Lousy Change Leadership Causes Change Fatigue

If you’re like people in many companies today, you’re damned tired of the pursuit of constant change. I don’t blame you. I see first-hand what you’re going through–and where it comes from.

Leaders who don’t have a clue as to how to manage or lead a change effort do more harm than good.  Take “The Darter,” as he’s affectionately referred to by his employees. He darts in and out of offices suggesting to anyone who’ll listen that the company needs another program to address the (fill in the blank) problem.

“We need to get this quality under control,” he tells one manager.

“We need to get our productivity up,” he tells another manager.

Unfortunately, he leads one of the last of the hierarchic, boss-knows-best cultures, so people ask “how high” when he says jump.

When the Darter comes up with a change plan (out of thin air, not from any substantiated research data), he is full of excitement and passion around getting everyone on board. Trouble is, he doesn’t really understand it himself, or know how to articulate it.

His latest great idea is called Project Growth, a major change program that he swears, “is going to set the company on a new growth and profitability course.” It’s a change plan that involves becoming (his phrase) “more customer centric, re-branding the company with a corporate social responsibility flair and reducing new product development time by half.”

That’s the essence of Project Growth and it’s pretty ambitious. The few people who can figure out what Darter is talking about, like the idea. Those who have no earthly idea what corporate social responsibility means, are apathetic because The Darter is, of course, The Darter. He’s his own great idea a minute.

Alas, countless hours and needless resources are devoted to his latest project and he’s frustrated because no one seems to care about what it means.  But if you could attend one of his team meetings and observe anonymously, here’s what you would experience.

(Read the next few paragraphs and see if you can pick out where The Darter is not walking his talk. )

On the day of the meeting, The Darter enters his conference room, sits down at the head of the table and begins going through his routine agenda.

First, a 10-minute financial rundown from the chief financial officer, then a five minute review from the chief operating officer, and yet another 15 minutes for the head of marketing. Three business unit heads spend a total of 20 minutes telling the meeting participants what they already knew.

Fifty minutes into the meeting The Darter turns to his HR head and asks for a report on Project Growth.

PAUSE: Dear Reader, did you catch what just happened? The agenda spoke volumes. Project Growth is completely disconnected from the business of the business. It isn’t part of finance, ops, marketing, or the three business units. It is last item on the agenda-a program unto itself. Even then, it is trivialized.

“How’s our Project Growth doing, Liz?” The Darter asks the HR leader.

“Stickers are being developed,” she gushes, excitement shining in her eyes. “They’ll be passed out to all employees, one sticker per employee. And I brought three designs to show you. I’d like a sense of which design you all like best before we get the stickers printed.”

PAUSE AGAIN: Now, I don’t know about you, but I could guess with superior accuracy what that discussion is going to be like…

Yep. Sure enough.

The ops guy leads off. “Shouldn’t employees have more than one sticker because the stickers will run out of stick ’em before Project Growth is over and we’d want all employees wearing stickers throughout the life of the project, right?”

Then  the CFO speaks up. “How much does each sticker cost and should we put a limit on how many stickers an employee gets–say a maximum of five and then they have to find a way to re-use their old stickers.”

“Shouldn’t the stickers be the same color as the corporate logo?” asks the marketing VP. “And why don’t we put color-coordinated posters up in the hallways?”

“Should we put a catchy little phrase on the stickers or should they just bear the name of the change effort?” asks one of the business unit heads.

FINAL PAUSE: OK class, let’s add up the likely total compensation of the people sitting around the conference room table right now, debating the four-inch stickers they want their employees to wear at work. Hmmmmm. Perhaps we should include their annual bonus and options as well.

So, after two hours, with the last hour entirely devoted to designing and allocating stickers, no senior manager on The Darter’s leadership team has really made any decisions about communicating what Project Growth is, or why employees should care. Yet, The Darter leaves the meeting thinking everything has been sewn up.

And his 21,000 employees are about to get a real treat that will transform them into the most engaged employees on the face of the earth. Or so thinks The Darter.

Don’t be that guy.

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