I recently saw a presentation from a divisional president at a large medical device company who was assuming control of one of the companies other lines of business. The speech was a combination of rationale for the merging of divisions as well as an introduction by the executive to assure his new expanded staff that he was actually a human, and not some corporate droid sent to assimilate. It was a nice gesture.
One of the the things that made me perk up a little was when he took a slight detour from his prepared remarks and made the comment that "most people who think they are change agents aren't" since they put their shoes on the same way, get dressed and go to work the same way everyday. On this point, I would have to agree as I wrote last year in Practice Makes Pretty Good that baking in a little variability to your daily life is a building block to being a change agent. I like this guy already.
What I find interesting about the challenges ahead for this particular executive is that he's stepping into an organization that culturally does not recognize or reward change. In fact just about everything about the management culture he's inheriting actively do everything in their power to enforce conformity. This is probably an overactive form of the "seeking confirming evidence for deeply held beliefs" bias that most people have. This is embodied in the fact that they surround themselves with what they believe are like-minded individuals, most of whom are little more than a bunch of self-serving sycophants that would roll over and knife them in the back to get ahead. Directors in companies sit at the awkward phase between being a 'super manager' and possibly ascending to the Vice President ranks have that bias on steroids. Many of them suffer from extremely low self-esteem and a crippling fear about their own worth and contributions. It is symptomatic with the old adage that most people are promoted to one level above their competency (There's even a book on the topic). This is especially true in management where eventually with each missed promotion they wonder if they've arrived at that point. Chances are, you have.
Which brings me to the analogies posited in the title. Are Change Agents "loose cannons" or more like "shaped charges" (or even like "snipers" as my friend Daniel has suggested). Loose Cannons are really only a problem if you have one on your deck or under your control. Most change agents by their very definition are not on anyone's deck, and definitely not under anyone's control. Change Agents are collaborative and persuasive, not coercive and manipulative. The best change agents are transparent in their motives.
Maybe I'm just partial to Italian philosophers, but I think one of the more interesting works on change comes from our friend Niccolo Machiavelli which, though The Prince was written as a short treatise on foreign policy, is just as insightful into human nature within most organizations:
There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.
In other words, not everyone who espouses their desire for change will support you. Some may even try to throw you under the bus.
Your goal should be a combination of bottom-up support first, then work on top-down, by-passing middle management if necessary. Leave them to fight their petty turf wars among their temporary fiefdoms. Real change happens with or without them.
So today's big idea is this: One person's loose cannon is another's shaped charge. It all depends whether you understand their role in the organization.
Do have you stock in the company you work for? If so, that makes you an "Owner-Employee" as compared to an "Employee-Owner". The distinction, I'll argue is an important one!
From start-ups where capital is precious to the largest multinational companies, stock incentives can be a great way to motivate and reward employees.
But first lets talk about the different types of stock you might have (or think you have):
You might own shares in a company outright. You might have been awarded a stock grant that vests shares over a period of time. You may even participate in an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) through a payroll deduction you purchase shares of stock at an agreed market price (usually the lowest price at the start or end of the period). Sometimes companies will use its 401K matching program and give you shares of stock. If you have mutual funds, they might even have stock in your company. And finally, you can always buy shares in the open market if you really can't get enough. I'm "lucky" in that at present, I have all five forms of BSX in my portfolio. Now that I think of it, it's probably time to rebalance that.
You might have options -- these aren't actually shares of stock in the company until you exercise the option to buy. Options usually have limited lifetimes and most simply expire. They are good deal for companies to grant, since they cost almost nothing, and depending on if you work for a growing company (or not!) can end up being a bad deal for the employee -- ask any former Enron employee! They make the most sense for unknown senior executives who actually have an ability to drive share price (eg, new CEO's). Personally I don't like stock option "grants" -- they certainly don't motivate me the same way that actual ownership does. It takes away your ability to choose, and choice is equal to freedom. Stock options in effect are only the illusion of ownership.
Being an owner in the company you work for helps align your interests (and hopefully your fidelity for that matter) with what is best for the company, not the short term goals of whatever management is currently in power thanks to the latest reorganization. Which, incidentally, if you work in any large company long enough, you'll soon realize that most organizations experience some form of internal reorganization on average about every 13 months! Don't believe me? How many people have you reported to directly, or in-directly (one layer above your current manager) in the last X years? I've had four Directors in the last three years...
A friend of mine who works at a large financial company sits down with his new manager on day one and says something like "I'm not sure where you're headed next, but if history is any indicator, it will probably be sometime in the next 9-12 months. In the meantime, here's what I know about what's expected of you in your current role"
Being an owner in the company you work for means that management works for you.
One of the most successful American owner-employee companies is Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC). In fact before they went public, their tag line was actually "An Employee-Owned Company"! There's something very powerful about a company that just puts that out there. No hokey tag lines.
We're owners first, employees second. Chances are we'll still be owners even after we're no longer an employee. Management has a fiduciary responsibility to its owners to run the company in a fiscally and ethically responsible manner.
So today's Big Idea is this: If your company's management isn't acting in a way that supports its owners it's time to demand new management.
The good news is, based on the re-org patterns, you'll likely have some sometime in the next year. Sit down with them on their first day and let me them know as an owner-employee what you expect of them. After all, they are working for you.