There is no guidebook for leading change. No compass, treasure map, or well-trodden path to follow. During each trek, change agents must act as their own guides on the challenging terrain ahead. Pitfalls arise in communicating project visions to colleagues. Dead ends appear when upper management resists. And paths inevitably cross between people who are skeptical of the project’s broader mission.
But for one group of young visionaries, choosing the road less traveled must make all the difference. They are members of a diverse network called Pioneers of Change — the unofficial training ground for international change agents-to-be. As the next generation of business people, entrepreneurs, and professionals, these future leaders are educating one another about redefining the culture of work globally in the 21st Century, and exploring ways to maintain those conversations for generations to come.
Formed in January of 1999, Pioneers of Change comprises more than 500 members in 30 countries from South Africa to Brazil, and the Philippines to Australia. The committed participants come from all disciplines: They are free agents in Mexico City, non-profit leaders in Copenhagen, technology consultants in Johannesburg, and even freelance artists in New York. By meeting regularly in localized groups to share and strategize their change routes of choice, these grassroots innovators are able to maintain a strong sense of idealism and community. Members of Pioneers of Change believe that by using work as a vehicle for creative expression and by applying themselves to what really matters, they can and will produce significant social impact by following their true passions. Yet many of the organization’s pioneers also realize that creating change in their respective fields is sometimes not enough. In order to leave a lasting imprint on business and the world, each member accepts the challenge to train and inspire future generations when they join Pioneers of Change. And the adventure begins with a critical first step: the integration of work and life values.
“We’re separating what a job is and what a life is,” says Colleen Bowker, a native of South Africa who has been involved with youth development work on a global level for more than 10 years. “Pioneers of Change conveys that work can be something different. It can be an expression of who you really are, what your passions are, what you want to be creative about, and what you want to contribute. It’s ambitious, but we are trying to re-invent the way people view work. These are big philosophical issues.”
This was the challenge that Bowker, Marianne “Mille” Bojer and Marianne Knuth, all co-founders of Pioneers of Change, were grappling with after meeting in their early twenties as members of AIESEC (L’Association Internationale des Etudiants en Sciences Economics et Commercial), the world’s largest international student group committed to cultural understanding. The well-known organization, which boasts a membership of more than 50,000 students from 800 colleges in 87 countries, has been a hotbed for young people working to alter the status quo in both business and politics. Bowker served as national president of AIESEC South Africa and went on to spend a term as director of AIESEC International in Brussels, where she facilitated the group’s Corporate Social Responsibility program. But because AIESEC’s active chapters exist only at the academic level, the group offers few opportunities for post-graduate involvement. Thus, many of AIESEC’s members have migrated to Pioneers of Change.
“What’s really exciting is that we started global from the beginning,” says Bojer, who co-founded the organization after studying international development and political science at Cornell University and Copenhagen University. “We had this global network of friends, many of whom knew one another from international schools of business. Since the first meeting, we’ve had people from Zimbabwe, Indonesia, and Brazil. That cultural diversity has always been there.”
Like AIESEC, Pioneers of Change is founded upon the principle of looking beyond tradition — questioning existing, established business practices and models in order to promote increased creativity and innovation on the job. By initiating a global dialogue about risk-taking and the importance of following gut instincts, Pioneers of Change aims to develop its young members’ vision of work and also provide a network of moral support.
“We focus on the obstacles people face within organizations but, more importantly, we focus on young peoples’ view of work,” Bowker says. “We recently had a meeting with a big multi-national company here in Brazil, and the first point brought up was that people think they cannot apply their personal beliefs in the workplace setting. If somebody has an organization they want to support, a cause they’re involved in, or discussions they want to bring up, they feel they can’t integrate those things into their working life. Our challenge is to be quite articulate and convincing in the examples of work-life integration that we highlight.”
The philosophy of Pioneers of Change is founded upon four central principles, which Bojer says help change agents “take the lid off creative expression and potential” in the workplace: Be yourself; Start now; Do what matters; and Always ask questions. “Individuals can make a commitment to being a pioneer, to effecting change in whatever way they feel they’re capable according to the principles that we’ve outlined,” says Bojer. She adds that senior-level managers and young people working within global companies are beginning to recognize a need for a rich, intergenerational dialogue about the re-examination of traditional workplace practices and values.
“We’re meeting a lot of managers who are very aware that the values these young people hold are what the company needs,” she says. “If we can bridge senior level management experience with the innovation and the ideas of the young people, then we’ll be able to initiate sustainable change. Pioneers of Change can help young people create those alliances, and bring out ideas at the right time in the right way so they’re able to cooperate across the generations within in the company.”
The success of these intergenerational partnerships, says Bojer, also draws from the global network’s cultural diversity. Because its idea merchants represent more than 30 countries, members of Pioneers of Change can bill their differences as perhaps their greatest asset. “It’s interesting to see how the organization appeals to different groups in different countries,” says Bowker, adding that Pioneers of Change makes a concerted attempt to recruit people from diverse ranges of work. “They’re not just feel-good, save-the-world types, but people who are really committed to cutting edge innovation in initiating change. It’s difficult to come by those people through interaction either at work or in the kind of social groups that we normally interact with. Pioneers of Change is really trying to shade those lines.”
In recent months, members have begun to form localized groups or “clusters” within cities were several interested idea merchants have emerged. Bowker says that although the international organization began with a network of highly innovative individuals, members have increasingly begun to self-organize around their own needs. Thriving Pioneer clusters already in existence include “Humanizing Business,” “Sustainability,” “Creating Innovation Spaces,” “Social Entrepreneurship,” “Corporate Citizenship,” and “Free Agents and Entrepreneurs.” For the young cohort of talent at Pioneers of Change, nurturing this off-line community of agents who could validate members’ long-term visions and goals was key to building the kind of individual and team confidence that is necessary for launching change initiatives.
“The external network is very diverse in terms of the kind of people who are there to affirm you, what it is that you believe, and the change that you’re trying to create,” says Bojer. “There’s real affirmation that you’re all driven by your passions and not by your titles. For example, it’s OK not to know where you’re going to be in the next six months or not to be able to describe what you do in two sentences, as long as you’re being yourself and have really strong passions.”
Recognizing that collaboration may very well be the soul of invention, Bowker and her colleagues recently organized an international development conference to give members of the organization a forum for addressing their recent failures and triumphs. Held in San Paulo, Brazil, last month, the conference provided both moral support and networking opportunities for the 50 members who attended from more than 30 countries. Although she was anxious about bringing such a diverse group of individuals together on a global level, Bowker says the gathering far exceeded her expectations.
“The beauty of the meeting was very much in the diversity that we brought together,” she explains. “Very innovative solutions of workplace change were being created because an artist in San Francisco was speaking to an IT consultant in London, or a social entrepreneur in Cameroon, who owns her own organization that teaches IT skills to kids from disadvantaged communities, had her Web site developed by someone in the IT industry in Europe. The biggest highlight or benefit from the meeting came from bringing in these wildcards to advance new ideas and innovation.”
For Pioneers of Change, the next agenda item is to build a large database of people who regularly interact with one another on the organization’s Web site, which has begun to generate high traffic in recent months. According to their needs, visiting pioneers will then be able to run a detailed search of the Pioneers of Change database to pull up profiles of change agents who might be good matches for future collaborative efforts. Growing these off-line partnerships and off-line commitments are crucial to the success of the organization.
“Commitment is central,” says Bojer. “A lot of people are taking a lot of time to think about what Pioneers of Change really means to them, because this is a network that keeps challenging people. You’re never finished — you can always do more. And you have to enjoy those possibilities. You have to keep contributing, keep working, and keep drawing pleasure in your role as a change agent. And throughout it all, you have to be enjoying the journey.”
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