Managing Change

True story: some years ago I was on the management team of a fairly large international tech company. The business’s culture was known as a very intellectually and inter-personally aggressive one, a sort of work hard, play hard place.  Because of this high energy environment people were reluctant to take vacations and spent much of the time off either checking in just in case, or fretting that they’d be walking back into a maelstrom.  It was with that backdrop I returned from a week off.  I tended to come in early, so my routine was to go to my office, drop my bag and then cross the floor to turn on the section lights. Imagine my surprise when I put my foot down in my dark office, and instead of feeling carpet I touched hard tile!  Flipping on the light, I saw what was my office a week ago, was now a copy room. Okayokokayokay…a few hyperventilating minutes later, I figured that if I had been purged like Trotsky my security card wouldn’t have worked so I went about figuring out what happened…and also where my office went.

My great office/non-office adventure might have been a shock to the system but it was harmless, and easily navigated once the adrenalin stopped pumping.  That’s not always true, though, and is a caution to companies of all sizes that introducing change should not be a one step process from thought to action.  In a mature organization roles tend to be fairly well thought through and time has honed them so that even if they do not create a fully optimized organization, at least there’s been time for the rub points and conflicts to have been smoothed.  It may not be exciting or poised for rapid action but these organizations are at least predictable and that works for some people, companies and industries.  But what happens when it’s time to kick things up a notch?  Competitive pressure, new executive management with a board mandate to grow, retirements or departures can all set up the need for doing things differently—not just in the marketing and sales organizations (though that’s where a lot of change-focused energy is often expended), but across the business.

The easy path, and the one most often followed, is to look at your current high performers and give them more responsibility.  That seems like a great idea, but often putting someone in a new role is the kiss of death for performance.  A concrete example is that of a top selling salesperson being promoted, by virtue of their excellence, to sales manager.  While that can occasionally work out, most often the traits that made that person such a sales rock star are exactly the attributes that make him a misery to work for.  Add the that a likely disdain for the administrative overhead that comes along with management, and you’ve just blown up your highly functioning team.

Impatience and lack of a clear view of what success looks like can plague companies. To put it in simplistic terms, if you have a company vision you know what you aspire to. If you have a mission statement you know what you will do to get there. If you have a strategic plan and a team to execute it you’ve got a shot at succeeding.  But success takes time, and a bad month or two is not always a good reason to shake things up.  As an executive or an owner you have to match your reaction time to the business cycle, get metrics in place, see what’s happening with your competitors, then read and react.  Change may be needed, but you’ve got to plan for it, and get the right people in the right places, not just drop available bodies into the slots you’ve created.

If you’re struggling to understand why none of the great sales reps you’re hiring, or the brilliant marketing person you brought in aren’t getting the job done, maybe the problem is deeper than talent.  If you’re working on your third set of people in any key role in the business and no one is living up to your expectations then you might want to consider that the only common denominator to these failed employees is you.  Maybe that’s where the change needs to happen.


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