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In predicting outcomes, we can learn a lot from rats.
A growing number of top-level people are working less to accomplish more.
Here’s a hint: It’s the most basic HR function.
Top executives reveal how they are addressing today's meteoric pace of change.
By Vadim Liberman
By the time you reach the end of this article, Apple will have released a new iGadget, Facebook’s shares will have bounced up and down, Brazil will be the new China, the United States will be the Old China, and whatever paper or screen on which you’re reading this will seem like an ancient relic from five minutes ago. Then there’s your to-do list, more like a to-do book—no matter how many pages you speed through each day, you’ll never finish it.
Doing business today, as it was yesterday, is about managing change. And there’s ever more change to manage. How do you develop a five-year plan when the next five days seem hazy? The velocity at which marketplace evolutions and revolutions churn nowadays is frustrating at best, damaging to your company at worst. There are more decisions to make and less room for error, more complex information and less time to process it, greater competition and consumer demands and fewer minutes to respond to them . . . and yet you hardly have the luxury of using any of this as an excuse for failure. You have to be prepared not for tomorrow but for right now.
So we wondered: Given the current faster pace of change, will your people be ready when—not if—your organization shifts direction? How easily will they be able to shift from one workplace layout to another, from one business function to another, from one global region to another?
To find out, we asked two dozen top corporate leaders working in the trenches of change management, talent development, learning, workforce planning, and organizational development at companies such as Wal-Mart, Verizon, Shell, General Mills, Pfizer, Caterpillar, and other big businesses how they are addressing today’s dizzying rate of change. Below, you’ll discover plenty with which to commiserate, but take a deep breath, because you will also find various perspectives and advice that you may infuse into your own company. Their replies span the gamut of change management.
Ultimately, the future will always be uncertain. Here’s how to make it a little less so. Maybe.
“Not in Kansas Anymore”
Companies today cannot wait for external changes to happen to them before doing something. By only reacting to what customers want, you’ll always be behind your competition. To be an industry leader, you have to anticipate the next thing.
We are in an industry that has gone from print publishing to online software and services to now data analytics, and we’re in the process of addressing this. In the old world, we knew who our competition was—print publishers like McGraw-Hill, Reed Elsevier, and Thomson Reuters. They are still our competition, but now there are other game-changers, like Google. Why, as a customer, do I need to pay for certain information—regardless of print or online subscriptions—when I can get much of it for free by Googling it? We can no longer make decisions that are tied to the legacy of print publishing. It’s important to acknowledge there are many digital companies as our competitors. If you always associate yourself with a competitor that’s a print publishing house, then you tend to keep operating like one. The world has changed, and we need to get out ahead of it.
It can be challenging to respond to such rapid changes because people by nature tend to get comfortable with the status quo and resist change. Meanwhile, we also need to rethink what our talent needs to be successful in a rapidly changing environment. While they may have the technical skills and capabilities we need to get the job done, we need to also ensure they have the abilities like agility, resiliency, and adaptability.
To ready ourselves better for change, we’re spending time with our customers. Like every organization, we try to believe that we’re always doing that, but we’ve increased efforts to have more one-on-one conversations with them to better understand their requirements and how their own worlds are changing. We’re also focusing on external trends and data more. Again, it sounds so simple. Everybody says they’re doing this too, but sometimes you get insular in your thinking and you focus more “inside out vs. outside in.” Finally, we’re seeking out more people with business intelligence to really drive decision-making using good data. Again, one might say, “Well, doesn’t everyone make decisions this way?” Well, no, they don’t.
When addressing change, you’ve got to be clear about what you want people to do and expect that some will struggle. Twenty years ago, I worked for a small bank that was moving from tellers who just processed transactions to a sales culture. The bank wanted tellers to initiate conversations to sell products and services. Some people didn’t want to do that; they picked a bank-teller job because they liked providing service, period. So some self-selected out because they realized the job was no longer for them. That’s OK. By being clear on expectations, the bank was able to retain the right workers.
Similarly, at Fifth Third Bank, we’re three years into a shift in how we deal with clients, to a more holistic-based approach geared to meet a broad set of their needs. Historically, our approach has been sell, sell, sell—very product-based. “What have you sold today?” literally was the screensaver when I got here eight years ago. Now, we’re focused on having employees collaborate proactively to put together comprehensive financial solutions. This involves a major mind-shift, and it’s taking some folks longer than others to adjust, but by training people on diagnosing customer needs and approaching clients using various role-playing and coaching techniques, highlighting success stories, and rethinking how we write and measure performance goals, we’re getting there.
Let’s Get Something Clear
More than ever, we’re being very deliberate about moving talent. SunTrust moves talent for three reasons: to develop individuals as leaders, to enhance operational performance, and to accelerate organizational change. Sometimes it requires major shifts of business leaders across organizational boundaries: The company has moved talent from
corporate functions into revenue-generating positions and vice versa, like moving people from investment banking into HR or from risk management into field roles. This helps with the longer-term goal of building a leadership pipeline as well as the near-term goal of fostering new conversations and different perspectives to happen within departments.
We’ve also gotten more specific about defining jobs, because in an industry immersed in so much change and ambiguity, an organization should strive to not introduce even more uncertainty due to unclear decision-making processes. With ongoing changes such as increasing regulation, changing client needs, and other global market forces, it is important to be really clear about decision-making processes. We’ve had to get more specific about role clarity, defining not just what the company needs our teammates to do but what it does not need them to. It promotes both efficiency as well as effectiveness.
“What Do You Mean I’m Not a—!”
There’s a misconception that what makes change difficult is the physical movement of workers. Actually, it’s ensuring that employees make a psychological transition that challenges us most. If all of your life, you worked in one kind of job, it becomes part of your personal identity. Now all of a sudden, you have to do something new, and you think, “Wait, I’m not an engineer. This new job is not who I am; it’s not how I ever saw myself.” Managing change isn’t really about focusing on developing people’s technical skills—it’s about helping people understand how to adjust their personal identities.
At Verizon, we look for resilient employees who have an aptitude to survive in any situation in our constantly changing industry, but, most importantly, we look for employees who understand that our focus on the customer is our top priority. Customers’ needs, wants, and interests change on a dime, and we look for employees who can be just as agile in helping serve our customers and adapting to these changes to make sure they have the best experience possible. Once we find such people, training them in new technical skills becomes a no-brainer; we worry about that once they’re on board. I’d rather hire a person with a passion for our mission and culture of putting our customers first than bring in someone who’s very technically strong but may not come to the table with the same degree of enthusiasm or commitment.
Nonetheless, we do struggle with timing. We work in a constantly changing, fast-paced industry that requires employees to be agile and able to quickly adapt to everything from new products and services to new competitors in our space. What may be a very sound business strategy in November 2012 may be less sound by November 2014, and because of the ever-changing environment, focusing on finding the “right person” with the personality and passion for the long term versus the right “skills” for the short term can make all the difference in how we capitalize on this time before we have to change again.
An Inside Job
For the first half of our twenty-year history, we were known as the conference-phone company. Our company name had become a noun: “Polycom” was anything that related to audio-conferencing hardware and technologies. As the technology improved and bandwidth increased, our customers began looking to combine their audio investments and add video services. And now, many companies are assessing their capital expenditures and want to ensure they have the best total cost of ownership. As a result, we’re making another shift: In addition to room-based systems, Polycom is expanding into the small-to-medium-business space, mobile, services, and cloud-based software. At the same time, everyone is starting to bring their own devices to work, so our products also have to work on whatever platforms people are bringing to the office. It’s a major transition for us. We still need hardware specialists, but at the same time, we’re developing software skills in workers. In the past, we would have more time to make this sort of change, but now the cycle has compressed. We need to be more productive. Timelines are much more truncated. The old notion of giving workers two weeks of onboarding, putting them though a three-month course, and blah blah blah—that’s all gone. This transformation has got to be on-the-job and more targeted and niche.
Some people will make this transition; others will part ways with us. But the real issue is not about the skills themselves—it’s about the shift in mindset, from being a hardware to a software company. Getting people to understand this is the hardest part. Once they embrace where we’re going, employees and the company will be in a far better place to succeed. That requires very visible leadership that will not under-emphasize the breadth of change, which is something that some leaders at other companies might do to ease a transition. We feel that in order for this transformation to be successful, it needs to be led from the inside, because external consultants don’t understand our company or our people; they don’t have the credibility. For a change to be successful, you’ve got to take responsibility and accountability for it from the inside, have visible champions across the organization, paint a picture of the end state for all employees, engage them throughout the process, and demonstrate quick wins. With everyone working toward the same goal, success is inevitable.
The Swinging Pendulum
Caterpillar hasn’t had to reinvent itself like many other companies, but we’ve had to adjust to technology changes and consumer demands to remain relevant. While we’re not always perfectly ready when change happens, we’re pretty rapid in our response. Partly, that involves rethinking the skills we look for in people.
Once upon a time, we’d have decades to develop a professional throughout the course of his or her career. As the pace of change in the world is coming at us more quickly and as we grow in emerging markets, we’ve had to figure how to get people up the learning curve quicker. In doing so, as recently as twenty years ago, we focused on deep functional expertise. As we got into the 2001-to-2010 timeframe, we experienced significant growth, and we had a lot more cross-functional movement, in part to develop leaders to take on broader roles and in part because we got enamored with helping people get breadth of experience. But in the last few years, we recognized that we were moving people far too frequently and maybe trying to give people more experiences than were necessarily healthy for the organization or our customers. So now, we want to move people around cross-functionally only when it makes sense for their intentional development. The pendulum has swung back to a notion of deep expertise—which doesn’t mean that we expect our leaders to always be experts, but the good ones know how to leverage their networks rather than just try to figure things out on their own.
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