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Wednesday, 27 March 2013 07:12

Change Leadership: A tale of two departments

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A few years ago I was working with a mid-sized packaged goods company which had two large operations in different parts of the country.  Each operation focused on a particular product line, for which it had separate sales departments, and the change initiative was to unite the technology systems for both to allow for better cross-selling and customer service.

Six months into the project I was perplexed:  While one operation was proceeding effectively with the changes, and was already showing positive results (increased sales and better customer feedback, etc.), the other facility had stalled, and we were starting to meet active resistance.

At first, the reasons were unclear:  Though the organizational goals were aligned across both operations, we'd prepared customized change strategies for each location based on their people, process and technology.  How had we gotten one change plan so right and the other so - apparently - wrong?

As I've mentioned before, good communication is the foundation of any successful change management strategy and implementation.  I decided to spend some time at the underperforming facility, talking not just to project team members but to various other staffers as well, to see what I could find out.

Spending a few days on-site at the underperforming facility and talking to employees quickly revealed the problem:  The VP Sales of that operation had missed several key planning meetings at the beginning of the change process due to work-related travel commitments.  Though he'd been provided with documentation - and had participated in subsequent meetings - he'd been left feeling under-consulted and left out of the process.  In addition, there were long-standing rivalries between the two operations which hadn't been adequately articulated in these key early planning meetings - so the VP Sales was feeling threatened by the changes.

The result was that while the VP Sales of the high-performing operations was actively engaged in the change and was doing a great job of enthusiastically leading his people forward, the VP Sales of the underperforming operation was not only demonstrating lacklustre leadership for the change, but was actively undermining it by telling his managers that change-related tasks were a 'low priority' and could safely be sidelined in favor of 'business as usual'.

The solution

As it turned out, the solution to our problem was relatively straightforward:  We (the CEO, the VP Operations, and I) spent an afternoon with the VP Sales of the underperforming operation to review the change strategy, with particular emphasis on the decision-making rationale that he had missed earlier in the process.  We actively solicited his insight and input and made a couple of revisions based on that input.  He became a much more enthusiastic supporter of the change initiative, and went back to his people with a more positive leadership approach.

The lessons

  1. Don't underestimate the value of single individuals in the success or failure of a change initiative.  A single unengaged VP can derail an entire change initiative.
  2. Don't assume enthusiasm and engagement.  Even though the underperforming VP Sales hadn't been at some of the early planning meetings, we'd simply assumed that - since he hadn't expressed concern or issues at subsequent meetings - he was on board and as enthusiastic as everyone else.
  3. A little bit of TLC can go a long way.  Once we determined the problem, we didn't 'bully' the unengaged VP Sales into compliance or 'shame' him by comparing him to the high-performing VP Sales.  Instead, we took the time to review the change strategy with him, ask for his insight, and implemented revisions which addressed his concerns.  It's amazing how demonstrating respect and consideration can transform a non-engaged leader into a fully-engaged one.

BONUS LESSON:  If key members of the change strategy team can't participate in early meetings, ensure they are provided with one-on-one follow up.  Making the time to keep everyone on the same page right from the beginning will save a lot of time and frustration later on.


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Beth Banks Cohn, PhD, founder and president of ADRA Change Architects, is dedicated to helping you and your organization reach your full business potential…
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