Slow but sure – tempered radicals lead change

“CEO axed….fails to perform…new skills and strategy required…..”

A sad headline fast becoming familiar and it’s no surprise if we accept that fifty percent of the largest US firms are expected to have a new CEO within the next four years[1]. Most CEO exits bring an abrupt end to ongoing major change initiatives. Appointed successors hasten the dismantling process and eagerly replace with their own strategic change initiative, experts and project management resources.

Ever since John Kotter[2] described change as a process and not an event; his eight stages have become a favourite rite of passage for major organisational change. An entire industry of change consultants and advisors follow his approach to the letter or claim their own fame with­ tweaks to certain aspects of his eight stages. Kotter’s approach to change is thorough; successful change needs to smoothly transition through his different stages. Yet failures do happen; either due to a rush in jumping over the stages or failing to sufficiently tether and consolidate different aspects of change during preceding stages. Failures are also expensive and often leave behind a legacy of cynicism and change fatigue across the workforce.

There is another approach to change – one that is more evolutionary, gradual and patient. Simpler, smaller and quieter than major change initiatives, such change engages people at each small step, consolidates little successes before pressing forward. Undoubtedly slower and far less glamorous than major change processes and initiatives, outcomes are emergent and loosely choreographed; change agents are not a loud visible coalition but individuals who have quietly chosen to put their head above the parapet and through their personal action demonstrate a conviction that change is necessary and provide an alternative rhetoric and approach to status quo.

As a management consultant and HR practitioner working across different clients, countries, cultures, industries and jurisdictions I have been associated with major change initiatives and have had my fair share of dismantling major change initiatives. Equally I have been fortunate to work with amazing people who have seized opportunities to make a difference about something they held dear. These people stayed true to their principles and convictions; their individual leadership action got noticed and without much fanfare, their actions mushroomed into something on a much grander scale.

Debra Meyerson’s phrase ‘tempered radicals’ is perhaps the best way to describe such change agents; people who quietly beaver away within organisations to effect significant change in moderate steps. Much less visible than conventional leaders, tempered radicals demonstrate a form of leadership that is subtle, one small step at a time, yet operate uniquely in addressing the fundamental issues of discord and providing alternative perspectives. Fifteen years on, her HBR article[3] remains as pertinent as it did in 2001. She identifies four prominent tactics adopted by tempered radicals: disruptive self-expression, verbal jujitsu, variable term opportunism and strategic alliance building. In the next few paragraphs I share some of my experiences with tempered radicals, both as a management advisor and as a practitioner.

Disruptive self-expression

Meyerson describes disruptive self-expression as an inconspicuous way to initiate change in which an individual simply acts in a way that feels personally right and gets noticed by others. Actions of leaders are among the first that get noticed and not surprisingly, often copied. This places considerable responsibility on leaders to be aware of the consequences of their actions – deliberate as well as unintended. As a result many leaders often question the status quo, set an example, push boundaries and create a legacy.

Worried by employees emulating senior expatriates working late into the night, the Managing Director, at a client made it a point to ensure that three or four times a week he would walk around the office, on his way out, and ‘instruct’ late working colleagues to leave the building immediately. Pretty soon everyone got the message; not only would senior expatriates leave on time; they also encouraged their teams to do the same. An unintended but welcome consequence was that last minute requests for work stopped; managers in general planned better and were perceived to be more considerate in allocating work and setting deadlines.

Faced with the challenge of generating sensitivity about diversity and appreciation of different views in an international workforce, I am reminded of how a HR Vice President seized the opportunity of the Tokyo-Seoul 2002 FIFA world cup to drive the point home. With over twenty nationalities represented at its Berlin HR headquarters, each member was encouraged to decorate their desks in their national colour, wear their national dress and every football match was much celebrated, cheered and discussed. The diversity of the HR workforce was obvious for all to savour; the strong friendships, sense of camaraderie and informality continued long after the two months of football ended. Somewhat unintentionally, the HR division became a much cited alternative to the

stereotypical German work culture famous for its single minded focus on the task at hand, formality and its clear demarcation between public and private life.

Verbal jujitsu

Debra Meyerson describes verbal jujitsu as turning an insensitive statement, action or behaviour, back on itself. I am reminded of another client who worked in a professional services company for an ambitious and somewhat mercurial partner. Every Sunday afternoon the partner would return from his family home, drive three hours back to his London apartment for the week. He would call up my client each time and spend two hours reviewing progress on their different projects. Her initial acceptance fast turned into indignation when she was left a rather brusque voicemail for not being available one Sunday. She had also discovered by then, from conversations with her colleagues, that this partner never interrupted their weekends. Keen to avoid a direct confrontation she took a tactful approach and started to phone him on Saturdays. Almost immediately the partner asked her to stop and remarked that it was his weekend. She laughed and explained that this was the same way she was feeling each time he phoned on Sunday. The partner took on board the loud message and never interrupted her weekends again!

Not everyone has to be so cunning or brave in demonstrating verbal jujitsu. Sometimes little actions can have an outsize impact.  Exhausted of having to wake up in the middle of the night to participate in teleconferences as part of a global project, always timed to suit the convenience of senior headquarter participants in California, another client suggested that the timing of the weekly phone conferences should be rotated to suit the convenience of different participant locations. Welcomed immediately by most participants, it was impossible for the HQ based project manager to turn down this popular request.

Variable term opportunists

Variable term opportunists identify, create and capitalise on short and long term opportunities for change. I am reminded of an incident that goes back to my time in India. With ambitious growth plans, we were searching for a cost effective alternative to our expensive city centre office. Our search took us to the outskirts of Delhi where a suitable building was identified. It was obvious that employees would find it difficult to reach the office and there was much discussion on cost implications of running a staff bus service. The matter was sealed one afternoon when, reclining in his air-conditioned Mercedes, following a visit to the new premises on a hot 45°celsius afternoon, our Managing Director remarked how uncomfortable the weather was. Seizing the moment I mentioned that while his Mercedes would always keep him cool, our employees would not be so fortunate. Without any hesitation he approved a free staff bus service and insisted that they be air conditioned. Finding AC busses became my next challenge as this was still a novelty in those days. I am told that this practice continued for many years till the recent introduction of Delhi’s excellent metro.


Strategic Alliances

A fourth strategy used by tempered radicals is strategic alliances; often deliberately struck and carefully orchestrated, they help push a change through more quickly and effectively. Healthy eating and consuming more fresh fruit were amongst the many rituals that my client sought to encourage across the workforce. Working together with its caterers we tactically increased the subsidy on fruits, freshly made juices, smoothies and salads. We also developed a special healthy meal menu and changed meeting room catering options towards more healthy food items. These changes proved very popular with employees as they were both cheaper and healthier. The increased consumption also helped the catering company improve its own profitability and performance.

At another client, though there was no shortage of talented women in their different talent programmes, there were disproportionately fewer women in departmental manager positions. A decision by the HRD to weave an element of mentoring by divisional managers to the overall talent programme brought more visibility of women participants. This dramatically improved the success of participants to departmental manager positions.


The fascinating thing with change is that it is inevitable. As Rosabeth Moss Kanter has famously remarked, ‘change is disturbing when done to us, exhilarating when it is done by us’.  An important aspect of exhilaration, in my view, must be ‘stickiness’ – can change outlast the creator, can change make a difference, not once or twice but consistently and continually, and can change augment the performance of an organisation. I hope the previous examples demonstrate how simple it is for an individual to make a statement; how important it is to be true and authentic to the principles one holds dear. Too often organisations, especially large ones, forget that change is led by people; it affects people and its success depends on how enthusiastically the same people take to it. Bringing this awareness to major change initiatives may ensure they outlast its key sponsors and champions.

[1] K Coyne and EJ Coyne Sr – Surviving your next CEO – HBR, May 2007

[2] John Kotter – Leading Change, Why Transformation Efforts Fail – HBR, Jan 2007

[3] Debra Meyerson – Radical Change, the Quiet Way, HBR, Oct 2001

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Unconscious bias – from training to practice

Sheryl Sandberg’s recent decision to share Facebook’s unconscious bias training video with the world has brought the entire issue of unconscious bias to the forefront of public domain. Just over an hour long, two articulate Facebook trainers take an audience of its employees on a journey explaining unconscious bias and how it subtly vitiates workplace culture and undermines performance across its employees. For a business that depends on the calibre of its human capital, where it’s people are its singular asset, where its customers include almost half the world’s population, any attempt, however accidental and unintended, to deprecate any section of its workforce can only have devastating consequences for its business.

Facebook’s vulnerability is not unique. One could argue that any business which engages people runs similar risks. Unconscious bias, in all its different forms – age, colour, culture, disability, ethnicity, gender, politics, religion, sexuality – to name just a few, is at its core, a representation of wider society and culture. Bias is not a new concept; it has existed since time immemorial and will continue long after us in one form or another. Its prominence today reflects the realities of our globalised and interconnected world where living and working with people ‘not like us’ is no longer a brief and occasional occurrence but one that has become an intrinsic part of our 21st century life.  Therefore, when an iconic business of our present day talks about it, we should pay heed, take notice and perhaps ask ourselves about our own assumptions and biases.

Laws have been enacted and all self-respecting HR departments have their policies, procedures and methods to deal with unconscious bias related matters. Yet, no matter how hard they try, subtle biases remain entrenched often proving difficult to identify, let alone address. I remember being taken aback on seeing the policy manual for expatriate Japanese managers at a client where, concealed among the many useful practical tips, was the remark that all expatriates coming to Europe should not ask or expect women colleagues to run any errands including fetching tea and welcoming visitors.

For many there is a tacit assumption that employees require to be within eye sight of their manager and closely supervised. At the start of my career, it was anathema to even think about working from home. Computers and broadband were not so prevalent and for many supervisors, a request to work from home was actually a euphemism for skiving. They would frown upon and turn down such requests despite clearly laid down HR policies encouraging flexible working. I wonder how such supervisors would have coped with today’s attitude that ‘work is something you do, not something that you go to’ and the bewildering resourcing practices that many astute employers are currently offering.

I have often noticed at my clients that Japanese direct reports of Japanese expatriate managers regularly work till late at night and even on weekends while their European colleagues, reporting to the same manager, are often working more civil hours. The reasons offered to me are numerous and at times rather erudite; they range from time zone differences, the nature of the Japanese employment relationship, urgent missives from Japanese HQ, avoiding peak hour traffic, living alone, challenging perceptions back home that life in an expat assignment is all fun and even a sense of guilt at being selected for the expatriate assignment. I wonder if this is genuinely productive or whether it is simply about a culture of being present at the office and perceived to be a hard worker. Are those working more civil hours any less productive?

While I do recognise there may be some lack of awareness about unconscious bias, I believe, it is the inability to incorporate the conceptual understanding into day to day business activity and routines that causes recurring problems of bias.  Training programmes and slick videos do raise awareness; however, real lasting impact can only happen if businesses progress beyond the training classroom incorporating insights about unconscious bias and the underlying rationale in their day to day business processes.

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Employee Engagement – ABC

After hearing my work was about helping clients achieve their workforce potential, a fellow participant at a recent CEO conference enquired, if it was “basically HR stuff”. I asked the CEO what he meant and he replied, “you know, hiring people, firing people, paying them on time; making sure grievances were heard; compliance with employment law and ensuring that there wasn’t any labour trouble”.

I explained that my work is quite different; it involved creating a canvas where employees were connected wholeheartedly with the business and performance far exceeded the formal requirements of their job descriptions and employment contracts. Elaborating further, I explained that my work was about ensuring employees remained engaged, felt trusted, performed their best, realised their career potential and reinforced the best interests of the business. My work helped clients create a workplace where goodwill and commitment ensured employees regularly went the extra mile. Releasing such ‘discretionary commitment’, I added, was neither a contractual obligation nor could it be mandated by a CEO. It always emerged from an organisation’s culture and ethos.

Genuinely interested, the CEO admitted his frustration at the wide variations in customer service at his retail outlets. He questioned the ability and efforts of his sales managers to improve their Net Promoter Scores and customer satisfaction metrics. He candidly expressed his disappointment at the unfolding of his company’s efforts on customer segmentation, marketing planning and product placement. Staff turnover remained a pressing issue and almost made a mockery of their sales and product training investments. Increasingly, he said, he had also been wondering if achieving staff engagement and improving retail performance were somehow connected; whether achieving engagement meant paying extravagant salaries, lucrative sales commissions and incentives. If so, he was concerned if his business would sustain the added costs.

I explained that there is a certain minimum threshold of competitiveness that the pay, benefits, employment terms and incentives at his business would need to exceed. Assuming that this was indeed the case, energies could be invested more constructively by creating a workplace culture where employee engagement is enabled and valued. Yes, there would be some short term expenditure to achieve this, but it would rapidly be recouped from improvements in customer service across the entire workforce.

Keen to assess how well the CEO understood his workforce, I enquired if he knew what brought his employees to work; whether they shared his ambition for the business and felt connected to it. Observing some hesitation, and keen to avoid any embarrassment, I explained that employee engagement was not about paying a lot of money; instead it was about creating the circumstances that would ensure Attitude, Behaviour and Consequences across the workforce. Attitude was about creating pride, loyalty, belongingness, responsibility and a feeling of ownership; Behaviour was about consistently delighting the customer, going the extra mile and bringing a smile while Consequences were about achieving business results, higher productivity, lower employee turnover, reduced absenteeism and fewer employee grievances and disputes.

This wasn’t as simple as it appeared, I hastily added, and it was also not a quick fix solution either. The efforts though are certainly worthwhile with tangible benefits to a business such as his, where its products were easily substitutable commodities.  Amongst other things it would involve creating a genuine understanding of different sections of the workforce: what motivates and excites them, what brings them to work, their career aspirations, their commitment to business strategy, their relationship with colleagues; it’s listening, understanding and creating relevant employer value propositions. It is also about training managers to understand that their primary role is to provide leadership; ensuring conditions at the workplace excite employees to go the extra mile and remain engaged. It is crucial that managers remember the adage; people join brands and companies but employees leave their managers.

The CEO invited me to meet with him and his management team after the conference to take our conversation forward. Following discussions my services were engaged to create a roadmap for employee engagement and train managers fulfil their role in ensuring Attitude, Behaviour and Consequences – the ABC of employee engagement.

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Performance Management – it doesen’t have to be like this

For many of you, it’s that time of the year when you are required to provide feedback to your reports as part of the annual performance review exercise. You can delay things a bit, but there is absolutely no getting away from it. The easy part is completing the form and if you are lucky, it’s just a few boxes on a sheet of paper to fill in. The real challenge thereafter is to provide performance feedback explaining the rationale for your assessment and its consequences on the annual pay rise. Easier said than done, it is not uncommon for a meltdown of a carefully nurtured working relationship.

That is largely how I felt about annual performance reviews until I had the privilege of working for an outstanding people manager and seeing first-hand how this rather mundane, much maligned and dreary corporate process took on an entirely sublime form. No matter what the feedback outcome, every performance meeting with this manager left one feeling valued and energised, ready to renew their commitment and go beyond the requirements of the meticulously crafted job description. Many years and many managers since, none have demonstrated the art of performance management better. So what are some of the things this manager did with such panache and succeeded in leaving such an indelible impression?

First and foremost you were a ‘person’ and not an inanimate direct report or a depleting piece of human resource. You were genuinely known by the manager; your interests, aspirations and ambitions were all well understood by the manager. Time and care had been taken to get to know you as a human being – simple things like the name of your partner, your kids, your likes and dislikes, your strengths were all well known by the manager. Put simply, you mattered and the manager had made the effort to get to know you.

Second, the manager had provided continuous feedback on your performance throughout the year and therefore the year-end discussions were not anything new. You already knew the good and the bad; the performance conversation was another opportunity to discuss anything that had been overlooked. There were no surprises waiting.

Third, filling and going through the form was merely the by-product of the conversation. It was not the purpose of the meeting. The meeting itself was about how to optimise performance for the future, how to harness your strengths and enable you to develop new experiences to fulfil your potential. The classic eighty twenty rule was tacitly followed. Eighty per cent of the meeting was future oriented and only twenty per cent, possibly even less, was spent dissecting last year’s performance – the proverbial crying over spilt milk.

Fourth, every meeting was a genuine conversation;. The share of voice was always balanced in favour of the report, never the other way around. Every conversation always gently but surely stretched capability, and constantly extended the performance requirements to reflect your improved skills mastery levels.

Finally, there was none of the disruptive parent-child or adult-child posturing. Every conversation was one of equals, free, open, honest and achieving agreement. Trust in the relationship was implicit and carefully built. What the manager said and meant were the same thing and what happened was consistent and in line with what was discussed.

It’s been many years since the time I worked with this manager and while there is the inevitable romanticism of time, it does not come as any surprise that this manager has progressed to exalted heights of global executive leadership.

So, for all those of us out there getting the powder dry for the seasonal flagellation of the performance conversation, it does not have to be quite like that. Invest the time and effort in your people. In return, you will get more commitment and engagement than you had ever bargained for.  Your business results will be better and you will be more successful.

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Is today’s talent also tomorrow’s talent?

As a Sociology student I have always been fascinated by Robert Merton’s theory of cumulative advantage. It illustrates how small initial advantages in trained capacity, structural location and available resources create increments of advantage that, over a period of time, widens the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

More recently reading Malcolm Gladwell in his outstandingly clever book “Outliers”, the impact of the Matthew effect finally hit home. Early decisions about who is good and who is not good separates the “talented” from the “untalented” and over time, exposure to superior experiences builds an almost insurmountable advantage over others.

This is exactly how many talent programmes work in the corporate environment as well. Assessment centres, line manager recommendations, identification by senior business leaders are some of the traditional ways in which talent is identified within organisations. Over time, investments in talent development widens the gap over others and quite rapidly, this gulf becomes considerable.

But what happens to the vast majority in organisations who have not been identified as “talent”? Do organisations reach out to these people and provide them opportunities to realise their full potential? Can these people make a difference to the organisations they work for? These were the questions I have asked myself and the more I questioned, the more I became unsure if the time tested approaches to talent management were really future proof.

I could see this working in sport where the rules of the game remained largely unchanged. But even here something fundamental could alter the basic profile for success at the game. The introduction of artificial turf in field hockey fundamentally changed the nature of the game. It made it faster and quicker and very rapidly changed the criteria for successful players. Those clubs not able to afford artificial grass struggled to perform even though they had the most talented, rigorously identified and committed players.

Such fundamental changes are quite regular in the corporate world. Within the last decade, innovations in technology, changes in retailing, increased access to broadband, social media and the immediacy of always online combined with the economic challenges of recessions, and banking crisis have quite profoundly changed the world of business. Yet in many organisations, traditional approaches to talent identification continue unchanged.

Clearly there is no one mantra for the identification of talent. Each business will need to tailor its playing ground and within that define the success criteria for its talent. But one thing is clear – today’s talent may not be talent for tomorrow.

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