March 2001 | Commentary | Carriers Corner

Becoming A Change Agent for Marketplace Success

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Two important premises exist in the business world:

  1. if we don't change faster than the changes taking place outside our own walls, it's just a matter of time before we lose our competitive edge.
  2. the future will be inherited by the fastest learning organization.

How do leaders drive change so that we're not left in our competition's dust? Let's start by examining change. When people talk about it, they frequently do so in a painful way. But if we look at all we have been going through since the inception of mankind, we see that we don't complain when the change is convenient to us.

For example, would you like to go from Atlanta to New York in a horse and buggy? Of course not. But that's how it used to be done. Today, you don't complain when your airline gets you there in less than two hours.

We complain when change demands behavior modification. Modifying behavior is not bad, but it is difficult because it affects us psychologically and physically. Just try clasping your hands together in front of you, fingers interlocked. Which thumb is on top? Now try it again, putting the opposite thumb on top. It feels a bit strange, and this is a very simple change.

How can you get employees engaged so that they see change as a convenience? The rules are simple: Treat every person you meet with dignity, respect and integrity. It took America time to learn this. We relied on command-and-control corporate values and good-old-boy networks that promoted people based on who they knew, not what they knew. These values worked because the market was benign. Just look at cars like the Ford Pinto. We got accustomed to accepting this lack of quality because there was no competition in the marketplace. During this time we insisted on treating employees the same way we had treated them before they went to World War II.

Remember W. Edwards Deming? He told corporate America that people had changed after the war. They came back with more skills, a new sense of authority and decision-making experience, and we no longer could treat them the same if we wanted to compete in a global economy. But corporate America didn't listen to Deming, and he took his wisdom to Japan, where he greatly influenced its manufacturing processes.

It didn't take long for the American auto industry to be nearly bankrupt. At that point, leadership in this country started listening to Deming's ideas on total quality management (TQM) and how engaging people is the best way to drive TQM. This was the catalyst for America regaining its leadership position in the marketplace.

Here's how it works. Let's say I need to buy a forklift. There are two ways I can approach this:

  1. I can buy it without getting ideas from the people who actually operate this kind of machine. They will accept the new piece of equipment, but their hearts won't be in driving it because I may have purchased one that doesn't meet their requirements. Then their attitude about their jobs and their company will suffer, and our relationship will suffer.
  2. Before I make this purchase, I ask my people for their input. If I choose the latter approach, I guarantee they will exceed their performance goals simply because they want to, because they are engaged.

If you as a leader can accept that you do not sit at the top of the pyramid, that in fact, you sit at the bottom and are a servant to your people, you will move mountains in the workplace. You will bring the hearts and minds back into the workplace. When you do that, you will have fun and be satisfied internally.

Empowering people doesn't mean leaders relinquish their responsibilities. It means you establish goals, anchor the organization to a set of values, give your employees necessary tools and skills, free the organization to do what it can within these parameters—then get out of the way.

When you do this, you foster change and continuous learning, the two premises required for marketplace success. What's more, when you connect with employees and give them power, you ultimately make customers happy because they feel the pride, enthusiasm, passion and energy in your people's actions. Only then will you continue to win in the marketplace.

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