Key Opinion Leaders – The Key to Successful Change Management

Key Opinion Leaders are the most influential people in any group or organization. If you’re going to lead people, especially a large number of people, you need the help of Key Opinion Leaders.
This article defines what and who Key Opinion Leaders are, and how to find them in your organization.

What is a Key Opinion Leader?
Never heard of a Key Opinion Leader? Key Opinion Leaders, or KOL’s, are the people within a group who are most influential. They are the people others are watching, and whose lead others tend to follow.

When a new idea is floated, when a personnel change is made, when a process is changed — the reaction of the key opinion leaders will most likely be reflected in the reaction of the group.
If the key opinion leaders “get it”, if they are on board with whatever is changing, and they demonstrate their support, there’s a great chance the group will go along. But if the KOL’s are suspicious, if they are unsure, if they are flat out resistant, your success as a leader is in jeopardy.

Who are Key Opinion Leaders?
If you think you know who your Key Opinion Leaders are, you may be in for a surprise. You can’t pick them, and you can’t assign them.

Let’s start out by understanding who they (most likely) are not.

They probably don’t include you. Not that you are not influential, but you have the influence that comes with title or rank. Most key opinion leaders derive their influence from other sources such as seniority, credibility, popularity, etc.

They probably don’t include most of the managers who report to you, for the same reason as above.

Finally, they probably don’t include the people in your organization whose opinions you value most — at least not all of them.

Key opinion leaders are not assigned. They evolve and develop over time in any group or organization. If a group has not been together very long, it is likely that the KOL’s of today will not be the same in six months or a year.

So — you know who are most likely NOT your key opinion leaders. How do you find out who they are?

Finding the Key Opinion Leaders
It’s not that hard really. You just have to ask! Hang on, before you start running around the organization, let’s be a little more specific about this.

If you go around asking everyone who the key opinion leaders in the organization are, they’re going to look at you a little funny. It’s not a title, and it’s not an assigned role. The term Key Opinion Leader was coined to identify a phenomenon that occurs naturally in groups of people.
One of the best tactics I’ve seen for identifying KOL’s is to ask everyone in a group to write down the names of the 2 or 3 people in the organization they most respect. That’s it — no qualifiers, no detailed explanations like respect for what. Who are the 2 or 3 people you most respect?
Collect all the answers and look for the names that show up most often. Those are your key opinion leaders.

This isn’t scientific. The definition of most often will have a lot to do with the size of your group of people. Sometimes 1 or 2 people stand out easily. Sometimes it’s more like 4 or 5 people who are separated from the rest. But inevitably, there will be some number of people you will find named with some frequency.

By now you’ve figured out a fundamental truth about KOL’s. Not only are they not hand picked or assigned by you, but they control your fate as much as or even more than you control theirs. What if you find that one or more of the key opinion leaders is someone you simply can’t abide?

There is no rule that says that all the KOL’s are influential in a positive manner. Often there are one or more who are anything but positive. And all too often this comes as a complete surprise to the leader. What do you do when that happens to you?

You’re first goal is going to be to get the key opinion leaders engaged and on board with what you’re trying to accomplish. If you’ve got a KOL you know you’re at odds with, you have a decision to make.

The best possible outcome is to win him or her over to your point of view, or perhaps more precisely to work with him or her — and the other KOL’s — to find a plan of action everyone can commit to. If you take that path and succeed, people are going to notice and your stock as a leader will skyrocket.

If you take that path and don’t succeed, all is not lost. You will have to remove the reticent KOL from the team. Hopefully there’s another project to which they can be assigned. Still, people will see that you gave it a fair shot, and for that you will have gained respect.

But what if you know from the start that you can’t reach common ground with this key opinion leader? First off (and I’m going to be brutal here) the fact that someone operating in opposition to your leadership has become so influential in your organization is not a good reflection on you. You’ve made a mistake in not dealing with it sooner, now you have no choice.

You have an agenda as a leader, something you are specifically trying to accomplish. It involves changes in people, process, and/or technology. And you have a cancer in your organization working against you. Maybe you didn’t know it was there, or you saw it but minimized its importance.