Over the last few years, world events have proven that the traditional pyramid of authority and influence has been tipped on its head. Research indicates that people no longer trust those in power, preferring to form their own opinions by listening to the views of their peers. Experienced engagement practitioners have long understood that attempts to drive organisational change, by tasking the senior people at the top with cascading instructions through layers of hierarchy to employees below, rarely succeeds.

Lasting change is achieved by harnessing the influencers within an organisation. The first step in any change programme should be to locate this group. But who are they? The names put forward by leaders are often the usual suspects – the high-potential middle managers vying for promotions. While these are strong candidates, their span of influence can be limited.

The ‘secret change agents’ in any organisation are frequently the people below the waterline: the ground-level network of people who understand the structure, cultural dynamics and how things ‘tick’. There are many approaches to identifying this population. However, every organisation has a readymade web of influencers – the PA/secretarial community. They knit together an organisation, acting as connectors between departments. Their power extends from the roots of an organisation, all the way up to the C-Suite.

The PA/secretarial team are hyper-informed, the confidents who are sought out for advice. Most importantly, they hear the unfiltered truth. They have ground level knowledge of the pain points of systems, processes and ways of working. They know what and who the barriers are for making change happen. The common traits of PAs are their ability to collaborate, their strong interpersonal skills, but also their cynicism.

There is frequently a positive energy and desire for change within the community, but change initiatives are often designed without their input and forced upon them. Over and over again, changes designed to impact other communities in an organisation end up having more of an impact on PAs, as they informally pick up additional duties – their role adapts and scope creeps.

The first step is to engage them in conversation. Start small, inviting a group of PAs to take part in a focus group. Explain what you are trying to achieve and ask them what their experiences are. Find out what irritates them, and what drains their time. This feedback can shape the messaging and focus the minds of those leading the change.

Then, enlist their help in growing the PA influencer network. Build commitment by providing a description of the role they will play in the change and what is expected of them, ideally formalising the role with their managers and in the objective setting and performance cycle.

Ensure that there is a relationship of trust by being measured when describing the benefits – more than any group, they will know if it is overly ambitious or mis-sold. Provide quality coaching and training, turning them into super users and in the field trainers. Gather feedback from their network and demonstrate that their input is being acted upon.

Finally, make it known that they are the true influencers and power players, who are critical to making change happen – of course they’ll already know this!

We can help you facilitate engaging conversations and focus groups with your teams that deliver measurable value to your business. Find out more.