‘Change Agents’ often get changed

Allstate Corp. announced the departure of Joseph Lacher, the head of its home and auto insurance businesses, and the Wall Street Journal blames comments Lacher made about company CEO Thomas J. Wilson.  According to the Journal story, Lacher used a multi-syllabic phrase with lots of F’s and K’s and S’s while complaining about the company’s financial results.

Apparently Lacher has been under scrutiny for a while — the second-largest U.S. insurer pointed to less than-expected results in Lacher’s unit for his abrupt departure, which the Journal says came a couple of months after the vulgar commentary.

Why is this worth discussing?

A Wall Street analyst said that Lacher had been brought on board as “an agent of change,” with an eye toward revamping the company’s culture and improving operations. This is familiar.  Large, older companies often have proud histories and well-established cultures that can be (well, nearly always are) resistant to change, particularly if the change is coming from “an outsider.”

I have no idea what sort of leader Lacher was (or is) — but I know of several cases where external talent is brought to a company to shake things up and change the status quo, and the status quo rebels. We know that senior leaders can be a little, well, arrogant.  They’re here because someone thought enough of them to pay them the big bucks and hand them a bunch of responsibility, that mostly, they earned via a track record of accomplishments.

Confidence isn’t in short supply, and many believe they’re fixing something that’s broken, especially in companies with recent operational and performance issues. That can lead to abrasive personalities and griping managers.

But who cares if they gripe? You hired this person to make change, and nobody likes change. What winds up happening is that the reactionary forces inside the company overwhelm the change forces. You can’t get things done and the regression to “what’s always been done before” drags down performance.

In most cases, the conventional wisdom says that a new leader needs to establish a specific plan for his/her first 100 days. Many say that outlining priorities for change during that time is essential, but I disagree.

The first 100 days should be spent asking questions and listening.

What are the main issues that hold down performance? How have you addressed them in the past? What was most and least effective? Who are your stars? What makes them successful? How do you and your team work together? What are your personal strengths and weaknesses?

Describe a time when you’ve had to make a difficult change to your work, your life or your team? What did you think you did well during that time? What would you do-over if you had the chance?

You can’t assume that the changes you plan to make are right for the new organization. You need to learn and tailor your recommendations to your new company.

Joe Lacher had been at Allstate for a while, two years this fall, and the Journal cited sources that claimed he was getting frustrated with his boss’s style.  It could be that Lacher used his first 100 days wisely, or perhaps he got everyone peeved and wore his ambition on his sleeve.

Change can’t be imposed, it has to emerge, and it needs the right conditions to thrive.  You won’t make change by telling your team that the CEO is a F’ing A$$.

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3 Responses to “‘Change Agents’ often get changed”

  1. G’day Sean, good post. As part of my work on leadership communication, I wrote this along very similar lines in The Leader’s Beacon:

    “Know the context in which you are going to lead. Knowledge of the organisation in which the leadership is taking place is important to understanding why the leadership needs to take place now, why this is the right time for action and why others will support you …

    “When you enter a new company, you may be tempted to start immediately leading for change without understanding what has happened before. Your view may well be that what is past is the past, and that this is time for a new beginning. But what is it like from the perspectives of others in the company? How many times have they heard this before and watched the actions fail to meet the talk? Why will they support you?

    “Don’t completely disregard your own appointment as the company has employed you for a reason and this is also part of the context…

    “The most important tool in your leadership box to help with this is listening. Not superficial listening but deep listening – the type that means you not only hear but analyse what you hear and work out why a person is saying the things you are hearing.”

    Cheers, geoff

  2. Good post, Sean, filled with great insight and analysis. It is wise counsel that leaders should slow down, listen, and ask questions, rather than jump in and act right away.

    In my experience, much of this thinking is, as you correctly point out, hubris on the part of leaders, who think that they have the magic beans to “strategize” their way out of any challenge.

    Another part of the problem, though, is that many business leaders are actually not that interested (or educated) in contextual thinking, particularly in history. The silly jargon, “moving forward” just about sums it up — the relentless drive toward something…a goal, plan, etc., rather than an examination of history or culture that provides broader understanding.

    Most change doesn’t work because of culture clash. Culture and history are inherently important, yet too soft for the majority of leaders, who would rather ride in on a white stallion and act as if they have all the answers. This all points to the primary problem in Corporate America — too little critical and contextual thinking in relation to supposed action or planning.

  3. Sean says:

    Geoff and Bob – thanks so much for your comments. “The context of leadership” sounds like a good name for a book.

    Whether it’s a lack of respect for history as Bob avers, or a deficit in listening as Geoff suggests, it’s comical how clueless so many leaders seem to be at understanding culture.

    A recent piece in the Harvard Business Review looked at research into the seemingly mutually exclusive realms of respect and power among senior leadership. The “tough guys” seem to win out over the less abrasive, more respectful leaders, both in experiments and in practice. (I read the piece in USAirways’ magazine).

    According to the research, the perception of being powerful turns out to be a causal agent for promotion, particularly to the C-level. What’s doubly disturbing is that more humanistic leaders tend to get better results than their “powerful” counterparts… So it’s a classic disconnect — the tough ones get the job but don’t get the results. Gaaa.

    Thanks again for your comments.