Change without purpose

I love the fact that the comments my readers leave on the BrandBuilder blog are an endless source of topics for me to write about. I am seriously considering devoting one or two posts per week to either giving your brilliant opinions more exposure and/or answering your questions. And in that vein, why not start today, right now?

Here’s an astute question from Sonny Gill: in regards to characteristic n.8 in my post about “Becoming P2P: Principal characteristics of the new social business“:

Company/organizational culture is something I love getting into and am still learning a lot about.

One point of interest that intrigues me – and what you mentioned – is empowering your employees. Giving them not only the tools and structure to succeed, but empowerment and reinforcement from internal leaders – the attitude that not only spreads throughout the company but outside of the office also (as we all know, work/life intermingle so much). I say it’s intriguing because it’s such an integral part in making this culture change and a P2P business a success.

The biggest thing that companies will be asking though when reading this post, let alone your upcoming book, is ‘how the hell do we accomplish this?’ It sounds/is great, as how businesses function – internally and externally – is evolving, quick. But there’s definitely got to be a huge buy-in and sense of what a P2P culture looks and feels like.

The best way I know how to answer that question:

Don’t sell change. Ever.  Instead, sell results. That’s what execs really want anyway

As always, the old adage about leading horses to water stands firm. First, you have to realize that “companies” aren’t what you’re working with. What you’re really dealing with are people. In other words, companies don’t make decisions. People make decisions. Particularly, leaders in this instance. If the leadership within a company refuses to commit to the type of change that will yield greater success for their business in the future (and starting immediately), I can’t help them. Heck, even Tony Robbins, Zig Ziglar and Dr. Phil can’t help them.

What’s important here isn’t to sell change. Nobody likes change. It’s scary, it’s risky, it’s unpredictable. You’ll never get very far selling fear, risk and uncertainty. Especially to that crowd. So you have to approach change from a very different angle: From the end result. From what they actually want to accomplish.

First things first: Uncovering the true objectives of an organization’s leadership team

Before you do anything, you want to uncover the leaders’ specific objectives (or wishes, even) and then create a picture of what the company (as an organization) will look like in this “fantasy” version of the future. This takes more work than it sounds. You would be amazed how many CEOs have absolutely no idea where they really want to be in 5 years. They’ll tend to throw around numbers that sounds good but aren’t based in reality, like… “We’re at $8.3B in revenue this year. I want to be at $12B by 2012.” Because $12B in 2012 sounds cool and the investors will love it. But that’s bullshit. It’s all about swagger, not reality.

In cases like this, when you ask the CEO how they’re going to get there, you get an equally nonsensical answer like, “we’ll sell more stuff” or “we’ll expand into new markets” or some other such generalization. No specifics. No action plan. Nothing but pipe dream. That’s dangerous and counterproductive. What you need to do is get them off the cowboy plan and get them back to reality: You have to get specific about their goals. These types of sessions aren’t about impressing anyone. They’re about getting down to business, which starts with getting back to reality.

If they want to hit $12B by 2012, fine. Work your way backwards from that. What’s it going to take? Probably some key acquisitions, first and foremost. Is that even possible? Are they in a position to pull it off without risking too much exposure? Does it even make sense to try and grow that quickly? What else do they need to do? Look for strategic partnerships? Expand distribution? Capture more market share? All of the above? Okay, you have 24 months. Show me on a 24-month schedule/timeline how you currently plan to accomplish that.

And guess what: Most of the time, that plan doesn’t actually exist.  It got as far as being turned into a few bullet points on a slide in someone’s powerpoint presentation six months ago. So you have to start from scratch and see what’s realistic and what isn’t. You have to work out all of the contingencies. It isn’t rocket science, but it takes work. And it takes organization. And it takes commitment. Before you can even get to how a company is going to address empowering their employees through a real cultural change, before a company is ready to actually pull this off across all of its departments as a matter of policy, it has to know exactly where it wants to go and what it will take to get there. Not only that, but the leadership team has to both understand and accept that such empowerment is one of the ways they will get there.

Second: Mapping out the start, the “finish” and everything in between

Growth, change and success are hard. You have to map it all out, starting with where you are, where you want to go, and all the points in between if you want to have a shot at actually pulling it off. So change management, which is really what we’re talking about here, starts with that process. And that process starts with painting a crystal clear picture of what you want the organization to look like at the end of the process. (More like a milestone than a finish line, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Now, in order to hit the numbers the CEO threw at you, you really have to be able to create a detailed snapshot of the company in this specific future. What it looks like. Where it operates. How it operates. How it is structured. How it executes on its activities. You have to not only create a snapshot of what it looks like on the outside, but also on the inside, layer by layer, like a CAT scan.

Understanding changes in cultural dynamics and the evolution of technology, you can then zoom in from the portrait/snapshot of the company to its structure, then to its processes, then to the skills of its members. From there, you can reverse-engineer the adaptive phases that the company needs to go through.  To be realistic, the example I gave you (24 months) is too short when it comes to true cultural change for a company that didn’t have much of a culture to begin with. It takes time for organizations, especially large ones, to develop the kind of social  and emotional sophistication to do this well. It takes maturity, and maturity takes time. It isn’t something you can accelerate or optimize.

In this example then, the company’s strategy would focus a lot more on acquisitions and partnerships than growth through cultural change. But it isn’t to say that a cultural evolution couldn’t begin to happen during that time period. In order for the strategic changes to be a success, a lot of internal work needs to ensure that these changes won’t become a liability when it comes to simple things like customer service, customer experiences, internal communications between divisions, brand erosion, etc. You can’t divorce culture from infrastructure. Companies that don’t understand that always fail at creating efficient (and sustainable) versions of either.

Basic Lessons to keep in mind:

Anyway… Long story short: The most important thing when trying to get buy-in is to help clarify exactly where the company wants to be in 5, 10, 20 years. Not pie-in-the-sky bullshit, but specifics. Once you have that, you can paint a clear picture of what the future of the company NEEDS to look like. Now you’ve flipped change on its head. Instead of selling uncertainty, you’re selling clarity.

Knowing where you’re going is 90% of getting there. Most company execs are so focused on meeting numbers this month and this quarter that they just aren’t able to look beyond the here and now long enough to actually drive their businesses anywhere. They’re too busy reacting to the next pothole  or turn ahead. By helping them see 1 year into the future, then 2, then 5, than 10, you can help them impact their numbers now, this quarter, this half, this fiscal year, by giving their performance context in relation to where they want to actually take their business.

That’s a big part of what I do, and everything has to start with that. Before you can get to cultural change management, you have to make sure the leadership team knows where it wants to go and what it needs to do to get there.

The caveat: Lazy execs and the reality of horses that just won’t drink

But with all of that, if the CEO and the COO and the VP of this and that just don’t want to change their ways, if they are more committed to their game of golf and corner office and third McMansion than to the success of their business, there isn’t much I can do to help them. I already know I can’t fix stupid. I’m pretty sure I can’t fix lazy either.

People have to want to be successful, and it can be hard to convince a late career exec making seven or eight figures  and eying retirement in five to ten years that success is about more than the wealth they’ve already amassed. Success is a frame of mind they either want to have or not. The biggest lesson for them is this: Success doesn’t live in the past. Memories do. Success lives in the here and now and tomorrow. It really doesn’t matter what you accomplished ten years ago. What matters is what you’re doing today, and what you’ll accomplish next. Anything else is just ego. Throw away the plaques and the trophies. They aren’t who you are.

A guy who just wants to enjoy the trappings of success but isn’t willing to work his ass off to perpetuate that success is a guy who’s given up. That kind of individual is completely worthless to me, and more importantly, to his/her organization.

Unless the rest of the management team and I can appeal to their sense of pride and self worth, and tap into the ambition that fueled them in their youth, they’re basically in the way. Folks like that either have to get back in the game or move on if you want the organization to evolve. I can’t light a fire under their ass every single day. I can do it for a while, but eventually they have to step up and want to run the ball all on their own.

So, all this to say that you won’t win them all, Sonny. Execs who have grown complacent, live in denial and refuse to accept that their companies are headed straight to the crapper in ten years are beyond being reasoned with. I’ll only get so far with them before I move on to someone who won’t waste my time.

In the end, I can’t help people who don’t want to help themselves. And since organizations are really collectives of people, you either find leadership teams made up of people who are willing to do whatever it takes to save and/or make their businesses kick ass, or management teams made up of people who are happy to pretend that everything is golden even though their business is either stalled or in the tank. Usually, the latter are the first to blame the economy or cheap imports or whatever else they can throw a cat at to explain slow, flat or negative growth rather than take the blame themselves.

I’m not a miracle worker. I wish I were, but I’m not. I help people who are serious about making their business truly successful and are looking for good honest help. The rest, I try not to waste my time with. It’s far too precious as it is.

At some point soon, I’ll actually go over how to create really solid internal cultures both from the top down (trust, leadership, mentoring and hiring practices) and from the bottom up (trust, engagement, tribe mentality, alignment with the organization’s belief system), so don’t go too far. We’ll visit this topic again.

Thanks for giving me my topic today, Sonny. Cheers.