How to discourage your staff and lose momentum.

“There are worse things in life than death. Have you ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman?”  —Woody Allen

Here’s a typical scenario which winds up producing just the opposite of what the leadership team intends.  And the sad part is, everyone starts out with good intentions yet everyone winds up frustrated.

It goes like this . . .

After much study and debate the executive team has decided on a series of new policies and organization changes designed to improve speed of decision making and service levels.  The comms team is directed to prepare a professional powerpoint presentation for the execs to deliver in front of assembled groups of staff.  The executives take the role seriously, have their practice sessions, get feedback from the presentation coaches, and even have a good opening story or joke to liven things up.  The date for the roll-out arrives, staff assemble in large meeting rooms across the globe, the technology works and the speaker does a great job.

Fast forward two months.   Executives are complaining that things haven’t improved and middle managers are being grilled.  Staff are complaining that they don’t fully understand the reasons for the changes nor how to implement them.  The result:  unintended negative consequences all around and a definite loss of respect for management, not to mention the inability to positively impact the marketplace and displace growing competition.

Sound familiar?

Let’s look at a principle of effective leadership that can help such situations turn out differently and more effectively for everyone involved.

Leadership Principle:  Telling is not selling.

Every professional salesperson knows the old adage:

He who does the talking is doing the buying!

If the staff are not doing the talking during these presentations then they aren’t buying! And expecting full understanding and compliance just because it comes from a senior executive is equally faulty logic (after all, when the regulator lays down new rules how do most banks react?  By figuring out how to work around the regulation!  Exactly what employees do.)

So, let’s use this leadership principle to redesign the process of introducing new policies or announcing an organization change.  Let me suggest a technique I used over 20 years ago, 1984 to be exact, with the changes taking place when Ma Bell was deregulated and broken up into ATT plus 7 Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs) across the US.  For over 100 years Ma Bell was a mega-huge regulated monopoly and suddenly the next day there existed 7 large operating companies with their own boards, own P&Ls, own regions, own staff, own competitors, everything.  The physical and organizational changes were massive, but think about the cultural change – from monopoly mindset to competition. People had to work in very different ways.

To support the culture change we designed for several of the RBOCs a series of “fireside chats” led by a member of the executive committee.  While the previous tradition of presentations had been large meetings with the senior exec standing behind a podium lecturing and with a little time at the end for Q&A, the Fireside Chat was an entirely different process.

We change through conversation!

Small groups of employees from many different departments were assembled in a room with the chairs in a circle.  Prior to the event they were given a handout to read and asked to  come with questions.  The event was a two-way (sometimes multi-way) dialogue, with equal amounts of talking and listening by everyone.  The senior executive opened the session with a personal story about how difficult this whole transition had been for him or her, how difficult it was to work differently after years of being in a regulated monopoly, one or two of their personal struggles with the changes and an example of their own learning along the way.

The executives were not presenting, they were sharing. It was scary at first for the senior executives, definitely uncharted ground.  But the positive response from the staff and the quality of the dialogue was such that everyone learned and were definitely engaged.  And one of the key learnings for the executive was that saying “I don’t know” to a question led to even more positive engagement on the part of the group.  They realized this was a new change for everyone and thus didn’t expect all the answers.  The journey became a shared journey of learning.

Thinking of implementing new policies or organizational changes?  Try the fireside chat approach.

And if your busy senior executives don’t have the time, then you might want to review their job descriptions.  It should say something about being accountable for the overall performance of the company and people.

After all, telling is not selling and compliance usually isn’t!

Tight Lines . . .

John R Childress

E |      T | +44 207 584 3774      M | +44 7833 493 999

About johnrchildress

John Childress is 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 or
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