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Channel Matters Blog > November 2012 > The role of senior leadership in making change stick

The role of senior leadership in making change stick

by Rich Blakeman
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Discussion about reducing variation and increasing the predictability of results among senior leaders usually revolves around a common topic: making effective change, and making that change stick. What makes senior leaders successful, or unsuccessful, in making the changes they need?

There's an uncomfortable chair these days, around the senior leadership table.

I know. I've sat in it, and I've watched others sit in it and squirm. The discomfort comes when the CEO moves, one by one, around the table with a single query:

"Take a few minutes and bring us up to speed on what you've done to reduce variation and increase the predictability of the results in your area of the business."

Some don't squirm at all. The CFO quickly describes the status of business process re-engineering projects, and how much each has taken out of the business and dropped to the bottom line. The head of manufacturing brings out a stark chart of Six Sigma metrics showing the Z-scores, defect reduction, and subsequent gross profit and customer satisfaction impact. Likewise the head of supply chain with the net results of supplier consolidation and optimization. With each report, the chair gets more and more uncomfortable.

The sales chair.

Reducing variation and increasing the predictability of results takes on one common theme around the table: making effective change, and making that change stick.

Many of today's senior sales leaders are challenged to show proof of these critical elements of success. What have we done to reduce variation and increase the predictability of top line revenue, margin contribution, SG&A expense, sales forecasts, or any other key metric under our responsibility? How have we made change on our team, and made it stick?

Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, popularized the notion of change that is "sticky" when talking about ideas or behaviors that deliberately start positive epidemics – change that sticks. "The lesson of stickiness...there is a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstances, can make it irresistible. All you have to do is find it."

His idea strikes to the core of the squirm: finding the simple way to make change irresistible. What makes senior leaders successful, or unsuccessful, in making change stick?

Lesson One: Give everyone a helmet and a playbook and get them on the field

In more elegant terms, the first lesson is about role-specific involvement in the change. Let's assume that you've had the vision to recognize the conditions in the market, your company and your channel that require change in the first place. As you begin to activate the strategies and tactics that will bring about the change that is necessary, you can't afford to have your partners and peers second-guessing you from the stands.

Scott Triou, CFO of Torani (the global beverage flavor company that taught people to love flavored lattes) puts it this way: "I don't sit on the sidelines. I care, I'm involved, and I show it." Each executive needs to be on the field (and in the case of sales change, in the field) with a playbook that is specific to their role in the company. Our CEO Sam Reese regularly tells a story of when a CFO began quoting customers, relating that he had "talked to customers and here's what they say." Sam's quick and pointed question was "which customers have you spoken to?"

In order to make change stick, each member of the senior leadership team needs to be on the field, in position, and know what their specific involvement is in the change. That includes the CEO.

Melanie Dulbeccco, CEO of Torani suggests that "I used to think that I could take it on, myself. That if I did it, everyone would come along. Instead I've learned that I have to have a strong voice and strong opinion, complimenting the team members who are advancing and showing early results, and recognizing desired future behaviors in advance. I've got to participate, not just observe, being visible and taking an appropriate role."

Lesson Two: Model what has worked in the past

The lesson from Miller Heiman's Sales Best Practices research could not be more clear: 93% of research respondents in world class selling organizations reported that "we know why our top performers are successful." Among all respondents in all companies, this was reported to be true only 36% of the time.

This portrays the essence of the senior leadership role in making things stick: understanding what has caused effective change to occur in the past, and to become a lasting sustainable force in the business. At URS (an industry-leading engineering services company), this lesson became modeling a sales process change initiative after a successful safety initiative. It's about the process of change, not the content of it.

What has worked in your company and with your channel in the past? Why has it worked? More importantly, what has not worked and why? For some sales leaders, lessons exist in why they may be using their third different PRM (Partner Relationship Management) system in ten years. The lesson: it wasn't about the software, it was about the ability to make change and make it stick. An honest diagnosis of what has worked and not worked in the past leads to credible prescriptions that will make the next change more effective.

Harvard's John Kotter, in his book Leading Change, outlines an eight step process for leading change. Chip Heath from Stanford, along with his brother John, write about why some ideas survive and others die in their book Made to Stick. These and dozens more change management books help senior leaders understand the basic tenets of successful change, but amongst the simplest of the lessons is this one: understand what has been successful in your company and repeat it, frequently.

Lesson Three: Make reinforcement a part of your culture

Many change initiatives are guided by the common principle of "inspect what you expect." Set clear objectives, identify a small number of critical leading metrics, and inspect them with diligence. While this is critical and may be common sense that is uncommonly practiced, it may not be the sole differentiator that you need to make your next change initiative successful. Setting KPI's and reviewing them will support and measure the desired change, but doesn't speak specifically enough to a key responsibility held solely by the most senior members of your leadership team: the stewardship and leverage of the culture.

Family-owned companies are often the poster children for stewardship of culture, providing lessons in the sustainment and maintenance of cultural themes going back to the founders. At Torani, it is the shared responsibility of board and family members Lisa and Paul Lucheta along with CEO Melanie Dulbecco. Amongst their keys to successful change management: patience with discipline in reinforcing the change. How do we help our team members to succeed? How does the board support the process, reinforcing success and challenging the team to move faster?

Melanie suggests that "Lisa and Paul wanted to know everything about what was going on. They brought our CFO and Sales VP into board meetings to brief them on the overall health of our sales funnel and the KPIs we have developed to track it – a first for our company. They have stayed disciplined in their interest and actively involved, but showed patience with results so that we could get through this change with all of our team members intact and encouraged."

Torani's culture is steeped in deep care about people, and from the top down follows the senior leadership lesson of making reinforcement a part of their culture.

Culture manifests itself externally too. Partners recognize some vendors as being 'channel centric' because they demonstrate their on-going commitment to the channel and never compromise sound principles of partnership engagement enshrined in their rules of engagement. Equally they recognize other vendors who say all the right things, but don't do as they say. It takes time to build a channel centric culture, and more time for this to be recognized and valued by the channel. Change is much more achievable when there is a high degree of trust and when the objective of the change is to benefit all parties, not just the vendor.

Your change initiative needs to fit into and leverage the culture to have the ultimate level of success, and it is the senior leader's responsibility to ensure that it does.

The intersection of Kotter and Gandhi

If it's important for senior leaders to model the way, repeat lessons learned, and reinforce and encourage others along the path – then nothing could be more critical than consistency of leadership in these change endeavors. John Kotter provides the challenge in the most simple of terms.

"Nothing undermines change more than behavior by important individuals that is inconsistent with their words."

More simply put, by Gandhi: "Be the change you wish to see."


Last modified on 6/30/2013 10:11:16 PM
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