I love change. I couldn't live in a job that didn't have change every day, and I’m fortunate to have spent most of my career in change agent roles, starting when I worked at Tyco in the early 90s. The whole business world was on an M&A binge at that time, and nowhere more than Tyco, whose CEO at the time, Dennis Kozlowski, became known as Deal-a-Day Dennis after we did 365 deals in one year. The Healthcare division that I worked in at the time went from $800 million to $9 billion in just four short years. I absolutely loved the ride.
It was my job to look at the acquired companies and put the pieces of the puzzle together. The whole culture was built around change, and there was a lot of organizational knowledge about how to do it. What we were exceptionally good at was taking the best processes, tools and deals, without worrying about who it came from. We never took to the view that because we were the acquirer our way was better. Every acquisition was an opportunity to learn and improve.
I first realized that other people are not such big fans of change when I went to ConAgra.
I was brought there to fill a brand new role, creating a new department, implementing a new system and bringing procurement to areas that the businesses had solely managed themselves. Resistance to change was extremely high, but I was prepared.
I had interviewed with the CIO of the company during my first session. He had a nice office that overlooked a pretty little lake on their campus in Downtown Omaha. He asked me, "What do you think of our campus? Isn't it beautiful?"
"Yeah," I said, "Lovely, and very different than any place I’ve ever worked.
Then he said, "Don't let it fool you. Under the covers, this place is a wreck. You've got to put your hip waders on, pull those bootstraps up and be prepared to slog through some mud when you get there. Don't expect anything to be easy."
Now I am at MGM Resorts, a company that is a combination of those two. It was already in the throes of change when I arrived in 2015, and driving hard to achieve its Profit Growth Plan, with stakeholders, staff and suppliers in every stage of the change curve. Coming into this environment I was able to develop strategies to drive the change acceptance needed, and define a culture of continuous improvement.
At the end of the day, change management is all about moving people through change. Buildings and systems don't care if you change. All the emotion comes from people. The challenge is helping them work through all those emotions and finding the opportunity for learning and growth. Here are some tips I’ve learned along the way.
Find the WIIFM
Usually when a procurement change is announced it’s all about how many millions the company is going to save. It's going to be great, we're going to hit our goal, and we all get our bonuses.
But, it’s not always the dollars that drive people’s behavior. Everybody wants to know, What’s In It For Me? You have to find the WIIFM for every individual who you’re asking to change. The best way to do that is to ask. What I think is of value often is not even remotely close to what people care about. Sometimes, people request things that are small and easy to do.
Crowdsource continuous improvement
I don't know anybody who's implemented big change and it's been spot on. You’ll always have issues. It’s best to set that expectation up front, and do what you can to figure out where the potential pitfalls are. That means listening to everyone, hearing their concerns, soliciting their ideas for mitigating risks, and keeping a list.
This is how you build a culture not just of change, but of continuous improvement. Nobody says you all have to agree, or that everyone gets what they want from the get go. You may have to tell people that you may not be able to fix things right away, but you acknowledge their concerns, solicit their active involvement, and stay in communication.
Communicate early and often
The worst thing you can do as a change agent is wait until just before D-day to let people know a change is coming. I’ve seen teams spin out of control because they've had little to no information on a change they knew was coming.
Even if you don’t have all the details, the sooner you can give what information you do have, the better. It’s hard to keep any major change a complete secret, and if you don’t provide people with information they’ll talk amongst themselves and create their own stories, often making a mountain out of a molehill.
Don’t forget the personal touch
Nothing cuts through the fear of change faster than sitting down with a group of people and talking to them. In this electronic era, we tend to forget that. We rely on email, and self-serve approaches such as telling people to go watch a video or do an online training.
But, people have to have the willpower to go and do those things. And even when they do, they have difficulty remembering the training scenarios when they get to the real situation. If you can embed the training or quick reference guides into the tool right where they need it, you’ll be much better off.
In addition, you also have to find and train super users who become an extended network of resources that can help communicate and guide people through the change. Remember, “it takes a village.”
Win the war, not the battles
You don’t need to win every battle to win the war, so when one department leader at ConAgra said, "I'm not really interested in partnering with you or going onto the tool," I said, “That's okay, you can go last." By the time I came back around to that department, I'd already won the hearts and minds of most of the other departments. They became my advocates, because they were able to share their success stories of partnering with my team and it was an easy sell.
No mouse left behind
Just as in “Who Moved My Cheese,” Spencer Johnson’s famous book on how humans can handle change, you have to realize that some people are going to take longer to find the new way to the cheese than others, no matter how much communication, training and support you provide.
Give these people a chance to go through their own process, which is not unlike a grief process. Let them vocalize their thoughts and emotions. A lot of them cannot get through that process without at least getting those off their chest. Try to involve them as much as you can in testing and focus groups and being part of the solution, and be patient. But, if there are people who just dig their heels in and refuse to even try to change, it’s usually best to figure out how to part ways.
Born this way
I’ve come to realize that I’m genetically wired to love change. I don’t think it’s possible to make change lovers out of people who aren’t, but that’s not the change agent’s job. Some people love having their hair on fire all the time, and others like things on an even keel, and we need both kinds of people. My husband is an even keel guy, and it’s a good balance because sometimes I struggle being in the moment because nothing is changing.
But you don’t have to love change or be a Deal-a-Day Dennis to get through the change curve. It just might take a slower pace or just a little bit more time and effort to get there.
The leader’s job is to set everyone’s expectations that the change will never be perfect, and that it will continue. I like the philosophy of Fawn Germer, who talks about “failing forward,” and how it's okay to fail if you're learning and moving forward. That’s how I see change—as a cycle of continuous improvement and growth. I think that's core to how we can help people can embrace change, or at least not fight it so hard.