Innovation in a business requires not only a different approach to developing new ideas but also the right kind of leader. In all the work we do as an innovation agency, I have noticed that every breakthrough has something in common: a strong leader on the client team. And I’m not talking about an executive who defines leadership solely by how well a project is managed; I mean a leader who possesses the vision to understand how change can transform an entire company and knows how to inspire others to advocate for change, too. I call this kind of leader a change agent.

Change agents are not like every other executive. Change agents can be senior decision makers (or on the path to becoming one), but they are unconstrained by functional titles. They need to be senior enough to have the authority to effect change, as well as the drive to innovate for business growth. More important than their title is the position they have put themselves in to champion the internal behavioral change needed for transformation. No one makes change agents accountable for success; they hold themselves accountable.

Brands need change agents because innovation is hard even among the most progressive and disciplined companies. Innovation requires businesses to adopt new processes that can make people feel uncomfortable, such as exploring unchartered territory and testing new ideas. Innovation might require a company to work with new partners, which means bringing in fresh thinking that can challenge the current team.

Change agents understand why it is necessary to adopt a new way of working when everyone inside the organization feels no mandate to change. But they also execute on their vision. Occasionally I read about executives who bring about change by being ruthless and confrontational — but those types of people are the exception, not the rule. Change agents create a sense of urgency, but more often than not, change agents apply their relationship skills to build the consensus needed to convince a large enterprise to do things differently. When I collaborate with a client to develop a new product or service, I know I am working with a change agent when he or she demonstrates these kinds of attributes:

  • Possesses vision.
  • Is bold and not afraid to take risks.
  • Is accountable and embraces any outcome.
  • Has an innate desire to create impact quickly.
  • Believes the ultimate measure is the happiness of their customers.
  • Brings a holistic perspective and thinks of change across the company, not a single department.
  • Builds partnerships inside and outside the company for a mutually successful outcome.

I have been fortunate enough to build close relationships with change agents at organizations such as Lexus. We have developed a number of mobile apps to help Lexus launch new products such as the 2015 NX and RC models. We call these apps “digital companions” because they are designed to empower Lexus dealers on the sales floor to connect more effectively with customers. The Lexus digital companions constitute a new way for Lexus sales people to share information about Lexus models with customers. Instead of relying on clunky hard-copy binders, sales people tap into apps on their mobile devices to share details such as pricing and design options from the Lexus inventory beyond what’s available on the sales floor.

Developing a digital companion that the sales force will adopt has required Lexus to embrace new approaches to ideation. To rapidly develop the digital companion in time to support crucial rollouts of new models, Lexus needed to take more of an agile, test-and-learn approach than is typically found among big brands. Lexus also needed to inspire the sales force to adopt digital companions. As a result, Lexus has created a more compelling customer experience.

The role of change agents at Lexus has been crucial. The executives we have worked with have been nimble and adroit. They have pivoted their thinking to embrace “test-and-learn,” and they have inspired a hacker, start-up mindset among the teams needed to pull off an undertaking that affects Lexus dealerships across the United States. They have created a sense of urgency while also a feeling of liberation that comes with adopting new development approaches.

Forrester Research recently noted the importance of the change agent in a report about how businesses can collaborate with agencies to innovate. In a newly published report, “How to RFP for Innovation,” Analyst Sarah Sikowitz shows CMOs how to collaborate with consultants and agencies to succeed with innovation. I was pleased to see Forrester validate our belief in the change agent. One of the points Sikowitz stressed is that brands need to have the right resources in place — have their internal houses in order, if you will — to successfully collaborate with an agency. I was interviewed for the report and naturally was excited to see our client work cited.

Change agents are made, not born. You can develop the essential attributes to become one. Here are some steps you can take to mold yourself into being a change agent:

  • Take on the hard challenges that no one else wants to tackle.
  • Build the right alliances inside and outside your organization.
  • Expand your skill set.
  • Mentor other change agents.
  • Be clear in your intent to create change and ask for the support you need to make it happen.
  • Create a path within your organization by tying your actions to definitive business results.
  • Use the language of change in your everyday communication.

Innovation does not happen by magic. Brands need to take the right steps in order to bring new products and ideas to market faster. Having a change agent to define and drive your innovation agenda is essential to making innovation an everyday occurrence.