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Sustaining the Change Agent

Sustaining the Change Agent

Sustain - verb (used with object)

  1. to support, hold, or bear up from below; bear the weight of, as a structure
  2. to bear (a burden, charge, etc.)
  3. to undergo, experience, or suffer (injury, loss, etc.); endure without giving way or yielding
  4. to keep (a person, the mind, the spirits, etc.) from giving way, as under trial or affliction
  5. to keep up or keep going, as an action or process: to sustain a conversation

The field of performance measurement and management remains highly dynamic and its development, iterative. Its adoption as a management and improvement framework has broadened and deepened across federal and state governments while increasing numbers of local jurisdictions in Washington are adopting practices and methods related to scorecards, performance review sessions, strategic planning, performance budgeting, and data analysis and visualization.

However, along with the importance placed on performance management and its increasing usage comes a sometime overlooked aspect:  Performance management is new, it’s hard, it’s not what people are used to, and it requires a different type of mental muscles, new thinking, and the adoption of new practices; all of which means change.

For the performance management practitioner, this work can be exhilarating. Watching a colleague or leader see the world through a new lens (e.g. a “lightbulb moment”) or feeling a sense of satisfaction when the needle actually moves on an important metric after sustained attention and improvement efforts have been applied can be addictive: Just ask any change practitioner.

But being a professional change agent can also be rough over time. Hours devoted to peer education, managing change, and encouraging new ways of thinking about and doing organizational work can take a toll on a person. Always having to serve as the champion, the cheerleader, or the patient coach who helps to help tie it all together but who others view as a threatening “cheese mover” can be hard.

Taking Stock and Recharging

I have recently begun to reflect on what I have done, and will continue to do, to sustain myself in this work. I share these suggestions not as foolproof solutions or even approaches that will work for everyone but as acknowledgement of the broader issue—that those of us who work in this important and challenging field need to take care of ourselves in order to sustain our ongoing efforts.

Take an “old-fashioned” vacation

Take a vacation, one where you don’t have to do anything other than what you want. Your brain and body need a real break. Time away helps you think and learn better, allows you to be better prepared for change and uncertainty, and helps you be more nimble and reflective when something new happens. 

Take time for reflection

Think about where you have come from, appreciate the wins you have had along the way, and take stock of your progress. Sometimes in the drive for the latest thing or the rush to meet seemingly urgent issues, we forget to reflect on what is important and the fact that we have actually moved the needle and made progress.

Push yourself

I have found myself using this approach even when I was at my lowest reserves of mental or emotional fuel. I volunteered to write a series of blog articles and each one, in turn, had a positive impact on my perspective, outlook, and self-esteem. People reached out to me, invited me to sit on a conference panel, and asked for permission to share my ideas. I pushed myself to write and put my thoughts out there for my own edification but somehow the universe knew it, and good things and connections came my way.  Go ahead: push yourself and take that scary first step!


Use journal writing as a way to reflect, gather your thoughts, vent your frustrations, or imagine and clearly describe a better future. Write a blog post to focus an approach, argument, or perspective. Writing has the ability to force you to reflect, get your thoughts together, articulate a perspective that is unique to you, and express yourself, all at the same time.

Learn something new

If you’ve been doing performance management for a while then you might be using the same old tools and approaches. To counter this I’ve thrown myself into trainings on Balanced Scorecards, Results Based Accountability, and Lean. There are many good trainings on change management, organizational development, and leadership skills. Although there are specific tools and differences among various approaches, what I find rewarding is looking for commonalities across these approaches and then translating or crosswalking these commonalities for my colleagues who don’t have broader familiarity with the individual approaches.

Take on an intern or mentee

You sometime forget how much you know until you work with someone who is younger than you, has energy to spare, and is looking to grow and improve. I signed up to be an alumni mentor through my university and have served as a mentor to several people. Each of these experiences has helped to keep me fresh, allowed me to see the world through new eyes, and grounded me in the needs and desires of a new generations of aspiring public servants.


As an extrovert, one of my go-to strategies for sustaining myself it to connect with others. For introverts, doing this one-on-one is the way to go. I connect with colleagues, my professional peers who work in other organizations, and even others working in fields unrelated to my own. Making a face-to-face connection—not via social media—can be a very rewarding experience: We all desire human connection at a personal level.

I hope my observations and the search for my own personal sustainment resonates with you in some way. The specific approaches might not be what works for you, but if you take time to learn, reflect, and challenge yourself, it can bring many personal and professional rewards.

Questions? Comments?

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About Michael Jacobson

Michael Jacobson writes for MRSC as a guest author.

An award-winning national leader on government performance management, Michael currently serves as the Deputy Director for Performance and Strategy in King County’s Office of Performance, Strategy and Budget. During his tenure, Michael has been responsible for establishing key elements of the county’s performance management system including King County’s first countywide strategic plan, public performance reporting, and executive performance review sessions.

The views expressed in guest author columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.