Hearing Aids and Compliance . . .

“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 . . .

About johnrchildress

John Childress is currently Visiting Professor in Strategy and Culture at IE Business School in Madrid and a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
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