignment between the change type and the change leadership style. Change initiatives such as a new line of business or new product offering that requires a clean break with the old way of doing things will have the best chance of success when led by a “challenger” change leader who can set a clear vision and gain buy-in and commitment from team members. In the new book, Selling Change: How Successful Change Leaders Use Impact, Influence, and Consistency to Transform their Organizations, I refer to these leaders as transformational leaders. Alternatively, change efforts such as a process improvement or quality initiative (e.g., Lean Six Sigma) will have the greatest chance of success when led by “defenders” who can generate team member commitment through a deep appreciation of what works well today and ways those things can be made even better in the future.
Change Leader Mis-matches
Being a challenger or defender is not inherently good or bad but the goal is to ensure alignment between change type and change leader. The history of strategic change leaders is riddled with mis-matched challengers / defenders. Prior to his arrival at Home Depot, everyone thought Bob Nardelli’s successful track record 3M and Six Sigma evangelism would be a successful but the cultural DNA of Home Depot’s operations and style of customer interactions did not comport with Nardelli’s challenger approach. Alternatively, when 35-year company veteran, Richard Clark became CEO of Merck and Co. 2005, he admits he had “no clue” on a turnaround plan but taking his knowledge of what needed to be changed (the drug development process) and applying that to what he knew about the company’s culture (defender mindset) resulted tangible successes including faster drug development and better cross-department coordination. It’s worth noting that early in Merck & Co’s transformation process, Clark conducted assessments on various employee groups to determine impacts of the transformation on key employee groups.
All told, the challenger vs. defender change leader can both equally useful for leading change efforts but the key is to identify your dominate style then ensure your leadership style matches the type of change your organization needs to execute to be successful.
Successful transformational change often begins (and ends) with effective change leadership. Organizations that begin their change efforts with the right person or team will reap the rewards in terms of higher levels of change commitment and less employee resistance. Knowing whether you are the right change leader to “drive the bus” often begins with some personal reflection and determining whether or not you are a change “challenger” or “defender”.
The Change ShopTM helps make your organizational changes better by making it easy to collect, understand, and act on team member feedback. We enable change leaders and project managers make better change decisions and drive successful change outcomes.