“Be the change you want to see in the world.” -Mahatma Gandhi
I have a good friend, about my age, who has finally succumbed to getting hearing aids. We both succumbed to reading glasses years ago, but there is something very different about having to wear a hearing aid. “Real men don’t get old and frail . . .” I guess it confirms our deepest suspicions; we’re not 19 any more.
Anyway, Bob finally relented to the pressure of friends and wife and got fitted for the smallest hearing aids possible, the “invisible” style. For the first couple of weeks he complained bitterly about the poor fit, the buzzing noises in the background, and the stares he got when talking with strangers. As good friends we were positively encouraging. “Keep at it. You will get used to them. It’s like living by the railroad track, in a few weeks you won’t notice, . . .” Bob said okay and then grew his hair a little longer over the ears.
Sure enough, after a month the complaining stopped and Bob seemed pretty happy with things. But 2 months later the real truth surfaced. Bob was dutifully wearing his hearing aids but had taken out the batteries! His wife was furious and his friends had to have some “tough love” talks with him.
What’s this got to do with business and leadership? Quite a lot from my vantage point. Too often change programs, especially leadership development, culture change or “transformations” are like Bob and the hearing aids – more compliance than commitment!
I have watched many CEOs agree to a culture change or business transformation program, only to give it lip service and compliance rather than aggressive commitment. All change is hard, often embarrassing at first, certainly not elegant and we all know how Bob feels. But that’s no excuse.
Compliance is the worst of all worlds. By trying to fool others with “feigned commitment” we actually wind up feeling worse about ourselves. We spend a lot of time, energy and money going through the motions with the “hope” that things will change if we show up at all the right meetings and say the right things. And worst of all, we actually create cynicism and lose trust and respect when we are found to be wanting on the commitment side.
Change is not a destination, just as hope is not a strategy. -Rudy Giuliani
Compare the transformation and change programs of Continental Airlines between 1994-1995 under Gordon Bethune and the change efforts of British Airlines under CEOs Bob Ayling and later Willie Walsh. One airline claims to be “the world’s favorite airline” yet is plagued with flight attendant strikes and union industrial actions. (If the employees don’t like working there, how can the passenger experience be positive?) The other consistently makes the top 5 in the airline rankings on customer satisfaction and other service industry measures.
In 1994 Continental was $2.5B in default and heading for it’s third bankruptcy in 10 years. But Gordon was committed. He waded in. He spoke daily with disgruntled employees. He fired managers who weren’t helping and supporting employees. He invited angry business-class frequent fliers to his home for a BBQ and to listen to their needs. He told the truth. He opened the books. He believed in the employees and the airline. He burned the policy manual and told employees at the check-in and ticket desks to do what was right to build a profitable airline they could be proud of. He used a balanced change approach, focusing simultaneously on finances, culture, customers and products. After initial skepticism, the employees believed in Gordon’s commitment and Continental went from worst to first.
BA keeps cutting salaries and fighting with the unions while it tries to merge and acquire its way to health. If you can’t run a big airline successfully what are the chances you can run a bigger one any better?
Customers and employees can easily distinguish between compliance and commitment. When the advertising slogans and the customer experience don’t match up we only fool ourselves. At least my friend Bob got the message.
Tight Lines . . .