The Few versus the Many . . .


This past week I had the opportunity to visit with a director from one of the largest FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) companies in the world.  They are headquartered in London so it was just a short ride on the underground for me.  The meeting was set up by a colleague and the purpose was to understand their needs in terms of large scale behaviour change and corporate sustainability.

We were ushered into a dramatic glass walled meeting room on the top floor of the headquarters building overlooking the Thames River.  Ours was not a river view room, but rather one that looked out over the roof tops of sprawling London.  Our host said it was her favourite meeting room since the view reminded her of the Mary Poppins movie.  I liked her instantly.

And she was extremely professional and passionate about the purpose of their company and the need to build a better world for their customers and the global communities they serve.  In fact, she went on for nearly half an hour telling us about all the various initiatives senior management has sponsored to move the sustainability agenda forward towards some very big corporate goals (double the size of our company whilst reducing our environmental footprint and increasing our positive social impact).

But about 20 minutes into her recitation of all the various social, environmental, external and internal initiatives, I was beginning to feel mentally exhausted and found myself tuning out.  My mind started to serve up nagging questions: “How can so few people reasonably take on such a large number of initiatives and accomplish them and feel successful along the way?”  Then she hit us with a stunner!  She said those were just this year’s initiatives.  Next year, a whole new set of initiatives start, and so it goes year after year!  Now I was really exhausted.

When we asked what her biggest needs were, I could almost have written the script.

“We are having a hard time improving our employee engagement scores.  How do we increase employee engagement?”

“We have met the enemy, and it is us!”

Here is a perfect example of “initiative overload”, the topic of several of my previous blogs: Initiative Overload: The Hidden Drain on Company Profit and Productivity, Initiative Overload and Strategic Alignment.

Our host and rest of these highly professional and dedicated employees were madly trying to deliver on a multitude of initiatives, which may sound like a good idea at the senior level, but which tend to multiply exponentially as they flow down into the various departments and functions.  People are overwhelmed, and they still have their day jobs to do! No wonder people are exhausted and beginning to disengage.  It’s an endless treadmill of initiatives

In reality the solution was not at her level. It’s not about working smarter, being more empathetic of the long hours, adding more people, getting more resources.

Stop the merry-go-round, I need to get off!

The solution lies with the senior leadership team. Instead of multiple initiatives which change every year, why not focus on one or two initiatives and tackle them cross-functionally, for two to three years, make real change happen, then build from there?

Sometimes a scalpel is better than a shotgun!

John R. Childress

Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, and FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution, available from Amazon in paperback and eBook formats.

See the review of LEVERAGE in The Economist (January 9, 2014.

John also writes thriller novels:

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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