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  • Writer's pictureAna Lucia Jardim

How to Get Started as a Changemaker

Updated: Sep 5, 2022

5 moves to perform with confidence and make a difference in a big company

This is a photo of my first solo dance performance. I was probably 7 years old. I remember feeling very self-conscious because I was wearing a fake hair bun. My hair wasn't long enough for the traditional ballet bun, so I concocted one out of a stainless steel scouring pad, the kind you use to clean cast iron pots. I covered it with lots of hairnets, hoping it would look like real hair from afar, and attached it to the nape of my neck. While skipping and chasséing across the stage waving two plastic flower stems, I made the mistake of looking at the audience's faces. They were smiling. But what my young self saw was people laughing at the shiny ball of steel stuck to her head. She drew a blank, and the rest of the performance was a blur. Somehow she made it till the end, curtsied at the applause, and fled the stage as fast as her ballet slippers could manage.

All beginnings as a solo performer are memorable. There is only one first time, by definition, and more often than not it is filled with things we wish we would have done differently, if we were the wise and experienced person we are today.

Changemakers are solo performers, in the sense that they put themselves out there for things that are new or unpopular (read other signs that you are a changemaker here). Usually, the first time they come on the stage is not through a formal job. It is through a moment when they say or do something that causes the wind to shift direction. Like those times when you're in a meeting where people are skipping and chasséing around a huge elephant in the room. You think to yourself, "am I imagining this elephant?", and before you know it, words come out of your mouth that say the unsaid. And those words break the spell of elephant invisibility - and now a real conversation is happening.

This moment can be so subtle that you just go about your normal day and normal job, and not give it another thought. Or, it can be so powerful that it makes you question your purpose. Why am I here, in this job, in this company? Why did those words come out of my mouth? Why do I feel more alive now that we're having a real conversation?

In the mid 2000s, I was working at one of the fastest growing companies in the U.S. when it got acquired by a Global Fortune 500 corporation. I was leading joint teams with partner companies to supply our medicines to the rest of the world. It was a meaningful, fun and challenging job. But I was fascinated by the cultural aspects of the acquisition. How do you integrate two proud companies? How do you create a sense of belonging when people work in different continents? I started talking about this in meetings, in the elevator, and in one of those conversations, I was offered a job as chief of staff on a senior leadership team. They needed help navigating this massive change. It was a dream job. I knew the business well. I had just gotten certified as a coach, so I was eager to apply my training in the real world. And I felt like I had a steel bun sticking out of my neck.

Fast forward 15 years, I learned a lot about leading change without formal authority in a big company. More than a job or a career, it was a calling. I made a ton of mistakes, but I also led change that stuck for a really long time, so long that it became part of the company's DNA.

Here are 5 moves I learned to help you nail your first solo.

#1 - Get in the room where it happens

The nature of a changemaker is to shake things up. When you're starting out, it works best when you have both the autonomy and the aircover to do that.

That's something an executive sponsor can give you. They have the power and influence to legitimize the change- and your role in it. I've been blessed with partnerships sponsors and I trusted, admired and respected each other. I recall one of them who gave me much more than autonomy and aircover to work. She gave me relentless feedback and put me in some tough sink-or-swim situations. Not that I thrive with tough love, but in this case I needed the push. We both felt safe to be uncomfortable, because we cared about each other as humans.

Most importantly, a sponsor can get you in "the room where it happens", as goes the Hamilton song. Your role is to help leadership think through the business and human implications of their decisions, and help them bring change to life on the ground. You need to be in that room where change is choreographed. Things move very fast in a transformation process, and it is sometimes chaotic. If decisions are being made and you're not there, you'll be chasing a moving train. Be on that train as early as possible.

#2 - Seduce, seduce, seduce

You feel lonely at times. You bring people together all the time, but you're never "one of us". Because you do radical and crazy things. Because you shine the spotlight on the ugly elephants. Because you need to stay far enough from the daily grind to see a way through .

OK, so you're not the cool celebrity that hosts the hottest party of the year. But you can be the D.J..

Great changemakers know that they are nothing without community. For the change to really last, it needs to live inside the people and the structures of the future. From day one, you need to seduce those around you to join the cause. Use your heart and your knowledge of the business to relate to their pain, their reality. Always scout the environment for champions, and then make their experience of working with you - and especially each other- so absolutely engaging, dare I say fun, that they can't help but follow the light. And then they will realize something they never thought was possible: that the work of transformation is hard, but it's the highlight of their day- of their careers, even.

"Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn." – Charlie Parker, jazz saxophonist

You can make music with the power of your enthusiasm. If you're working on a problem worth solving (we'll get to that in a minute), you will exude enthusiasm in the way you move, speak, blink. It will reverberate and contaminate the air in a positive way. In my opinion, nothing makes us feel more alive than purpose and community. So build a vibrant one.

At the end of the day, your job comes down to 2 things: keep the vision and values alive, and nurture the community. The rest takes care of itself.

#3 - Be a stem cell

I once joined a transformation team without an official role. The team leader and I had a rough idea of what was needed and how I could help, but agreed that the best way was to just get started, and figure out specifics later. That made for some awkward first interactions. "So, what are you working on?", my teammates would ask. "It depends", I would answer, "what do you need help with?" (this was pre-New Amsterdam, but it worked!).

I worked on all kinds of things, big and small, whatever had to get done but no-one had the bandwidth for. I started joking and referring to myself as the team stem cell, "if you need a kidney, I'll be a kidney. If you need a liver, I'll be a liver." With that came progress and mutual trust.

This approach served another important purpose. It was a way to embody the very transformation we were promising employees- an organization where people have agency to flow to the work that mattered most and contribute their full range of capabilities, instead of being in a dedicated job or department, with fixed scope. Having lived in the flesh this new way of working, I found it easier to inspire others to try it as well. I had the sparkle in my eye, the spring in my step that you get when you tasted the sweet fruit of freedom.

That initial awkwardness of a highly ambiguous role later led to an opportunity to lead a major workstream of the transformation. The gift kept on giving.

Just like some people chase tornados, changemakers chase problems worth solving. The rewards of a promotion or public recognition pale compared to the thrill of a persistent problem that no one has been able to solve (yet!, you say).

#4 - Take a stand

I often hear facilitators of change say how important it is to be a neutral party, to never take sides. This is true to a point. In my experience, it's crucial to your success to be explicit about your convictions.

People across the company will put you to the test right away, rightly so. Leadership, especially, and you will viscerally feel the power imbalance in your initial interactions -especially if you're the only woman in the room, with kinky hair, a small frame and a foreign accent. It's tempting to be polite and accommodating, until you've "earned your place". Except that this approach can backfire and be mistaken for weakness - the kiss of death for a changemaker.

"I act, therefore I think"- Arthur Glenberg, psychologist and embodied cognition researcher

The way I have successfully navigated these situations was by embodying the power of my conviction. I reminded myself that my allegiance was to the mission- not to the leadership. I let that allegiance permeate my entire body. And I used my secret power: the flamenco dancer stance. It goes like this: you stretch upright like a graceful swan, while you feel your legs heavy as lead sinking deeply into the ground. From that place, I could listen and consider their opinions, but also stand my ground where it mattered. And the direction of the wind shifted.

Try that out. Soon enough, you will be seen an equal partner - and the journey can truly begin.

#5 - Let go

A colleague of mine once nicknamed me Sisyphus, because "the boulder keeps falling down, but you just keep picking it up".

Complex change does not happen overnight, and it takes daily persistence, creativity and resilience to bring it to life. However. It is of utmost importance to recognise when you are engaged in fruitless labor, and stop as soon as possible. First, because you will burn out (leading change is so intense that I measure it in dog years: one year is the equivalent of seven). Second, because there is other good change out there that needs you.

As my nickname suggests, I'm not very good at letting go or avoiding "bad" change. But because I've made many mistakes, I eventually learned to read the signs. It is time to let go when:

  1. you want the change more than the people who hired you

  2. you are irritated, argumentative and/or attached to a "right way" of doing things

  3. your energy is low over a sustained period of time

In my "Sisyphus" change initiative, when I finally accepted reality and let go, I felt sense of relief wash over me. Eventually I even got to laugh about it: "OMG, I spent that whole time trying to sell dog food to cat people".

You need to trust your intuition on this. It will tell you when it's time to stop trying to revive the patient. No-one wants ti fail. But remember this: even if the change effort fails (most of them do) your work did not go to waste. You helped people think differently, do things they never did before. That is real, positive impact.

The journey of the changemaker is a pilgrimage. Pack light. Pack smart. Make friends.

My final tip is to never travel alone. I had many generous companions who made the journey so much richer. Ask for help. Seek mentors, teachers, people who are a few miles ahead who can help you be successful. It's the least you can do for yourself, and for those you serve.

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