The Lonely Change Agent

6 Signs and 5 Strategies to ease the loneliness of leading change and get back on track

This article addresses a common experience of even the most successful Change Agents and Change Leaders — that point in the change journey when they stand alone. While the Lonely Change Agent is a common phenomenon, if they remain alone too long, they are destined for failure, a pitfall that is often missed until it’s too late. However, if they are able to identify the potential perils early on, the loneliness can become a powerful turning point.

With practical, personal, and reflective strategies, Change Agents and Change Leaders can feel more confident to identify, mediate and ultimately minimize the negative effects of going it alone.

Change can be lonely

Change Agents, like the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, experience loneliness as a fork in the road calling for their attention. The loneliness is a signal, a clue as to which way to go. For others, loneliness is their cue to stop, to surrender, to give up.

In organizations, the lead character is not known as the scarecrow. The lead in this story, the one selected to lead and execute the change, is the Change Agent. A critical and challenging role, not designed for the faint at heart.

Successful Change Agents are disciplined and flexible. Courageous and gracious. Task focused and relationship savvy. They are passionate yet objective. Energetic yet calm. Creative yet clear.

The first few times I was a “Change Agent”, I didn’t know it had a name. I enthusiastically and energetically raised my hand: sure, I’ll do that! I quickly pulled a team together, often a group gifted to me by the powers that be, and working under the ill-defined urgency they also controlled, got started.

With my passion and positivity shooting out like a fire hose, I would kick off the project, hoping our passion and positivity would carry us all the way through. In those early days, it rarely went that way.

So who would take on this role? Who would willingly face the inevitable heartbreak that loneliness brings? Likely, someone who believes…this time will be different.

Loneliness can be an important signal, but is often missed

It’s late at night, you are exhausted and catching up with your mounting emails, typically from the “day job” you have abandoned but not forgotten. With exhaustion, head hanging low, you suddenly have a realization…no one wants this change as much as me, and the change isn’t even for, me. With this realization, the loneliness first steps in.

You try hard to push the realization aside but it keeps nudging at you. It’s signaled by a slow turn in your stomach, a headache that won’t go away. Once this realization has manifested and the longer you ignore it, the more damage that will be done.

Seeing the reality for what it is — normal, challenging, and changeable

Accepting your new reality is the first step to getting things back on track. Part of that acceptance is remembering that change, while necessary, is not easy. Staying the course is tough for most anyone.

In organizations, periods of change should be exciting, a time when people and communities come together in new and more meaningful ways. Instead, the more common experience is one of fear, resistance, separation, ambiguity and anxiety.

The environment where change is introduced is intense. The expectations grow and multiply daily. While one is being nurtured, another sprouts up. Some are related, some are not. It can be hard to keep up with the various “seedlings.” The experience can feel like a garden with not enough nutrients for the wide array of plants.

This in and of itself doesn’t create loneliness. Pressure, yes. Stress, likely. But loneliness, not necessarily. And yet loneliness is usually the most important signal, the one alarm you might miss, despite its blinding flash of light. First yellow, then red, trying desperately to warn you that things have gone terribly wrong.

It can happen early or late in the change journey, or smack dab in the middle. There you are, even if a skilled and seasoned Change Agent — you have manifested your most feared reality. As you rush around trying to make things happen, attempting to maintain morale and to deliver on every unrealistic goal, the path you created to walk with others has narrowed. So much so that you are now walking it alone.

What signs did you miss? What warnings did you fail to heed?

Here are six of the most common signs. These are the warnings you don’t want to miss — and more importantly — fail to respond to.

  1. Your sponsor or supporting manager starts to focus on you more than the change. When things are going wrong, the spotlight can feel like it’s concentrating on you. The pressure has built, waking you up at night. You fantasize about being anywhere but here, working on this change with this group of people. When you meet with your sponsor or manager, they no longer ask about the change but about what you have done or haven’t done. The feedback you receive isn’t about the strategy, content or urgency. It’s about you.
  2. Your intuition, that pit in your stomach that tells you something isn’t right, grows louder and visits more frequently, trying desperately to capture your attention. You feel it. But do you validate it? Or do you habitually push it down and choose to ignore it? It visits again and again. If you disregard it, your most trusted intelligence loses out to the fear kicked up by your mind. You fear that if your intuition is right, you are in big trouble.
  3. People important to the project are skipping your meetings. Team members, sponsors, and stakeholders offer excuses for not attending your meetings. You don’t question the validity of their excuses, believing they would be there if they could. When you see them after the meeting they don’t show interest in what they missed. You might even imagine them starting to avoid you, turning the other way in the hall or taking the stairs instead of a shared elevator. But is it your imagination?
  4. Other big new initiatives are announced. Your initiative starts to look and smell like yesterday’s news. The attention of senior management has been wooed away by the next shiny penny. You ask them about it and while some leaders might tell you not to worry, you know that there are only so many big changes the organization can handle.
  5. You start to lose team members. They are either assigned to different projects or return to their full-time day jobs. While your sponsors may tell you that your project is still important, the actions don’t add up. Whatever risks you took to lead this change are forgotten. You are officially on your own.
  6. You feel completely depleted, potentially beyond repair. The energy you put out seems fruitless. Days or weeks have passed without those small successes that normally refuel your tank. People start to tell you how tired you look. It becomes harder to pull yourself out of bed. Your normally loyal, positive attitude starts to slowly but distinctly abandon you.

So now what? One or more of these realities, maybe all of them, are officially your new reality. What strategies or practices will help you and the change get back on track?

5 Strategies to get back on track

1. Accept your new reality

The first step is the most obvious but for some, the most difficult. That is to step-back, take a deep breath and accept the fact that you are alone. To accept the fact that something has gone wrong and it doesn’t feel good or smart to stay where you are. Only with acceptance can we tap into a new set of resources to move ahead with clarity and courage.

2. Turn up the volume on self-care

Depending on how exhausted, possibly even sad, you have become, you will likely need some element of self-care. Could be as easy as a good night’s sleep, although you will likely need more. Plan a short holiday. Spend time with your favorite people. Splurge on a great meal, bottle of wine, massage or piece of jewelry. Meditate. Eat healthy. And most importantly, forgive yourself for what has been. Show yourself true self-compassion. Focus on the learning not on the beating. Choose to grow rather than suffer.

3. Get a 30,000 foot view

Step back, way back, and look at the change with fresh eyes. Walk down memory lane. Run a focus group with people who have been involved. Ask yourself some tough questions. Ask your team some tough questions. Find objectivity again. With self-awareness and acceptance will come a stronger and clearer sense of accountability. You will see what you own and what you don’t, and who you need to own what. You won’t make the same mistakes again unless you can’t figure out what they were. Stepping back is your best way to see them, face them, and commit to doing some things differently going forward.

4. Ask for what you need

You may feel alone but in truth you are not. Reach out to your internal champions, those that are (or should be) in it with you, and ASK them for what you need. You likely either forgot to have needs or worried that if you asked for too much, things would only get worse. You are not the owner of this change, someone else is. And if they want it, they should be investing too. Working together is the only formula to making real change happen.

5. Don’t suffer alone

Enter back into the magic space of community. In other words, hand the change back to the rightful owners, and let them, together with you, get it back on track. Engage them, involve them, and most of all, empower them. You are the catalyst for reigniting their fire and when you do, it will likely be one of the most rewarding parts of the experience. The change agent community is one of your most powerful assets, one you can’t afford to lose site of again.

Next time you find yourself in the middle of a big change, standing alone, take a deep breath and know deep down inside, where it really matters — with the right intention and a good dose of courage, you will be back on track soon!

Renée is an internationally known HR executive, leadership coach and leadership development expert with more than 20 years of experience in the U.S. and abroad. She has built leadership and organizational capability in more than 40 countries in the biotech, pharmaceuticals, health care, technology, internet, and service industries.

Renée coaches and advises vice presidents and director-level executives to lead in more integrated and meaningful ways. She has designed, implemented and led dozens of large-scale HR, leadership, and change transformation programs in every area of the business and across highly matrixed, global landscapes. Through experience and experimentation, she has learned what truly works. As a result, several of her change interventions and leadership programs have been benchmarked and published by organizations such as the Corporate Executive Board and Process Excellence Network.

Renée lives with her husband and two children in Sacramento, California. She and her family are fueled by their passion for travel, which includes 45 countries and counting. Inspired by these experiences, Renée is writing a book she hopes will expand some of the limiting paradigms that keep parents from traveling with children. Her blog on the topic can be found at travelmomentswithkids.com.