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

This entry was posted in News. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply