“Most pioneers end up with their face in the dust and an arrow in their back.”
ACTUAL “CASE HISTORIES”: About 15 years ago Emile came to us after a rather disturbing job loss and career stumble. He had been a tenured Professor of Linguistics at a major university and had received an offer that, for him, was almost too good to refuse. A major financial services firm in New York had approached him through an executive recruiter to spearhead a major initiative regarding linguistic, economics and artificial intelligence.
Simply put, the firm’s Senior Most Management thought it would be a great idea and a profitable one, as well, to rationalize the words that its many divisions and subsidiaries used on a daily basis. For example, if only the word “profit” meant the same thing to a bond trader in Tokyo as it did to a Credit Analyst in New York and to a derivatives salesman in London, too. Likewise for the words “earnings,” “net income,” “annual return” and “free cash flow.”
For a full year an Executive Recruiter searched for the perfect candidate and came back with Emile’s name and resume. Because he had a strong background in both linguistics and economics, he seemed ideal for the challenge. The offer made to Emile was almost 10 times more than he had ever earned in a year. He accepted, and began his new job shortly after the end of the then-current semester.
After Senior Most Management approved a plan, a timeline and a budget, and Emile hired a small but impressive staff, Emile began his tour of the firm’s offices in all of the world’s major financial capitals. His plan was very detailed and well thought out. His execution of the plan was impeccable. His meetings were promising. His results were disastrous.
It turned out that the traders in Tokyo had no use or patience for a new set of words: their clients, customers and clearinghouses had no interest in changing – or re-learning – the meaning of words and phrases that had universally used in their trades for many decades. The same was true for the derivative salesmen in London, the foreign exchange salesmen in Dubai, and the precious metals traders in Hong Kong. When they were not derisive of Emile’s efforts, they were simply ignoring them.
Sure enough, Senior Most Management soon closed down the project, thanked Emile for his four months of efforts, and terminated his services. No notice. No severance.
That great idea didn’t go too well, did it?
LESSON TO LEARN: Change is surely needed, even in the most successful of endeavors, because competitors are making changes every day and we have to change to survive. Unless companies continually adapt their changing business climates, they will sooner or later go the same way as the dinosaurs. It’s great that you are a transformative person who is going to make transformational change. But don’t think it will be without danger.
Face it: If you are going to be a transformative “change agent,” then you are going to be feared and perhaps even despised by certain people, and perhaps even powerful people, not necessarily due to the changes you will likely make, but because of the changes you just might make.
Accept it: If you are going to make transformative changes, then you are going to make some people uncomfortable, and perhaps even upset. Even if the changes you expect to make are good for the company, and in the overall interests of all.
Deal with it: If you are successful in improving the processes and people in a new context, you are going to make those who are already working in that context, and doing the “usual thing,” look less than perfect.
Think about it: These days, you don’t need to have the words “Change Agent” tattooed on your forehead or printed on your business cards to be hired as a Change Agent. Even if you are not given such a clear title and role, chances are if you are a creative, dynamic, and energetic “new person” you will be viewed or treated as someone who might suggest change.
Get ready for pushback: If you are going to make changes, you are going to get pushback, sometimes benign, sometimes evil, sometimes in ways you don’t see, and sometimes in a kind of “language” you don’t understand. As I often counsel clients, and not necessarily referring to sex, “Be extra careful until you know ‘who is sleeping with who.’” There are many “webs of connection” and complex relations at work in any organization.
I have come up with something of a set of principles, that might prove useful to you in navigating your transformative efforts. We call it “The Seven P’s to Protect Change Agents.” Read on.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: To better prepare and protect yourself in going into a transformative “change agent” role, consider these “Seven P’s To Protect Change Agents”:
A. Thoughts and Discussions
P #1. A Plan: Why would you need a Plan? – So you do not get redirected or distracted.
If you are being hired as a transformative employee, you are in danger. On the other hand if you are being hired to fulfill a transformative Plan, you are much safer. Why? Because a job can be misdirected into being ineffective, and thus irrelevant. Yes, an employee can be misdirected into ineffectiveness and irrelevance, and often is, by “hostile forces lurking among us.”
On the other hand, a Plan is a path forward, a “map for action,” and thus by its very nature resists misdirection and resulting irrelevance. A Plan should include goals, a timetable, a budget, and necessary resources, all of which can be measured and assessed, and are difficult to misdirect.
As examples, as an employee you can be (a) assigned to a manager who is not supportive of your hiring or the changes you might make, (b) relocated to a location away from those you need to interact with, (c) directed to attend to duties that are off the path to your goal, and (d) denied resources and authority to get your changes made.
On the other hand, Goal-oriented Plans are not so easily changed, thwarted, misdirected. Are Plans capable of being reviewed, reassessed and modified? Sure, but only where there is a good reason for doing so. And – and this is important – not surreptitiously behind what some call “smiling faces.”
So, in your own thoughts and when discussing taking on a new “change agent” role, make your new position into one with a Path that can be put on paper and less prone to misdirection into ineffectiveness and irrelevance. After all, it takes a lot to change a “strategic plan” into a “nice idea that no longer makes any sense.”
P #2. A Patron: A Person or Pocket of Power or Profit – For the Essential Mandate.
Of the seven principles we call the “Seven P’s,” this is the most important of all. If you remember anything about this blogpost, please remember “Patron” and “Mandate.”
It doesn’t matter what you call him, her or them: Rabbi, Godfather, Mentor. For success and survival, a change agent needs a Mandate, and a Mandate must come from a Patron. In most organizations this will be a member of Senior Management, a Board Member, or a large owner or investor, or a combination of those people. Whatever you call him, her or them, a Patron provides you and your Plan with the critically needed base of support that provides stability, longevity and – most importantly – accountability in the face of others seeking to sidetrack you and your efforts.
Those who come in to a new “change agent” or transformative role through a job board, a recruiter or Human Resources are simply less capable of withstanding those who stand as obstacles to the winds of change.
Said simply, “If they know the owner’s son stands behind you, and your project is viewed as his own, then others will be less likely to try to trip you up.” Yes, your best friend is always simple common sense.
Agreement on a dotted-line reporting structure to your Patron is great if you can get it.
P #3. A Parachute: Because no Patron lives forever: Your “Just-In-Case” Protection
There is an “oops” in every day. Mistakes happen. People change their minds. The markets may prove unfriendly to your employer’s product or service. Your Patron may retire, move away, lose power in the firm, or pass away. When this happens, we call this “No Rabbi, No Group,” and it is a perilous time for any of the Patron’s friends, and especially for his or her change agents.
It is for this reason that we always counsel our clients to “fold a parachute before going up in a plane.” That is, respectfully request a provision in a section of an agreement, a provision in an offer letter, or even a casual email confirmation that “If the Company decides to change strategy, move in a different direction, eliminate the anticipated position, or otherwise substantially modify the planned activities presently contemplated for the employee, the employee will be provided, at his her discretion, either an alternative position in the Company or an arrangement for off-boarding entailing no less then three months’ notice and nine months of full compensation as severance,” or similar “parachute provision.”
B. Actions and Execution
P #4 Papers: “Speak with your fingers, not with your lips.” – That is, Make a Record.
There is a good reason landlords require written leases, CEO’s require written employment agreements, and laws are written on paper. It is so we are all protected against (i) fading memories, (ii) changes of heart, (iii) new circumstances altering perceptions and perspectives, and (d) bad faith arising. When we put things into writing, we make a record of what was agreed to when things were “good,” just in case they later get “bad.”
While we would like to get a written contract or agreement to protect ourselves, we do not in most cases expect that. Would it be good to have such a provision in an offer letter, memorandum or understanding, written contract or employment agreement? Sure, but it is not all that likely. In fact, to request that might be viewed – even by your Patrons – as demanding or untrusting.
Instead, in the employment context below the “C-Suite,” we usually seek a more informal “sign off” on a Plan, usually incorporated into an email confirmation of a set of agreed steps to be taken, or even in a Job Description you might offer to serve as a guide to your Goal, and the agreed steps to reach it.
As noted below, it can also be a combination of a few of these steps, and others, that taken together, manage to make a “record” in case of a change in direction beyond your, or your Patron’s, control.
I especially like “I prepare this Outline to ensure we have what we need to succeed: clear communication,” and words and expression of positive outlook, and NOT distrust.
P #5 Perception: Often, more important than reality – The Art of the Deal.
It’s very helpful to have a Plan, a Patron, a Parachute, and a Paper. But what if no one but you and HR know about it? Consider the many ways you might make that important first impression.
To establish and then enhance your colleague’s understanding of who you are, what your role, responsibilities, authority and – most importantly, your Mandate – are, think about requesting a descriptive title, appointment to certain committees, and who among your colleagues may have similar leanings as you do regarding both the way things work and the way they should work.
Of course, you must bear in mind that announcing “I am a change agent” or even discuss with too many people your ideas about change, could well lower your chances of developing friends and followers. Clarity is always welcome, but “in your face” by the “new guy or gal” is never helpful.
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P #6 Pushback: Especially from Human Resources – The Territorial Imperative.
This “P” is more cautionary than tactical. Be ready to experience pushback to your arrival, even before you begin your transformative efforts. That is because, as noted above, any change is disconcerting, real change is challenging, and many of those you will come in contact with will likely be heavily invested in the status quo. Simply put, those who like the ways things are not likely to like you, or your Goal, without even meeting you.
Interestingly, one of your first friends at a new company are the Human Resources people you first meet. And more interestingly, they are sometimes the same people who are most likely to engage in “pushback” activities. Why is that?
First, HR are the ones who know, before others, of your transformative role. Second, transformative roles are usually seen as a Human Resources function, and your new role may be seen as only confirmation of their own failings. Third, Human Resources representatives are often assigned to different divisions within the Company, and so Human Resources staff are often heavily invested in the management of their own division. It might be said that the success of an HR person often depends on the success of his or her internal client. You might just be the person to upset that success. And, too, Human Resources may have the greatest ability to divert your attention, re-assign you, or otherwise co-opt your role and make you irrelevant by, for example, assessing your success in a dishonest fashion.
Perhaps most of all, you may well be invading HR’s perceived territory over which HR will always want complete or near-complete control.
Pushback can be expected from any direction; it’s just our experience that it is often either (a) by Human Resources, or (b) through Human Resources, that pushback to transformation is felt.
P #7 Progress, not Perfection: Step by Step – “Perfection is the enemy of Progress.”
None of these “Seven P’s to Protect Change Agents” is to be viewed as absolutely critical to success. You should never demand the inclusion of all seven into your new working relation, or despair if only one or two are incorporated. The best way to view these “Seven P’s” is as a set of principles to be pursued, now and over time, and to be achieved to the extent possible.
These “Seven P’s” are like (1) rest, (2) exercise, (3) good diet, (4) fresh air, (5) good friends, (6) regular checkups, and (7) an occasional glass of good wine – all of which are healthy, and to be enjoyed when you can, but surely none of which is absolutely necessary to a long life, and never to be expected each day of your life. That is, “Don’t go crazy, just be careful.”
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SkloverWorkingWisdom™ emphasizes smart negotiating – and navigating – for yourself at work. Negotiation and navigation of work and career issues requires that you think “out of the box,” and build value and avoid risks at every point in your career. We strive to help you understand what is commonly before you – traps and pitfalls, included – and to avoid the likely bumps in the road. Navigating and negotiating wisely when coming into a “change agent” role is one step in that process.
Always be proactive. Always be creative. Always be persistent. Always be vigilant. And always do what you can to achieve for yourself, your family, and your career. Take all available steps to increase and secure employment “rewards” and eliminate or reduce employment “risks.” That’s what SkloverWorkingWisdom™ is all about.
*A note about our Actual Case Histories: In order to preserve client confidences, and protect client identities, we alter certain facts, including the name, age, gender, position, date, geographical location, and industry of our clients. The essential facts, the point illustrated and the lesson to be learned, remain actual.
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Sklover Working Wisdom™ is a trademarked newsletter publication of Alan L. Sklover, of Sklover & Company, LLC, a law firm dedicated to the counsel and representation of employees in matters of their employment, compensation and severance. Nothing expressed in this material constitutes legal advice. Please note that Mr. Sklover is admitted to practice in the state of New York, only. When assisting clients in other jurisdictions, he retains the assistance of local counsel and/or obtains permission of local Courts to appear. Copying, use and/or reproduction of this material in any form or media without prior written permission is strictly prohibited. All rights reserved. For further information, contact Sklover & Company, LLC, 45 Rockefeller Plaza, Suite 2000, New York, New York 10111 (212) 757-5000.
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