Making a Difference Can Be Very Painful (A Short Fable)!

A fairly new employee with the company of only a year (let’s call her Morticia), was asked by the CEO to take on the assignment of Culture Manager. She wasn’t even sure she wanted the position because no one, including the CEO, could tell her what a Culture Manager was or did. She also knew that those in the company with clear, bottom-line responsibilities were of the most value to the executive ranks. So, what would she be doing and what did this assignment say about their perception of her? Would she be like the Sheriff of Nottingham, constantly in pursuit of the Robin Hood of culture, but never capturing him? Morticia suspected that she’d be something like a Human Resource Manager; charged with making something happen, but without the credibility and authority to do so. Unlike others with specific assignments, she had no staff, no rules and regulations to follow (much less enforce) and no systems support for administration. When asking how to begin, she was directed to start going to culture seminars, where she learned about Peter Drucker, the father of the Modern Management movement. She learned about Pareto Charts, SWOT Analysis, Logic Models, Adaptability Plans, etc., all of which were foreign to her at the outset. However, as she attended these events, Morticia was smart enough to see clearly that the company she worked for had no idea who it was, where it was going or how it was going to get there. In short, it had no identifiable culture in place to provide a framework or road map for growth and sustainability, much less acceptable standards of behavior, both internally and externally. She was also beginning to see the need for systemic changes based upon bench marking what she was learning against her organization’s working environment. Even more apparent to Morticia was that there were no mechanisms in place to bring about change. She even suspected that transformation rather than just change was necessary, which scared her to death! She started wondering what she’d gotten herself into. Something else happened to Morticia. She began to learn some things about herself. She learned that she cared more deeply about the company than she’d realized. She cared about its products, its customers, and, more importantly, about its human assets. In short, she cared about all the organization’s stakeholders and she realized that she really wanted to make a difference. She learned more than enough about the theory behind culture and the tools required, but not even close to enough about the subtleties and nuances required to bring about change in order to influence culture. So, where did Morticia begin? She started talking about culture to her CEO, to other managers and to employees on the front line. While they all seemed to be in favor of attempts to improve the company, she discovered that the majority of them didn’t like risks and didn’t want to be the first to try new ways. The RC Factor (Resistance to Change) in the organization was much worse than she’d originally perceived. Although most she talked with were good, honorable people, they tended to do the politically correct thing rather than the thing than was really needed. Morticia started leading seminars around the topic of culture, change and transformation. She coached and she counseled. She did such a good job that the company loaned her out to other companies to give seminars on culture. However, the long and short of it all was that her company didn’t change very much at all. Additionally, since the CEO had appointed Morticia Culture Manager, he’d withdrawn his attention and focus, rarely communicating with her at all. She was trying to make a difference by sharing her discovery that the company’s livelihood was its culture, but she was feeling disheartened most of the time because she had a message to share and no one was listening. She was beginning to understand one very important fundamental about this undertaking: there was no such thing as political correctness about culture. You were either in or you were out, and she wasn’t even close to getting a foot in the door. Morticia finally decided that knowing about culture wasn’t enough. She would also have to learn about how a person can make a difference when they don’t hold formal power and authority. She decided to start taking risks. In the process, she learned three very important things: (1) If she wanted to make a difference in the company, she was going to have to be different than she had been, especially about what she believed was normally expected. By being different, she was responding to the CEO’s request for leadership (even though he didn’t know that’s what he was asking for), which meant separating herself from those who had different expectations of her than she had of herself. By doing this, she realized that most people wanted improvements, but they didn’t want a Culture Manager. (2) She would have to say what was true (or at least how she saw things) and risk making others uncomfortable. This meant stepping outside of company norms in terms of how others expected her to behave in a position they didn’t really want to invest in or take risks with. For example, a strong norm in the company was that people didn’t say things they thought others didn’t want to hear. They defended this behavior as politeness or political correctness, but the result was that no one was receiving effective feedback. Morticia learned that telling people things they didn’t want to hear fueled change and motivated culture. She learned how to talk with others about difficult things. For example, she was able to tell the HR Manager that the majority of the employees always thought she had a hidden agenda and this belief was undermining any of her efforts to bring about change or improve the culture. She was able to do so in an encouraging and supportive way, rather than a judgmental way. (3) That the desire to change is not evenly distributed across the human spectrum; some people embrace change, most do not. She would have to seek out those who really did want change, help them as best she could and avoid spending very little time and energy on the naysayers and negativists. She would try converting some of them up to a point, but when it began promoting more barriers than bridges, she committed to moving on. As the result of all of these experiences, Morticia learned one thing above all the rest. For change to take hold, it must have support everywhere and it can begin wherever the energy is generated to do so. I would be willing to bet this kind of fable is happening right now in many of your companies across the country. If you’re reading this and you happen to be a Morticia, are you willing to take the necessary risks to fuel change and transform the culture of your environment? Truth Be Told, someone eventually has to do it. It might as well be you.

Published by The Leadership Consortium

Maxie Carpenter was formerly Vice President of HR & Talent Development for Wal-Mart Stores. After a 27-year career, he began to pursue a number of other interests, which included alternative education, nonprofits, consulting, writing and public speaking.

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