The leaders who work most effectively, it seems to me, never say “I.” And that’s not because they have trained themselves not to say “I.” They don’t think “I.” They...
The story you are about to read is true. The names have been changed to protect the guilty.
During my early career I accepted a job with an organization in which the culture can best be described as bureaupathological. How the organization stayed in existence was beyond me.
The unit was a training organization but it did very little training and none of it quality. With a staff of eight people, they offered one or two courses each month. Each instructor had one or two assigned topics that he or she alone taught. No one else taught another person’s topic and the best topics were guarded zealously. As a person gained seniority, they inherited more entertaining and interesting topics. Newbies were assigned topics that were drier and that no one else wanted.
The quality of the training was poor. Participants commented on jokes or movies rather than content or skills they learned. The unstated goal was entertainment, not skill development. The division director was not satisfied with the department’s efforts but he had no idea what to do differently (he was an ex-politician). Leading or managing was not his strength. Since he was a powerful and influential person, the division survived despite its mediocrity. The assistant director was an ex-television personality who believed entertainment was the key to great training.
The informal organization was a disaster. On one occasion several staff members went on a rather interesting business lunch and when they returned at least one of them threw up in an office trashcan. On another occasion one staff member was caught with a glass pressed against the wall of his office trying to hear what was being said in the director’s office (located next door).
About a year into my time with this organization, I became so fed up that I resigned from the organization to take another position. Over the weekend I had mixed feelings and reversed my acceptance of the new job offer to stay where I was. (I was not sure why I was staying but I knew in my heart it was the wrong thing for me to leave). Shortly after my decision, the perfect storm occurred. Over a three month period, everyone between the division director and me left the organization. I went from being one of the least senior employees to one of the most senior. The last person to leave was the assistant division director. After some deliberation, I was promoted to assistant division director. (When I assumed the new role, the old assistant division director bequeathed me his bottle of antacid and told me I would need it to do the job.
The remaining employees were less senior than me, but most had grown up in the old culture and many bad habits remained. There was one new employee with considerable potential that gave me an ally in creating a new direction as well as to do some of the early heavy lifting.
The Dilemma and the Vision
The organization could not succeed if changes were not made. That much was clear. The number of course participants were on the decline. Things had to change and they had to change fast. There was not one simple action that would change our situation, there were multiple issues all of which had to be addressed. What to change and how to change were the questions I faced.
I talked to the staff about the future and what needed to be done to build the performance and credibility of the organization. I shared my vision. While staff nodded and agreed, my words rang hollow. They did not grasp the full ramifications of what I was saying. Unless they had specifics, their behavior would not change or it would be so slow as to be meaningless.
While I probably could not have clearly articulated my approach at the time, there were two areas that had to be addressed simultaneously:
1. Stopping wrong behaviors
2. Building success behaviors
Part 1: Stopping Wrong Behaviors
One of the unhealthy practices of the culture occurred at the end of each day. (It was a small but visible illustration of staff’s attitude toward their work). This ritual had gone on for as long as I had been there.
Around 4:00 PM (the office closed at 4:30, classes ended at 4:00), the staff would come out of their offices and congregate around the front door. They would swap stories and talk about what had happened in class that day (mostly negative comments about participants).
Our offices were on the top floor of a seven-story building and the elevator ride down was always a nightmare. The elevator was the slowest known to man. At the end of the day, it was even slower. The elevator would stop on every floor on the way down and fill up with people, lengthening the ride time. But if one could get ahead of the rush hour, the ride time down was acceptable.
As a result, the staff would meet around 4:00 and one person would go to the elevator bank and push the down button. (You will ask why we did not have flextime. It was unknown at the time but we were one of the first to implement it several years later.)
During my first week as assistant division director, I observed a behavior that had become a normal practice. The elevator arrived on the seventh floor around 4:05. I saw staff members look at each other, laugh and then, in mass, jump on the elevator and disappear down the chute. 4:05 may have been a new early quit time, even for this bunch.
The Wake Up Call
I thought about what to do all night. The next morning after everyone had arrived, my admin notified each person that there would be a staff meeting that morning.
At the meeting, I had several talking points:
We are professionals
We will act and behave as professionals
We will earn the pay we receive from the organization
We will abide the rules and policies of the organization for which we work
I observed the situation at the door yesterday afternoon
The action to leave early was inappropriate
That action was not acceptable and would not happen again
My administrative assistant distributed a form to each employee.
As each employee looked down they saw a prepared vacation request form with their name and a request for 25 minutes leave dated the previous day.
I explained that as professionals if staff was not working they needed to be on approved leave. Otherwise they would be absent without approval. I further explained that the leave slip was not punishment but approved leave accounted for the unauthorized time they were away from the office. I explained they were welcome to leave early each day as long as a leave slip was on my desk. What would not be tolerated was being absent without leave.
We discussed my expectation that staff work for the amount of time they were paid. (An antiquated notion that is now in disrepute with many knowledge workers; we pay for their knowledge, not their time; right?).
Finally, the staff was asked if they had questions or comments. When I received none, I instructed each staff member to sign the form and return it to me by the end of the day.
The moral of this part of the story
This situation was a test of my leadership. Would things be different or would it be business as usual?
When I tell this story today, I am amazed that my actions are often criticized as being too harsh and unfair to employees. It seems people want to wake up an unhealthy culture by talking or discussing things. They want movement without shock or pain of stopping wrong behaviors. All I know is that because of an early elevator, I got people’s attention that things would be different.
By the way, the congregating at the door stopped that afternoon.
Part 2: Building Success Behaviors
Changing a culture involves more than stopping negative behaviors. It also involves building success behaviors.
The content we were teaching was not professional, quality or up to date. No one was proud of our material. I knew every time another course participant attended a mediocre session and walked away dissatisfied, another nail had being driven into our coffin. Expertise on the staff did not exist to develop great course content. As a result, the new talented staff member and I rewrote lesson plans for every topic in every class to insure up to date material that was relevant to the job, comprised of sound learning principles and interactive for participants.
Staff members received and were trained in the new materials. Topic assignments were rotated so that over time, everyone was teaching everything. The goal was to build a solid infrastructure and depth of capability so that quality of each instructor in the classroom improved quickly and efficiently.
An interesting phenomenon began to occur. The quality of instruction began to rise and the ability to explain linkages between segments of content began to grow. Instructors were able to explain to participants how the different course segments integrated into the their work. Staff became talent developers instead of entertainers.
Over time, demand for the training grew and a waiting list to attend courses developed. Instructors began to change and improve those original lessons plans with their own insightful materials and examples.
The organization began to change and grow in ways I never imagined. Professionalism, staff capability, quality and demand grew. Many of my staff exceeded my abilities as an instructor. Other organizations began to want to hire my staff. But that is a story for another time.
Changing A Culture
Today people talk about how to change an organization’s culture. There is a lot of theory that is tossed around (most of which I was ignorant of back then and probably still am!). But I knew several things.
1. If an organization did not have high quality products or services, it did not deserve to and would not continue to exist.
2. Change was needed and somebody had to step up to the challenge and develop a plan of attack. Talking at this point added little value.
If the organization was to become healthy and productive, it had to kill (not tolerate or modify, 3. but kill) detrimental behaviors.
4. The division had to replace mediocre or average work (not workers) with quality work that both the staff and I could be proud of and that customers would want and need.
5. Speed was of the essence. (I learned later that Warren Bennis once said, “It takes an autocratic decision to make participation a reality). I needed participation and commitment but at this point I needed quality more.
6. Finally the issue was not just speed but also urgency. I knew I had a limited amount of time (a window of opportunity) to tangibly demonstrate that a new way would be successful. If this successful path were developed, staff would follow. If it were not, staff would go back to business as usual and the division would continue its bureaupathological behavior. More than anything, this narrow window of opportunity drove the urgency to change.
One Observation Looking Back
As I look back, it took two people to initiate and drive the culture change. (Today people advocate that culture change requires everyone’s involvement. While that is eventually true, change often starts with a few dedicated and committed people who get the ball moving). As progress was made, others sensed the direction; felt some excitement and climbed on board.
If I had waited to gain everyone’s agreement to a new direction before initiating action, I would probably have retired with my name on a wall plaque commemorating a distinguished career as the caretaker of a very sick organization.
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