Managing Partner at Blue Book Ventures. Inspirational Business Leader, Workplace Pundit, Best-Selling Author & Venture Capitalist
A Little About Me
Richard A. Moran is a San Francisco based business leader, workplace pundit, bestselling author, and venture capitalist. He is best known for his series of humorous business books beginning with bestselling, Never Confuse a Memo with Reality and is credited with starting the genre of "Business Bullet Books."
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Too many organizations, even today, allow a culture of threats and fear to hover over the people like a dark cloud. The threats can be direct or subtle. The sense of fear can creep into one’s soul and ruin what could be a meaningful career. A culture of fear can develop over time and before you know it, a toxic environment exists and then it becomes hard to get rid of. Just a few subtle examples follow.
Fear Monger #1….A sales executive is holding his biweekly meeting with the entire sales team. One hundred anxious people are in the room. They are anxious because they know they are falling short on their the sales goals and the wrath of hell is about to fall on them. And it did. He screamed, “People, we are off track! If you don’t up your game, I will fire your ass! If the numbers don’t improve, all of you will be gone and I mean it!” He went on but the damage was done. People were panicked and the blood pressure in the room shot through the roof. They left the meeting hating the leader and vowing to look for a different job.
Fear Monger #2…The manager roamed around at night when everyone was gone. She had a small pad of Post-It notes in her hand. As she roamed around she would scribble on the pad and slap the note on the computer screen of the empty workspaces. The messages on the notes said things like, “Rewrite this report ASAP” or “See me first thing!” or “This summary is a B-.” When people arrived in the morning they entered the building with dread that there would be a little yellow greeting on the computer screen. Those who saw the yellow flags in their workspace felt sick. The situation made people hate showing up, fear the manager and loathe her for ruining what could be a good job.
Fear Monger #3…As soon as he entered the building the question became, “Who is he today?” The range of possibilities went from a supportive manager to a raging maniac and everything in between. The entire building walked on eggs until the message went out that he was in a good mood. If he was in a bad mood, the day was full of trepidation of crossing paths with the one who was fuming. It was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and no one knew who would appear so everyone lived in a mild sense of fear and longed for a consistent manager.
The list of fear inducing behaviors is long and can include situations like threats over following certain people on LinkedIn, to threats to assign onerous projects to threats to eliminate benefits or just the general threat of losing your job.
The research is significant in showing that stress is a killer. There is no better inducer of stress than fear. In a day when executives realize that culture drives success and boorish behavior cannot be tolerated, fear should not be a factor in any workplace. I hope none of the examples above sound familiar to you. That’s all I have to say about that.
The Uber driver was on his cell phone mumbling to someone and I couldn’t hear what he was saying and didn’t want to hear. But as I looked over his shoulder I noticed that nearly every light on his dashboard was flashing. All of them, from “check engine” to “inflate tires” were pleading for someone to pay attention.
“Excuse me,” I said, “Is the car about to blow up? Should I get out?” He replied, “Don’t worry about it, we are fine,” and drove on. The car did not blow up but it made me wonder, does anyone pay attention to dashboards?
Unless you work in a place that doesn’t have computers, you are probably dealing with operational dashboards that control your daily mood. Some are so complex that they measure your daily caloric intake. Some are so simple they are like huge thermometers. Do you pay attention to any of them? Probably.
Unless you have an old clunker, your car dashboard is full of lights that can flash when you least expect it or want it to happen. Some lights cause panic and with others, you just drive on. When some lights come on I just turn the radio up louder or drive faster. Although we may not admit it, all the lights are important signals. And when it comes to our careers, each of us has a set of lights flashing that are worthy of our attention. Using the car metaphor, here are a few lights on your dashboard and what they might mean:
Door Open /Gas Cap Ajar: Oops. Slight problem, like wearing two different shoes to work. You still have to stop and fix it.
Refill Washer Fluid: Dang, I need that but I can keep driving. Like getting a little behind in emails but allowing time to catch up later.
ABS: No one knows what this light indicates so turn the radio up louder and hope it’s not serious. Like looking at pivot tables in a staff meeting. Just get back to work.
Tire Pressure Low: This requires attention. Get out and make sure you don’t have a flat tire before you keep driving. Like having a coaching session in the hallway, pay attention to what you hear.
Service Vehicle Soon: Yep, all vehicles need maintenance and some need more than others. Like having a performance review and learning that you need lots of improvement.
Check engine: Could mean time for a new car. Or, for your career, could be time to take stock and decide if it’s time to look for a new job.
None of us have that sophisticated dashboard like that of a car that will shoot us warning signs about work, career or life. We have to create our own and know when to pay attention to it. If you dread getting out of your car and walk into work feeling nauseous I would say your “Check Engine” light is on.
The kick off is always dramatic. The CEO or other executive proclaims, “We need to change to be competitive. It is no longer business as usual around here!” He or she continues, “This is so critical, I’ve asked (fill in the blank: the COO, the head of Strategy, the head of HR) to carve out a significant part of his (or her) time to lead the effort.” Questions abound immediately. If the appointed executive leader has been there for more than ten years, don’t waste your time. Abandon the change initiative immediately.
But maybe the change leader seems enthusiastic. The next step is to identify a batch of internal stakeholders in the firm who will be empowered to make change. Maybe consultants are brought in. The entire group will meet, maybe off-site for a day of inspiration, planning and to create a vision and mission. Teams will be formed as a part of the planning day and each will be tasked to tackle a batch of issues in a focused area. Each team will have a leader who will facilitate meetings and develop a plan. The group meets regularly and sets up timelines and objectives. In each meeting there is a flipchart for notes and at the end of each meeting the word “communications” is featured prominently on the cover page.
After months of work, PowerPoint presentations are given to senior management with recommendations. The recommendations include cutting costs in the staff functions and eliminating redundant processes. Other recommendations include making the customer more embedded in how we plan and conducting surveys more frequently. In addition, enhanced communications is important and more transparency is a must-have. But management has been there for a long time and doesn’t want change. So everyone goes back to their old jobs and continues to plug away at making things better in their own little way.
Sound familiar? We have been at change management now for a while and almost my entire career is about change management. Most organizations around the world have been through a change initiative of one sort or another. What I’ve learned is that people don’t like change and don’t want to change. I have seen some initiatives succeed but many die of their own weight in process and meetings. The efforts always begin in good faith that change is required. So what’s the problem? Here are but a few…
Although it’s clear what we need to change from, it is not clear what we need to change to. The end state is amorphous so we regress to the old ways.
The change process is planned to take too long with too many people involved and too many meetings. Change management becomes a substitute for work.
Executive sponsors lose interest right after the kickoff meeting.
Change management is really a polite way to say we need to cut costs.
Measures do not exist or are not understood.
Is change management dead? In it’s present form, it may be. But organizations still need to change. So let’s get serious about change. If change is required, here are three simple things to do.
Set up a decision-making system to get it done. Make decisions quickly and implement them quickly. Don’t get bogged down.
Never put long-tenured leaders in charge of change.
Keep the leader involved. Involvement is not as an extracurricular activity. The leader needs to be involved as a full time change leader.
Separate cost reductions from change initiatives.
Doing those four things might make change happen. Change management isn’t dead; we’ve just over-engineered it into something that doesn’t make change. Change management may not be dead but it needs to change. Hope about change springs eternal.
What do you believe is required for change management to succeed?