Wanting to Change Is Necessary, but not Sufficient

October 26, 2016, Roger Bolton

I argued in a recent blog post that motivating an enterprise to undertake profound culture change requires leaders to cultivate a desire to avoid the negative consequences of not changing, while also laying out a vision of the positive benefits of change. For chief communication officers (CCOs), this is familiar territory.

Motivation, however, is not enough. Former IBM Chairman Lou Gerstner, who knows a thing or two about changing an entrenched culture, points out in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed that change also depends on the "signals employees get from the corporate processes that structure their work priorities."

At Aetna, I was privileged to be part of a management team that helped drive a successful corporate turnaround. Our leaders, CEO Jack Rowe and President Ron Williams, sought to lead a demoralized and skeptical work force through a reengineering of the entire company that required most employees to learn completely new ways of working.

Jack and Ron were fortunate to have inherited a company that was already convinced of the need to change to avoid disaster, and they quickly laid out a positive vision of collaboration with physicians to help members achieve health and financial security. Together, those two attitudes made employees receptive to a new approach.

As Gerstner noted, however, just wanting to change isn't enough. Actually changing is excruciatingly difficult work, and the power of long-ingrained habit is extraordinarily strong. Legendary Harvard change consultant John P. Kotter wrote in his book, Leading Change, "Transformation is a process, not an event."

I chaired the Aetna's Council for Organizational Effectiveness, which Jack and Ron established to lead the transformation of the culture. In addition to rethinking and refreshing the company's purpose and values, we also created a Peak Performance Model, which included two major priorities – building strong capabilities and creating systems and processes, all of which had to be aligned with the new business model.

We identified the core processes that needed to be changed and reengineered them, working with the business leaders. We also tied all managers' compensation directly to achievement of the behavior changes associated with the new Aetna values.

Specifically, each manager in the company was required to convene his or her entire department annually to discuss the employee survey results related to the culture and values. Then, the manager had to incorporate a culture improvement plan into the next year's operating plan along with specific business results. The culture change objectives thus became part of the assessment on which bonus achievement depended.

Increasingly, CCOs are finding themselves, as I did, with significant responsibility for culture change. It's imperative that we use our communications skills, to be sure, but working with the other staff functions and business leadership on systems and processes has to become part of our skill set, as well.

As Gerstner aptly concluded, "Creating expectations and communicating goals is a worthy and important responsibility of corporate leaders. But if these are not followed up on by a comprehensive and continual assessment of the alignment of all major corporate processes with those goals, the leaders will be listening to the sound of one hand clapping."

1 Comment

This an excellent analysis and great writing, Roger. I'm writing on the great day after, the day after presidential elections. I'm moved to think that sometimes change certainly seems like an event, a startling event, with scrambling to ascertain impact on the enterprise. But, you know what, you're right. Change, even high-impact change, feels like an event, startling good or startling bad, if the enterprise is surprised. I mean surprised as in sticking your finger into a live light socket mistaking it for, what?, a hole on the green with your supposedly ace hit ball in it? How is "our" enterprise (the one one works for) shocked by the election? And better yet, leaning on the analogy, what was "our" job as CCO to make this less of a shock? I guess I mean, what did we do on our own to predict--or just to suspect--some outcome of the election with context, anticipation, warning, good news, Best Achievable Outcome...relevant to our enterprise? Are we relying on online stuff and the news media and reporters/journalists (ha, ha, ha) to provide relevant scoop? We remember the story of Larry Foster at J&J. Larry was a former newspaper guy, a beat-coverer. He was then in the circle of influence at a major enterprise. He sat and listened and thought and was ready for the question his peers had come to ask: Okay, Larry, that's what we think we're going to do; now you tell us what's wrong with it, what you hear out there? What's the modern equivalent of that...dunno, just musing, remembering the days of knocking on doors back in Columbus, GA, asking folks, folks in power and folks who decided who was in power, to answer a few questions relevant to some relevant matter. Roger, thank God and thank you and Page for probing and providing gist for our media-weary mills.