Who'll Catalyze Change: Us or Them?

A couple of months ago, I pointed out that any post-recession recasting of processes, practices, and positions must include changes to the CEO's role, and suggested that the time had come for chief executive officers to transform themselves into chief enabling officers.

Some of you agreed, others didn't, and still others offered new ideas. Bernard Tsang, Mohammed Rehman, Mat Maynor, and Deven Pravin Shah, among others, added fresh reasons for bringing about change, while Mohit Jindal wondered if change should be paced out.

The comments provided a 360-degree perspective on the subject, and made me wonder if I should have also written about how managers' roles should change. (Cath Thompson favored that as an alternative to a patriarchal change model; that is, one in which change is seen as having to be driven from the top.)

The more I thought about it, though, the more I wondered: Why just CEOs and managers? Why not all employees? Shouldn't their roles change too?

I'd like to explore that idea, so here's a question to start with: Who should bear the onus of catalyzing change? CEOs and top management? Or should change emerge from the ground up? While leaders clearly have to play a role, everyone knows that change can't be brought about unless employees get involved. As in a democracy, so too in an organization: Employees at all levels need to be both responsive to and responsible for change.

For five years now, I've been immersed in a change experiment across levels, roles, and functions. We at HCL have embraced a philosophy that's based on an inversion of the management pyramid, with managers becoming as responsible to employees as employees are to managers. As I note in my recent book Employees First, Customers Second, this experiment is a work in progress. Good ideas take time to develop and therefore can't be implemented immediately. Still, we've seen early signs of success, notably the financial results HCL has enjoyed during the recent economic downturn.

One lesson I have learnt from the experiment: Unless you have employees who believe in change and believe that they can be its owners, you have no chance of transforming your organization and adapting it to new realities. In every organization, you will have a few transformers who are eager to lead change; fence sitters waiting to see the early results before they embrace change, and lost souls who will find every reason that the change won't work. If they hope to succeed, CEOs must empower the transformers, encourage the fence sitters, and leave the rest alone.

You must have the conviction to hand over control to employees who care about the organization's future as much as you do. Only then will you be able to create a company fuelled by employees' energy, which will unleash the power of the many and loosen the stranglehold of the few. Once this momentum gets going, change is unstoppable.

We've tasted initial success because of the influence our transformers have over those fellow employees who are sitting on the fence or who like to bring down every new idea. My experiments and experiences show that these transformers, enabled, encouraged and enthused by management, can help organizational structures adapt to the shifting business environment.

Too many people caution us about acting on instinct and conviction. But we must surround ourselves with employees that dare to try new things in new ways. They may not achieve perfect results, but if they focus on getting better each day with one more attempt, they will solve many problems that appear unsolvable.

We must give our employees a chance and — with heartfelt conviction — encourage them to devote themselves wholeheartedly to their work. Don't you think so?

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