FIRST CLASS COACH: I've finally made it to the board. There's a good deal that needs to change in the company, and I've got loads of good ideas. Trouble is, I've seen plenty of others try to move things on and fail. How can I be a successful change agent?

FIRST CLASS COACH: I've finally made it to the board. There's a good deal that needs to change in the company, and I've got loads of good ideas. Trouble is, I've seen plenty of others try to move things on and fail. How can I be a successful change agent?

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The sad truth is that having lots of ideas (even good ones) and enthusiasm isn't normally enough to achieve change. Neither are logical arguments and rafts of figures to back them up. Success in carrying your ideas forward takes patience, strategy and emotional intelligence too.

There are several reasons why an established management team can be hostile to new members and their ideas. The newcomer may be behaving as if the company is a greenfield site, where they can break new ground, whereas those who have been around a while know where the previous workings are and where the bodies are buried. Then, having some young whippersnapper come and tell them they're doing everything wrong has a low appeal, especially if they have been working hard (although unsuccessfully) to improve things.

Finally, having succeeded in the past through his or her own merits, the new recruit may not appreciate that, at the top of the organisation, there are severe limitations on what one person, however talented, can achieve.

So it follows that one of the best things you can do as a new board member is to get to know the others on the board. Make a point of scheduling some time, before your first board meeting, to talk to them about their perceptions of the current state of play. Keep an open mind and use the meeting as a listening opportunity.

This will achieve several things. First, you will endear yourself to board members who rarely enjoy the luxury of being listened to attentively and will be flattered that their opinions are valued Second, you will gain a good idea of their views and preoccupations. This will help you to assess how appropriate your own ideas are and how likely to gain acceptance.

Through your research you might just discover that your great change initiative isn't really required. Says Dianne Thompson, CEO of Camelot: 'Change only truly works if change is needed; it should never be implemented for the sake of it. Change must be inclusive and developed in partnership rather than being thrust upon people - everyone must be able to buy into a new vision.'

Use your first board meeting as an opportunity to check out the group dynamics. Where does the power really lie? Who succeeds in getting their points across? How do they do that? Don't be too keen to make your own points till you've got their measure. Both these listening exercises will increase your ability to read the politics of the company and the hidden agendas, and that allows you to judge the right time and method to pitch your initiatives.

You also mention 'lots of ideas' and I suggest you spend some time prioritising them to avoid trying to persuade a potentially cynical audience on too many fronts at once. Here's a way of working out which of your ideas to try out first. Create a matrix (or a simple graph) with one dimension being the degree of impact the change will have on the organisation and the other being how easy or difficult it will be to achieve. Now plot out your various ideas across the grid. What you are looking for is the one that will create the maximum positive change and will be easiest to achieve.

Installing a cappuccino machine in the canteen would be easy to achieve but would have limited impact on the success of the organisation. Getting sales and marketing to love each other, on the other hand, would be rather more difficult, although it might well deliver great benefit to the organisation.

Choose one that will provide you with an early win and set about making it happen. Once you've achieved one success, you will have begun to establish your credibility with other board members and you can tackle more ambitious projects.

Of course, it's not enough just to gain nodding acceptance of your schemes at a board meeting. Plenty of initiatives that have been apparently agreed are subtly undermined before they get off the ground or, worse, are allowed to drag on for months or years, dying a lingering death starved of attention and resources.

The secret of making sure your ideas cannot be stifled is to give up any competitive sense of ownership over them and find ways of getting others to consider them their own. That way, they will more readily feel commitment to them and will use their greater experience to make them happen. As President Truman reputedly said: 'It is possible to achieve anything, so long as you don't expect to gain the credit for it.'

Miranda Kennett is managing coach at The Coaching House and a founding partner of The Management Due Diligence Co.

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