Category Archives: change management

A ‘Window’ into Transforming GM’s Culture

There have been no shortage of books over the years devoted to the glass ceiling, a phenomenon that is still very much evident today in organizations, both big and small. But few, if any, have attempted to explore the issue through the story of one single leader.

cq5dam.web.1280.1280In Road to Power: How GM’s Mary Barra Shattered the Glass Ceiling, a book being released today by Bloomberg Press, Laura Colby, a reporter for Bloomberg News, has found a worthy subject in General Motors’ CEO, Mary Barra. What makes her story of particular interest to those of us in HR is the fact that, for a short but very trying period of time (when GM was in the process of navigating through bankruptcy), Barra led the HR function at GM.

As head of HR, Colby reports in Road to Power, Barra held a significant amount of power in shaping the company’s future management. “Thousands of people were leaving the company. Barra’s job was to maintain morale among the most promising ones—the high achievers—so that they wouldn’t bolt at a time when they could get bigger salaries elsewhere.”

Early in her tenure as HR chief, Colby writes, Barra went on the road, “visiting the company’s locations across the country. She’d hold brown-bag lunches at plants and offices to answer employee questions. She also had a series of more formal meetings with invited representatives from different sections of the company, so-called diagonal slices. With more than a dozen plants closing and thousands of workers laid off, she needed to underline the message that the company wanted those who remained to do their jobs well and to be accountable for the results.”

Colby describes in the book some of the more formidable challenges Barra faced at the time. But as the author reminds us on at least a few occasions, sometimes it’s the small stuff that can be particularly telling about an organization’s culture.

A great example can be found in the chapter titled “The Volt: Shocked into Action” (keep in mind this is an excerpt from an advanced copy of the book). It specifically touches on GM’s dress code …

“One of the most iconic things Barra did to get the message across that times were changing was to relax the company’s dress code. It ran to about 10 pages when she joined HR, including descriptions of proper attire for everyone from assembly line workers to office staff to executives. “It was probably the most interesting change and the biggest learning that I had into a culture,” Barra said at the Fortune women’s forum. She whittled the code down into two words. We said, ‘Dress appropriately.’ That was it.”

Rather than liberating employees, the change left some of them terrified. Barra said she’d have managers e-mailing or calling her and asking for written details of the policy.

“So I’d take them through, and say, ‘What do you do?’ And they’d say, ‘I manage 20 people and a $10 million budget.’ ” And I’d say, ‘I can trust you to manage 20 people and $10 million but I can’t trust you to dress appropriately, to figure that out?’ ”

True, the future of GM hardly hinged on what folks wore—or didn’t wear—to work. But as Colby quotes the subject of the book saying at the Fortune conference, Barra considered the dress-code experience a “window into the change we needed to make.”

And for those of us reading about it some years later, it serves as a valuable reminder that many of the policies and practices we put in place as HR leaders, even the ones that don’t fall into the category of make-or-break—along with the behaviors we demonstrate—send powerful signals about our organization’s culture and priorities.

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The Long Lost Art of Listening at Work

It’s tough to be a good listener in the workplace these days — even if you consider listening one of your strengths. That’s according to #ListenLearnLead, a new survey out from Accenture today based on responses from 3,600 professionals from 30 countries.

Nearly all of the respondents (96 percent) consider themselves to be “good listeners,” yet 98 percent report that they spend part of their workday multitasking and 64 percent say that listening “has become significantly more difficult in today’s digital workplace.”

Interestingly, though, despite the plethora of smartphones, tablets and other must-have yet highly distractable devices in today’s modern office, the most-cited distractions by the respondents were of the more old-school variety: When asked what interrupts their workday the most, 79 percent cited telephone calls and 72 percent cited unscheduled meetings and visitors. That compares to the 30 percent and 28 percent, respectively, who cited instant messaging and texting.

Rampant multitasking is a routine part of the workday, judging by the survey’s results: Eight in 10 respondents say they multitask on conference calls with work emails, instant messaging, personal emails, social media and reading news and entertainment. Perhaps this is something to keep in mind for your next conference call: if you’re the presenter, try and keep things lively, quick and fast, otherwise your presentation could lose out to the latest goings-on of the Kardashian clan as bored attendees seek relief via their smartphones.

In keeping with general trends, respondents have mixed views on the benefits of technology in the workplace: 58 percent believe technology enables leaders to communicate with their teams easily and quickly, and nearly half cite its ability to enable flexible work from anywhere. However, 62 percent of women and 54 percent of men view technology as “overextending” leaders by making them too accessible. Majorities also agree that information overload (55 percent) and rapidly evolving technology (52 percent) are among the top challenges facing leaders today.


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What Happens When Executives Leave

executive exitThat’s what a pair of University of Kansas School of Business professors wanted to find out when they undertook a recent study on turnover at the highest levels of management.

James Guthrie and Jay Lee, professors of human resource management at the school, sought to see how companies perform following the exit of top executives, using data from 367 firms representing 134 industries. According to a UK statement, the researchers’ analyses “examined the relationship between top management team turnover and firm performance, taking into account a number of industry and firm characteristics, including a company’s own performance history.”

Guthrie and Lee found that, “as rates of top management turnover increase, firm performance tends to suffer.”

This may seem intuitive enough, but the researchers maintain that companies can sometimes be too “trigger-happy” in removing corporate leaders, and actually overestimate the positive effects of turnover at the top.

“There is this idea out there that top management teams get too complacent, too committed to the status quo, and therefore shaking things up will improve performance,” according to Guthrie. “And there is a certain extent to which that is true.”

But what firms don’t always count on losing in the process, he adds, is the departing executive’s tacit knowledge—social connections, industry relationships or organizational knowledge, for example.

The implication, says Guthrie, “is that turnover not only erodes performance by depleting organizational skill banks but, perhaps more dramatically, by altering the social structure and fabric of an organization.”

While acknowledging that change at the top is necessary when an executive isn’t performing well enough, “I think a lot of firms take this too far,” he continues, noting that companies can tend to overlook executives’ firm-specific experience and fall into a mindset that change is always a good thing.

Ultimately, Guthrie and Lee concluded that the effects of turnover at the highest levels of management are comparable to those found in studies of turnover at the lower levels of the organization—increased turnover equates to decreased productivity and insecurity in other parts of the firm.

“It’s basically a cautionary tale,” says Guthrie. “Don’t necessarily think that if you’re in a volatile industry, changing people at the top will improve things.”

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At AAG, the Votes are In ….

It’s often been said that the early days of a merger (including the days leading up to closing the deal) are extremely critical, especially when the cultures of the two organizations have little in common.

img_aa_newamerican2No doubt more than a few major airlines have learned this lesson the hard way, including US Airways when it joined forces with America West. So it’s not a huge surprise then to see one of the first steps taken by new American Airlines Group’s Doug Parker (who now heads the combined US Airways and American Airlines) was to seek the input of the airline’s 60,000 workers in selecting a new logo.

As a story posted yesterday by the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) points out …

Workers were invited to vote on the so-called livery as part of the new American Chief Executive Doug Parker’s effort to woo his new employees. They narrowly voted to jettison the carrier’s old AA logo and stick with new branding unveiled last year just before the merger agreement that created the world’s largest carrier.”

Roughly 52 percent of the employees reportedly voted for the new design, which would be limited to the tail. “Announcing the vote, Mr. Parker said the fuselage design with the new American logo … would have to stay because the company had already put that logo in too many places,” according to the Journal story.

Whether you’re a fan of the new logo or not (I’ve yet to reach an opinion one way or the other), you have to credit Parker for taking this modest step of bringing employees together in choosing the new logo. True, there are a lot more pressing issues facing the combined entity than selecting a logo. But it does send a simple yet subtle message that we’re all in this together.

As my colleague Senior Editor Andrew McIlvaine noted in a story posted last March on our website, the merger between US Airways and American Airlines will be, if nothing else, a combination of two very different corporate cultures. (The deal finally closed in early December)

In the words of executive-search consultant Kurt Weyerhauser, “the cultures at American Airlines and US Airways might be considered almost diametrically opposed to one another.”

So with the logo votes now tallied, AAG’s HR leaders obviously have their work cut out for them in the months ahead. A few years from now, it should be interesting to look back and see if some of the lessons of the past were learned and applied to this latest merger. (As a regular US Airways customer—being based near Philadelphia, one of the airline’s hubs, it’s hard not to be—my fingers are crossed that turns out to be the case.)

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Choice Speakers Detail Keys to Transformation

Agility was mentioned more than a few times during the opening day of i4cp’s 2013 Annual Conference in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Take yesterday morning’s session featuring Choice Hotels’ CEO Steve Joyce and CHRO Patrick Cimerola. (For fans of the TV show Undercover Boss, you may remember Joyce from the 2010 segment, in which he worked up a sweat changing bed sheets, and cleaning toilets and swimming pools.)

dv560031Joyce, who joined Choice five years ago just as the economy was about to tank, has led Choice’s transition into the “distribution” business. (Choice claims to be the first hotel chain to launch an iPhone app.)

“Change happens very fast,” Cimerola explained, “so we have to be agile” and “move quickly” as an organization. In light of that, hiring people who have that ability is a top priority at the company, a franchiser with more than 6,200 hotels around the globe.

At Choice, Cimerola said, everyone, from the top on down, is responsible for finding great talent.

“We hire people with a purpose,” he said. If employees are standing by the elevator at five o’clock, he explained, “I would tell them to get out of the way.”

Cimerola added that leaders at Choice are assessed for and held accountable for the people they hire.

Besides agility, Cimerola said the company also looks for people who embody two other core competencies: collaboration and accountability.

In speaking to potential talent, Joyce pointed out that management emphasizes the “kind of impact that they can have.”

This especially resonates with IT professionals, who are key to the company’s transformation into a distribution business, Joyce said. Those in IT want to work at a company with an eye to the future; a company doing “exciting things,” he said.

Among other things, Choice’s growth roadmap includes significant expansion into Europe, where it has already made some inroads.

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Latest Hackett Study on “World-Class HR”

world class HRIs your HR department world-class? Would you like it to be? It wouldn’t hurt to check out the latest Book of Numbers research from the Hackett Group, which has been putting out these reports for the past 17 years. Hackett defines “world class” as “companies that achieve top-quartile performance across a weighted array of efficiency and effectiveness metrics.” The findings are based on detailed benchmarks of Global 1000 companies over the past two years.

World-class HR departments make far greater use of self-service for payroll, training, total-rewards administration and staffing services than typical companies do. They also focus on keeping it simple: they use nearly 70 percent fewer job grades, 40 percent fewer health and welfare plans and 40 percent fewer compensation plans than typical companies of their size. They have 20 percent fewer managers but with greater spans of control, which leads to streamlined management, reduced costs and quicker decisionmaking, says Hackett. They’re also better at outsourcing than typical companies, retaining fewer internal staff associated with processes that have been outsourced, which helps them realize greater cost benefits from the arrangement than other companies, which tend to make few internal changes after outsourcing.

World-class HR departments are heavily focused on employee development, says Hackett. They dedicate 15 percent more in spending and allocate more staff than typical companies do to strategic workforce planning and tend to have more staff skilled in areas such as anlytics and modeling. They’re focused on identifying skills needed by their company today and in the future, and often take a “multi-year” perspective that lets them develop needed skills internally. They have nearly twice the number of internal placements than typical companies, and are able to recruit staff externally much more quickly when necessary. They also take a rigorous approach to employee engagement, measuring it regularly and equipping managers with the skills they need to guide people effectively.

In addition to being more tightly integrated with business strategy than their counterparts at typical companies, world-class HR departments are more engaged in managing and facilitating organizational change. And, while 20 percent of typical HR departments report metrics for HR-managed projects, world-class HR departments do this three times more often, and close to 80 percent report organizational metrics for change initiatives. Doing this, says Hackett, “helps HR leadership build credibility with executive management.”

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Productive Thoughts on Uncertain Benefits

A reassuring moment occurred at Tuesday’s CHRO panel discussion on “Benefits in a Time of Uncertainty” during the 15th annual HR Technology® Conference in Chicago.

To a person, every panelist — Artell Smith, CHRO at Aon Hewitt; Brian Johnson, executive vice president of HR at Fidelity Investments; Norbert Englert, CHRO at Mercer; Gail McKee, CHRO at Towers Watson; and Tom Maddison, corporate senior vice president and CHRO at Xerox Corp. — agreed their companies would not be casting their employees off, across the board, into healthcare exchanges under the impending healthcare-reform implementation.

And this despite prevailing research showing between 2 percent and 20 percent of employers are expecting to drop employer-sponsored benefits and release their employees to the exchange system come reform-enforcement time, said Mark Stelzner, principal and founder of Inflexion Advisors, and moderator of the HR Technology® Conference session.

Nevertheless, also to a person, panelists shared new strategies and approaches they’re taking to help their workers embrace the coming healthcare-change monsoon.

“My charge,” said Smith, “is to help employees see what they can take charge of in this uncertainty.”

Or, as Maddison agreed, “Uncertainty is an enabler of change.”

All discussed their slow-but-proven successes in consumer-driven-healthcare and health-savings-account initiatives.  They also elaborated on some of the bumps in the roads.

Are employees ready for the added responsibilities in determining their own care, adopting healthier lifestyle choices and taking additional steps to reduce costs?

“Yes,” said McKee, “they are ready to take control of their care. We’re already seeing results in dropped emergency-room visits [and other indicators], but it takes time … and it takes identifying and going after those pockets of resistance [that emerge]. It has to evolve.”

Making the successful transition from top-down to employee-owned healthcare, here and abroad, will also require more energy on the part of employers in setting up action plans for each individual. “We need more energy around the specifics,” said Maddison.

Englert agreed: “The way people decide is usually not as rational as we would like. It’s not easy to get people to really spend the time to manage health and cost consequences. We can’t just say, ‘Here is it, go for it and good luck with it.’ We need to provide guidelines and pointers.”

Johnson concurred as well. “Anything we can do to ensure, simplify, personalize, streamline, use vehicles of education — such as role-modeling — that we’ve never used before,” he said, “we should be doing.”


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Of Mergers and Politics

We’re well into the silly season of politics, as any glance at the headlines will confirm. Politics is also an inevitable part of just about any organizational merger or acquisition and, just as in Washington, can be downright silly. I gleaned this from a recent interview with Shari Yocum and Niki Lee, two managing partners at San Francisco-based Tasman Consulting.

Yocum and Lee know mergers: Prior to forming Tasman Consulting, they served on the HR mergers-and-acquisition team at Cisco Systems. Cisco’s acquired a lot of companies during its time on this planet, including WebEx and Scientific-Atlanta, not to mention a boatload of much-smaller startup firms. As people familiar with the process know, one of the biggest M&A risks is losing the very talent you’re trying to obtain by buying the company. That includes the CEOs and founders, who–especially in smaller firms–have gotten used to calling the shots and setting the pace.

This can extend to things like whether or not they’ll continue to be able to fly first-class on official business once the deal is sealed. ” ‘I fly first class and so does my team,’ ” says Lee, relating a typical statement from these executives during her time at Cisco, “and then on Monday, they’re flying to India on coach.” Personally, I do think that would be a bit tough to swallow. But Cisco had its own cultural norms that needed to be adhered to, she said, and one of them was consistency: Everyone is expected to fly coach.

“Dealing with the executives at the company being acquired can be very difficult,” says Lee. “A lot of times, you’ll see the true colors of these executives” during this very delicate process.

Other sensitive areas included post-merger span of control, integration and marketing strategy–all areas that, as company founders, are of particular concern to them. While it may be tempting at times to simply buy these folks out and say “See ya,” the inconvenient truth is that their knowledge and insight is often extremely valuable, say Lee and Yocum, and ways must be found to keep them reasonably happy and engaged–for the short term, at the very least.

Politics is practiced on both sides of a deal–including at the acquiring organization, they say. Managers and executives will often jostle to be included in key decisions, hoping to make their mark and expand their own portfolios. Dealing with this vast array of hungry egos while attending to the hundred other details involved in a merger will test you like few other corporate experiences will, say Yocum and Lee. It’s why they believe HR leaders need to plan now for the eventuality of an M&A at their own companies, regardless of whether one is on the horizon or not.

Part of this is ensuring that you have a good working relationship with each of the key players in your organization, says Yocum. That way, you’ll have their trust and will be more likely to respect and adhere to the advice you have to give on crucial matters pertaining to talent. This also requires you to have a deep understanding of the business: its challenges, market conditions, opportunities, etc. Another piece of advice: If you’ve been involved in a merger before, go back and create a playbook, a repeatable process so everyone on the merger team will understand what their responsibilities are, she says, and create some online training that captures the critical knowledge you’ve gained so others can view it.

You can learn more about Yocum and Lee’s insights by reading the Q&A with them that will appear in the August issue of Human Resource Executive, our first-ever digital issue.

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Building Leadership, Other Big Goals into Your System

The top companies for developing leaders build innovation and idea-sharing into their corporate systems. This, according to the seventh annual Best Companies for Leadership Study, released today by the Philadelphia-based Hay Group. (Here’s a release from Business Wire about the study, and here are the top 20 companies, with General Electric and Procter & Gamble topping the list.)

According to Hay’s study, the Best Companies for Leadership create workplace environments and processes that enable innovation to thrive. In fact, 90 percent of the top 20 report that, if individuals have excellent ideas, they can bypass the chain of command without the threat of negative consequences, compared to only 63 percent of other companies.

“Many companies prize innovation,” says Rick Lash, director in Hay Group’s Leadership and Talent practice, “but the Best Companies for Leadership approach it in a disciplined way by building agile organizations, promoting collaboration, celebrating successes, learning from setbacks and fostering a culture that encourages a passion for innovation throughout the organization.”

To do that, they “train and develop their people, celebrate diversity [and] reward collaboration …,” says Susan Snyder, a senior principal in the practice and co-leader, along with Lash, of the study.

Their announcement got me thinking about a news analysis I’m currently working on (to be posted on HREOnline in the near future) tied to this global study by New York-based Towers Watson on what makes companies succeed in organizational change management. (Here’s Towers Watson’s press release about the study.)

The study finds nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of companies with the best change-management outcomes follow a formal, systematic process, compared with just 14 percent of companies that just can’t seem to get it right.

Also, 45 percent of respondents in the Towers Watson study (604 organizations worldwide) with high change effectiveness have staffs dedicated to change-management efforts, versus just 16 percent of those with low effectiveness. Seventy-six percent of the former also set measurable goals for the imapct of changes and 73 percent measure their progress against their goals.

I’ll be interviewing a few folks later this week about more of the specifics that companies are doing, and should be doing, around change management. But for now, based on both sets of findings, I think it’s safe to say that, if you want to get the really big HR goals right (leadership development, innovation, change mangagement, talent management … you know the list better than me), you can’t just talk about them, or go to conferences and hear about them, or complain to the executive team about their absences from your organization.

You have to have clearly defined and well-designed structures and disciplines to make them happen. You have to assign staffs to them. And make sure you’re measuring them, too.

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A Memorable Farewell

If you’ve been with a company long enough, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve lived through a CEO transition.

In 2011, roughly 1,178 CEOs left their posts, according to outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, which tracks this sort of thing. In 2010, 1,234 CEOs said farewell.

No doubt some of the departures were due to the CEO’s inability to effectively lead. For others, it simply may have been time to truly retire. But whatever the reasons, some companies clearly do a better job of handling this kind of event than others.

Last June, Amsterdam-headquartered AkzoNobel—which Glidden Paints and a host of other coatings and specialty chemical products—announced that Ton Büchner would replace Hans Wijers sometime in 2012. Well, apparently the transition officially took place this week.

For most companies, a simple memo to employees might be enough. But not AkzoNobel. If you have roughly eight minutes to spare, check out this humorous (their word) and humanizing  (my word) farewell video starring some of AN’s employees. I’d put it in the category of a nice way of handling it.

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