If it’s true that courageous leaders are in high demand and in short supply, I am indeed privileged to have worked with Tom, a Vice President in Silicon Valley who leads 13,000 global technical and manufacturing personnel.
Beyond the courage it takes to lead an organization of that size, Tom is a change agent in his organization, tenaciously pushing for transformational change in the face of decades of complacency.
FROM LEADING EDGE TO INERTIA
He leads a team of people evolved from (or in some cases were a part of) a founding industry team; a team that changed the face of technology ~40 years ago. They were the leading edge – a respected group of PhDs and scientists who changed the way you and I live and do our work.
However when Tom took over as leader of this team a few years ago, he found an organization that had lost its way.
What did he observe?
• Individuals who held the same position they had held in the mid-nineties.
• An insular and complacent group of technical leaders whom time and the potential for technology advancement had left behind.
• Leaders whose energy and effort went into protecting their own turf and in living a kind of stagnant legacy of the achievement of a PhD.
• Self-protecting and overly-complex procedures and practices that had grown very deep roots.
Tom believes that the team had become like the children of wealthy parents who believe that the abundance of their legacy will continue forever… not seeing the signs and signals that mean change.
It’s not broken. So we don’t need to fix it. This is the way we have always done it.
The blinders were firmly in place.
As the new leader of this team, Tom faced nearly all of the old maxims about resisting change.
With the strong inertia , Tom might have elected to simply move some chess pieces around without knocking over the board. He had the perfect excuse to say “I tried, but it was just too ingrained for me to change it.”
Indeed there were few supporters around him – above or beside him – who said change was urgent. Certainly the company had been losing its competitiveness the last few years but this group knew with certainty that the problems were “down the line”….not in their shop. And besides, the revenue was still highly enviable to those who looked at the company and industry from the vantage point of other sectors.
We have had it good for this long, why should we worry?
Tom could see that in losing that edge of the earlier years, his team leaders could no longer analyze acutely and understand problems clearly. Instead they blamed others and clung to the belief that anything other than what they were doing could not be done. Systems created over 40 years ago stayed in place…patched…but never replaced.
The organization was quickly losing the competitive edge. They were no longer #1 as in those heady early days…they were still ‘good’ as far the external world was concerned, but not the best.
THE DECISION TO CHANGE
When I asked Tom why he decided to push for change in the face of deep roots and stony ground….long time and ingrained complacency, he did not hesitate to answer.
“From being in the industry, and in this company in the earlier years, I know these people. I know they have families. The disruption I know is coming in the marketplace compelled me to take action, even if my team could not see these changes coming. All of them, and their families, will be affected by the changes. I know what that means, especially in Silicon Valley. I felt I had to take steps, even knowing they would resist my ideas.
“I felt I had no choice. If I did not try I would never know if it could be done.”
Tom was clearly on the right track though others could not see it. John Kotter (author of LEADING CHANGE) identifies 9 sources of complacency and how to overcome them.
Sources of Complacency
1. Absence of a major, visible crisis
2. Visible signs of success
3. Low performance standards
4. Focus on departmental silos rather than overall organizational success
5. Unambitious, non-specific goals to ensure that everyone meets them
6. Lack of performance feedback
7. Discouragement of people who deliver bad news, lack of confrontation
8. Tendency to deny things we don’t want to hear
9. Happy talk from management
1. Allow errors to blow up, expose weaknesses
2. Get rid of visible signs of success
3. Raise standards so high that they cannot be achieved through business as usual
4. Hold everyone accountable for overall success
5. Share specific performance data with all employees
6. Force people to regularly meet with unhappy customers
7. Hire consultants and outside sources to provide honest feedback
8. Discuss weaknesses and competitive threats in open, wide-reaching forums
9. Emphasize opportunities & rewards for taking advantage of those opportunities, and factors leading to missed opportunities
Without following a script from Kotter, but rather following his own intuition and the advice of his father, a Colonel in the army, Tom began to ignite the change, knowing it would be stressful and challenging.
Early challenges in his life taught Tom not to fear failure,
When Tom was younger he complained to his father that he was feeling stressed. His father, the army colonel said: “I send men to fight and possibly to die. That is stress. What you are feeling is not stress.”
Tom’s father put his stress into perspective and he never forgot that the feelings of fear, risk and overwhelm are very relative. With that in mind, he had the courage to press forward and using his judgment and experience, he successfully put into place many of Kotter’s suggestions for addressing complacency and moving change forward, without having read Kotter’s work.
TRANSFORMING THE ORGANIZATION STEP BY STEP
Tom’s effort to transform his organization has spanned many months now and it is far from completed. However, I asked him: what were some of the tools and strategies you have used to date to move the change forward?
1. 360 Leadership Assessments and Coaching
One of the first steps Tom took was to ask his leaders to invite anonymous feedback from their team members, peers, stakeholders and managers. In support of that effort each leader had 1:1 coaching to interpret the feedback and to prepare a plan to increase their capabilities as a leader.
2. Full participation Yearly Planning
For the first time this group was asked to create the yearly plan together. They were asked to be accountable for the success of the overall organization rather than only to their individual teams. Periodic group meetings ask them to assess overall progress to date.
3. Pushing decision making down
In a startling change for his leaders, Tom began to push back when his leaders came to him to solve a problem. They came too often and they came most times blaming “the other guy.” Tom began to turn them away and to ask them to meet together first before coming to him. The dependency had to be broken if they were going to learn the skills to analyze and solve critical problems.
4. Challenging perceptions of the status quo visually
A group of 30 leaders on Tom’s team were asked to come together for 3 days to visually map the relationships and intersecting roles/documentation on the team. These 30 came to the task believing they knew these relationships intimately….after all, they said, look how long so many of us have been here! It looked like a waste of 3 days to them.
The group was asked to use red string across the wall to map intersecting process points and inter-relationships across the organization. The result was a giant string map that clearly showed a level of complexity that could not be sustained in the face of new demands on the organization.
At the end of the three days the revelations were coming fast and furious. The “ah-has” were numerous and the epiphanies many. The visual view of the complexity of relationships, the duplication, bottlenecks and inefficiencies that existed in a “kluged” system, could never have been so clear were they not visually spread across a wall two conference room lengths and 10 feet high!
Everyone involved agreed to be a part of the change immediately. It had not been a waste of three days.
5. Communication Training and Team Building
Tom knew that some of the complacency and inertia came from insularity of skills, Many on his team had not been exposed to basic communication skills, clearly lacking in a culture that had devolved to being one where information was shared on a “need to know” basis. Communications Skills training and meaningful Team Building sessions brought the team together to learn.
Also, facilitation of several team building sessions by a leading organization in that field forced them to assess the team on several fronts and to own what was working, as well as what was not.
6. Changes on the leadership team
After nearly a year of leading the team, Tom knew he needed to make some changes on the leadership team. He made these changes carefully one at a time, not in one fell swoop. He made it clear to everyone the ‘what and why’ of these changes.
I asked Tom about the payoff so far; has he seen results of the change he initiated?
“Yes, they are already more tolerant of each other, not so critical. That means we are breaking down the silos. There is little push back now….everyone agrees we must transform in order to meet market disruptions and once again have a dominant position in the industry. You can see in our meetings that things have changed and people are working well together.”
He sees everything that he has done to foster change as interconnected. And, in the face of the legacy of inertia in recent years, he would gradually like to hire some team members from outside the company, to offer fresh insights and innovative ideas.
THE PAYOFF FOR TOM
“There is nothing like the feelings I get when I see my team improving and increasing their success. Change is challenging…yes, it is hard…but hugely rewarding.”
WHAT IS NEXT?
“I am focused on watching my team regain their dominant position in the market.”
Tom wants to look deeper at the metrics of success for this team. Over time he wants to measure and observe:
– How are people interacting?
– What is the speed of execution on the team?
– What is the quality of execution?
– Can we continually revise our yearly plan to meet external changes?
– Are team members talking about overall company success or about their own success or failure?
– Are people displaying empathy with those with whom they work?
ADVICE FOR OTHER TECHNICAL LEADERS CONSIDERING MAKING CHANGES
Tom is very clear in his advice to other technical leaders facing change.
“Try…even if you might fail. Go forward in spite of the risk. Take the first step and do not let fear paralyze you. Keep your eyes wide open. The edge is the “people stuff”. Believe in its importance. It is the competitive advantage others cannot duplicate.”