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A Different Perspective on Culture Change – Part II

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Editor’s Note:  You can read Dr. Ted Marra’s Part I of A Different Perspective on Culture Change here.

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For those readers of Part I and possibly some new readers as well, I hope that this article continues to add value and provide a different perspective – one through the eyes of a frontline employee.

I believe it is worth noting some of the activities which I have found senior executives need to engage in beyond those already stated in Part I which can contribute to making this change process successful.

In Steps #1 and #2 especially, senior executives should act like ‘missionaries’ going out into the far corners of their organisation converting unbelievers.  Whether this is through a travelling road show approach where each executive must give a prepared presentation on what is happening, why it is happening (e.g., need) and how the people and the organisation benefit as well as an open and honest 2-way dialogue with employees or there are ‘town hall’ meetings where large groups of employees come together held at various locations and times.  If the organisation operates on 2-3 shifts, executives need to be out there at whatever time of day or night is necessary to engage people and let them know that management is serious and committed 100%. Use of the intranet and setting up messages (words or pictures) for use as screen savers all help – some may be from the CEO and others.

If the approach suggested in Part I regarding establishing Domain Decision Councils, one Council being related to ‘Organisational change – adaptation, learning, creativity and innovation, at least one of the Council members should be the Sponsor and or facilitator/coach for the Strategic Business Improvement (or Change)  Team which supports the Council.  There may be more than one SBIT or SBCT.

In Part I, we discussed the first three Steps I have observed in change programs.  I will continue with the remaining steps and also offer an example from a past client.

So, in Part I we discussed the following Steps:

  1. Hear the words
  2. See things happen
  3. Understand my role

The unfortunate fact, in my experience, has been that management has spent too little time on helping their people to understand their roles – often leaving them somewhat in a state of uncertainty, leading them to think of this once again as ‘the program of the month’ and even if it goes ahead, not really being committed to it.

In any change program it is critical that the old ‘feet, head, heart’ model be employed – begun many years ago at Xerox and Corning among others. In the past, as we know – and still far too often today, the ‘3C’s’ of management still prevail – command, control and coordinate.  We, management in our infinite wisdom, will tell you what to do, when to do, how to do it and who to do it with and we will watch over you like policemen or policewomen to catch you doing something wrong.  Obviously that approach stopped working a hundred years ago but is kept alive by those senior executives among Collins ‘Level I and Level II’ executives from his book ‘Good to Great’ or Senge’s ‘unconscious incompetent’ management in his book ‘The Learning Organisation’. Focus on just obedience, diligence and expertise was not enough.

Some years ago, a few more enlightened senior executives realised that their people might add more value, increase their creative contributions to the success of the organisation and have stronger commitment and motivation if they did more than ‘just bark orders’ which caused employees feet to move or make them jump, more out of fear than respect.

So, they began the transformation to ‘getting into the head’ of their people – to explain why they are doing it – its importance to the organisation and what’s in it for them the employee (WIIFM).  They were right.

Then the ‘eureka’ came.  Some of these more enlightened senior executives thought that more energy and passion – greater motivation and creativity could come by ‘engagement’ – creating a stronger ‘emotional attachment’ of their people to the organisation and what it stands for.  It is only by getting to ‘heart’ of the matter – and their people that this can be achieved.

While digressing slightly with the above discussion, it helps to highlight why change in many organisations only occurs when there is crisis as opposed to occurring on a continuous basis and why, even in a crisis situation, successful execution is in the 20-40% maximum range – usually at the lower end.

So, what then are the next Steps from the frontline perspective? Let’s have a look:

Step #4: Management builds the trust and capability of frontline employees

Quite frankly, another reason such a high percentage of change programs fail is that often this Step is either left out or minimised – that is, management does the nominal necessary in preparing their people often because of cost considerations or they take employees for granted or are just simply clueless of the need – I mean, what are we paying our employees for anyway?  If they can’t do their job, then get rid of them! They are just ‘tools’ to get a job done. So they set their employees up for ‘failure’ – it is never a failure of leadership – just the people in the organisation.  Wouldn’t life be wonderful – simple, easy if it wasn’t for our people screwing up all the time they say!

This is probably the single most critical Step in the process from a people perspective.  It is the one which, through senior management’s actions, clearly communicates whether this change program is real or not and whether they, the employee are viewed as an asset or a tool by the degree to which leadership invests in them.

It is an absolute fact that trust is built on clear, 2-way, regular (frequent) open and honest communication at all levels – transparency – the sharing of all relevant information between management and employees.  While that is not the only factor that contributes to building and maintaining trust, it is probably near the top of the list.  You can add others as I could, but won’t digress further at the moment.

Here are some of things frontline employees are looking for – hoping for in this Step:

  • Show me I am valued – not just a tool
    • Invest in me – training and development, coaching, support and more as appropriate
      • Provide me with the knowledge, skills and development I need to be successful and to contribute to my full potential in helping this change program be successful
  • Engage me and ensure I am involved/participating throughout
    • Show me that we are ‘all one team’ working toward a common purpose to make this organisation more successful and a better place to work
  • Communicate with me (see above)
    • Make sure the messages are clear and mutually reinforcing
      • Include celebrations of successes and recognition
  • Win my heart and mind
  • Set my performance expectations
    • Ensure all Human Resource systems (recognition, performance evaluation, job descriptions, and reward system) are all aligned to reinforce the behaviors that lead to mutual success. Showing appreciation too goes a long way
  • Make me confident that this is not just another in a long line of initiatives which will pass quickly – a part of the ‘program of the month’ series

Once again, what I have seen is that many organisations, as I have said, either skip this step or do a sub-optimal job with it.  Instead, they ‘rush to accountability’.  A big mistake and one that can torpedo a change effort as can the setting of unrealistic targets – especially in terms of time limits even more than the tasks themselves.  Change takes time – needs to be well thought out or planned and then even better executed.  You can’t rush change or something, I guarantee, will go wrong.

What management must do relative to support is empower employees to do what is in the best interest of the organisation – empowerment will only work in an organisation where there is trust and where the old ‘command, control and coordinate’ way of doing business is dead and buried. Employees must feel confident in their own capability and in taking initiative without fear. It is only when the above things are done and then experienced and acknowledged by the people of the organisation that they willingly take ‘ownership’ for what needs to be done and happily get it done.

During this time and the earlier Steps, leadership needs to be practicing ‘MBWA+’ – you remember how revolutionary ‘management by walking around’ was when Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, right introduced it? I mean at that point in time, 1982, about the only way an employee knew their senior management was by seeing pictures hanging on the walls in the organisation’s reception area or the newspaper or internal magazines.  If a senior executive came into an office and stood by an employee, the employee would have no earthly knowledge of who the person was even if it was the CEO!

You notice the ‘+’ I added above to MBWA.  That simply means that leadership today must ‘walk around with a purpose in mind, namely to engage employees – to inspire, to listen and learn and act on what they hear, find out the barriers getting in employees ways of contributing to their full potential and eliminating them while at the same time strengthening the relationship between management and the employees.  This is what starts to get to ‘the heart of the matter’.

Yet it is surprising how challenging this ‘MBWA+’ is for senior executives!  I worked with the top partner of American Express in the Balkans for over a year conducting regular weekly strategic learning sessions of 2-3 hours for the CEO and Management Committee. One of their homework assignments was to form pairs, go out into a part of the organisation they knew little or nothing about and sit and talk to a random group of employees about how it felt to work there, the vision of the organisation – did the employees understand it, was it inspiring, did they know how they could contribute to achieving it and also any other suggestions for organisational performance improvement. They were scared to death! I told them prior to this that of all the leadership teams I had worked with around the globe, I would put them in the top 25%, yet their confidence, their experience level in going out and engaging their employees was incredibly low when it should have been second nature to them and something enjoyable – not frightening!

It is not unreasonable – in fact, it is desirable, if senior executives deliver some of the training/learning and development programs needed for team leaders, supervisors, first line managers or middle managers.  Middle management is often called the ‘great frozen layer’ and unless senior management starts asking them different and better questions and working with them – engaging them, they will act as an inhibitor to the process as well as being unsure as to their role or competencies needed in pulling it off.  These individuals are critical to success.

Throughout the ‘change’ process, I suggest taking ‘pulsing surveys’.  This might mean every month or quarter randomly selecting 25% of the workforce from all functions and levels – a true random sample and asking a short series of 5-7 questions.  These questions might include such things as (1) Do you feel you have a growing understanding of the importance of this change to the organisation?; (2) Do you feel that the change process is working, that things that need to change really are changing?; (3) Do you feel you have had the opportunity to have your voice heard and to be involved in the process?; (4) Do you believe that once this change process is completed, the organisation will be a better place to work (or more successful)?; (5) How do you feel about working in this organisation now compared to before this change process began? Now, these are not intended to be just ‘yes/no’ questions even though what I have shared indicates that.  These need to be rephrased and other open-ended questions could be asked including what else could be done or should be done or what employees see as opportunities for improvement or ideas for innovation.

Step #5: Frontline employees are assigned and accept accountability – ownership occurs

Now, after building capability and strengthening trust through investing in people, they are ready to accept accountability willingly – ready and willing to reciprocate and take initiative.

It is here where the following types of actions should be observed by frontline employees:

  • Defining the specifics of what I must do differently and/or better starting now to ensure the program is a success
    • It is critical that job descriptions, performance evaluations, recognition and reward criteria be aligned.  I have seen so many organisations where there is mass confusion.  The job description says one thing, but the performance evaluation is on key job elements which are not the same.  These criteria are not the same as those used for recognition or reward.
    • I have been in so many organisations where I have asked employees, ‘If your boss came up to you, patted you on the back and thanked you for doing a great job, would you what you had done? Could you repeat it so you could get another ‘pat on the back’ as an acknowledgement? The answer has too often been ‘no’.
    • Knowing what I am being measured on as an employee is critical to their success – no secrets, no sin of omission – just transparency
      • The measurement system – indeed the measures or KPI’s need to be credible in the eyes of the employees – something that if they can’t control it directly at least they have significant influence on.  You can’t have them responsible for EBIT or market share!
    • There needs to be a clear linkage between the performance measurement system and the HR systems – performance evaluation, recognition and reward as a minimum
  • Emphasis must also be on a balance between achieving the results or outcomes desired and ‘how’ those results or outcomes were achieved.  Leaving a trail of dead bodies behind in the zeal to attain targets is unacceptable! The collateral damage is too great. However, doing it through exhibiting behaviours consistent with the values/beliefs of the organisation is the key here.  Role models get the maximum rewards – these are individuals who not only achieve their objectives but do so by living the values of the organisation such as teamwork, respect for the individual or others which may be in place.
  • The performance evaluation session should be used for development purposes
    • Management at every level should be acting as teachers and coaches helping employees to be more successful – giving the support needed – listening for any ‘cries for help’ – reading between the lines
    • Succession planning is also important such as Rothwell’s strategic succession approach. How well employees respond to change, how well they act as ‘change agents’ themselves and show personal leadership must be taken into consideration in identifying high potential people and ensuring their succession into the right positions in the organisation.

It must be that accountability extends upward to include senior management and the Domain Decision Council discussed earlier as one of these Councils maybe the ‘Renewal’ Council where I define renewal in my book, ‘The Wisdom Chronicles: Competing to Win’ (http://www.amazon.com) as the seamless integration of learning, adaptation, creativity and innovation – it is the ‘gene’ in the organisation’s DNA which enables it to effectively and efficiently change continuously through time – keeping its business model fresh and enduring resulting in continued superior results which set the standard for others to follow. It is also one of the three elements which I believe contributes to the anti-fragility of an organisation as discussed by Taleb and also by my friend and colleague, Dr. Tony Bendell.

Step #6: Frontline employees make behaviors and new practices a part of daily work life

It is here where senior management as well as all key individuals whether team leaders, supervisors, first line managers, middle managers and high-potential people need to ensure that the changes from this program are ‘embedded’ in the organisation – that they are embedded in the minds of employees and become ‘just the way we do business around here’.

Again, constant vigilance is a key. Relentless reinforcement and inspiration by senior management is also a key.  Senior management leading by example is a key. Aligning human resource systems especially recognition, performance evaluation and rewards at all levels is key to reinforcing the desired behaviours.

My strong belief – and experience, tells me that the Domain Decision Council on ‘Renewal (learning, creativity, adaptation {change} and innovation)’ should be permanent.  It should consist of the CEO (not the chairman of the Council), the Head of HR (chairperson), one other member of the leadership team (VP of sales, marketing, CTO, CIO, CFO) – pick people who need their mindsets, their paradigms shifted to a better place along with the CEO). This Council would be the equivalent of the Steering Committee, the CEO would be the equivalent of the Sponsor and the Head of HR would be the Champion. 

This Council, as previously mentioned, would be supported by one or more Strategic Business Improvement Teams or Strategic Business Change Teams made up of a cross-functional group of high-potentials.  They too would be going out and working with, involving people throughout the organisation as well, making regular presentations to the Council and the full Management Committee on progress, additional support requirements, success stories and more to keep the momentum and maintain the energy, desire and acceptance of change throughout the organisation.  These Team members would have special development requirements – some provides by senior executives in the organisation or by others from the outside – practitioners or academics – becoming ever more capable over time.

Change needs to become a way of life and something that employees do not fear, but embrace as it provides them with opportunities to become involved, to learn and to grow as well. These are the ‘core’ elements employees are looking for (see my Article: What Employees Really Want).

This final stage also needs to be comprehended in the change strategy execution process.  The amount of time required to embed the change is clearly dependent on the size of the organisation and how far-flung it is – e.g., local national, regional, global. It is also dependent upon people embracing the changes more quickly or more slowly depending upon such things as trust, respect and behaviors – moving up the learning curve.  Ultimately people reach Peter Senge’s 4th stage of ‘unconscious competence’.

But the fact is that change must be continuous – not just a ‘one-off’ activity.  This is where ‘renewal’ comes into play, but very few organisations have learned this.  Examples include P&G, Apple, Amazon, Nordstrom, and a few select others.

Here is an example from a past client of mine.  I went into this organisation and conducted in-depth interviews with senior management, small group interviews with middle management and others, and focus groups with frontline employees.  From that I was able to create a ‘current state cultural profile’ shown on the left and work with senior management and others to create a ‘desired future state’ which is what you see on the right.  This was done at the outset of the change process among other things to help everyone see where we were and where we needed to go.  The strategy developed were the steps for getting there (following the 6 steps above):


And also…


As you can see from comparing the left and right columns, this organisation had some challenges ahead.  Setting priorities was part of the key to success.  There was some low hanging fruit.  Others took longer.  Focus on was on those which could provide disproportionately large benefits for the investment of time and resources – meaning they result in more  value be added more quickly to more key stakeholders than others. Understanding the interdependencies between the issues was another.  Clearly viewing the customer as a partner, not just an account would link to keeping the business, not just getting the business. We got the job done.

As Beverly Sills, American musician once said, “There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.”

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About Dr. Ted Marra

Dr. Ted Marra is a strategic facilitator, organizational mentor and writer. He has lectured in MBA/EMBA programmes at universities in Boston, Detroit, the UK, Switzerland and Croatia. He is now a Member of the Board of MAX/Knowledge Now, a global learning organisation. He is also Sr. Partner for Insights Paradigm, a strategic advisory organization in Dubai, UAE. You can find Ted on LinkedIn here.

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