Change is fine for others – or when we choose it for ourselves – but not when we haven't asked for it
By Dave Crisp
A friend got me thinking about what his recent experience means for organizations. Having recently retired, for the third time — first from a big corporate, then two big start ups — he isn’t too anxious about finding another role. In the year he’s been mulling over what’s next, he’s been approached a few times by recruiters who pitch "the perfect opportunity."
The pitch is similar to what I turned down 10 years ago to set up my own business, with one change — there is much more emphasis now on engagement, collaboration and innovation.
This confirms all the recent surveys where CEOs have identified what’s important to them. The recruiter part goes like this: “This would be great for you. This company really wants to progress. They’re looking for someone to fire up the team, build teamwork, get everyone innovating. You’d have a fairly free hand to do some creative HR work because these guys really understand they need to get better engagement and participation from everyone if they are going to survive and thrive.“
Then you talk to the CEO and, in five minutes, you see the puzzled look on the face: "Why would we need to do teambuilding with the top team? They’re OK. Why would I have to participate, I just want the staff to do that. It’s their ideas we want to hear, nothing to do with me. I’ve come up with the idea that they should be contributing more, which is what I’m here for — to lay out the big picture."
The thinking can be summed up thusly: "So, Mr. HR, fire up a better compensation plan, a better incentive package, get some leadership training going for middle managers, show me what you know about social media and engagement… but, don't ask us to change at the top. We know what we're doing and we've identified the need. Go fill it. We'll understand if you say it requires better communication. We'll be happy to send come newsletters that you write and make some speeches at meetings you say are needed. Let's see some action."
How soon does the CEO hope you can do this? “Six months.”
Of course, by then you probably can get a fair number of employees sucked into believing their ideas will be valued, just in time to put them on the table at budget time and be told, “We can’t do that, tried that before, too expensive, why would you think we would let employees try this? Where are the good ideas, the ones with short term, immediate pay back and where are the full financial justifications (using information employees aren’t allowed to access)?”
Is there any hope this is changing, or ever will? Maybe.
It is solid human nature to think everyone else ought to change, but not you. For years I’ve noticed how everyone wants participatory management (so they can have input upward), but no one wants to implement it in their area (because they’d have to accept input from below).
People aren’t so much just pig-headed as they simply don’t know how, and are very fearful of opening a Pandora’s box of expectations and promises they can’t manage. It takes more courage than most have to experience what feels like giving up control. Life and work seem risky enough, and we struggled hard to get to the point where our say is final. Why can’t we keep that? Because it goes directly against the direction you say you want the company to pursue.
We are human after all, but it’s actually very easy and rewarding to collect and try employee ideas. You don’t actually lose control at all, not in any of the ways that count. It just takes a different collaborative mind set. Unfortunately, company executives continue to think it’s employees who need to be convinced, trained and encouraged to collaborate… but it's not true.
Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit www.balance-and-results.com.
At least there is hope that as more and more CEOs jump onto the inevitable and necessary innovation juggernaut, they may finally realize it needs to begin at the top — that's the final frontier.