“Into the valley of death rode the six hundred.”

~Alfred Tennyson

Things change, constantly. Sometimes change makes things better; other times change only makes things worse. A lot of the time, there’s change – and nothing really changes. It’s just different.

Sound familiar?

I’m sure it does. Sitting at your desk, you could evaluate every change coming your way on the basis of “Better/Worse/No REAL change.” If you did, it’s pretty easy to picture what your distribution curve would look like: something like 10/30/60.

Too bad you don’t get to vote on all those changes. If you did, the world would look a lot different; even better. If nothing else, you wouldn’t have wasted all that time and energy in some change that wasn’t going to change anything for the better.

“Theirs not to make reply. Theirs not to reason why. Forward the Light Brigade!”

That was 1854. Other than cannon fire, nothing’s really changed.


As to subject matter of moving forward, sometimes it’s the organization: Let’s decentralize. No, that’s expensive. Let’s centralize. Back in my day, the big outfit I worked for ricocheted from one to the other, on roughly a ten-year cycle.

To borrow a line from another English poet, a whole lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Sometimes big change comes in the form of information technology. In the 70’s, in my outfit, that change went by the name Automated Integrated Data System. This was where I came in. Twenty-five years later, the big change was called Systems, Applications, and Products. Both changes promised enterprise wide software to revolutionize managing the business.

We knew these changes by their acronyms: AIDS and SAP. If nothing else, somebody had a sense of humor.

Then were the litany of management processes that came in with a bang, and left with hardly a whimper. The Management Grid. The Rational Manager. The Management System. T Groups. Quality Circles. The Quality Process. Employee Involvement. Organization Re-design. Work Process Re-engineering. Economic Value Analysis.

If you’re under the age of 40 and reading that list, it is quite possible you don’t recognize a single thing. Lucky you. But I promise you: when you get to be my age, you’ll have your own version of a list just like this.

Only different.

Back in the 80’s, one of my colleagues posed an interesting question about these changes: What’s the half-life of a management fad?

Three decades removed, I now know the answer: twenty-four months.

As to why these kinds of changes to management technology (a) come and (b) go so fast, there’s a simple explanation: (a) leaders are always looking for ways to change things for the better, and (b) most management solutions promising instant improvement sound way better than they really are.

But change in the form of the new and bold always shines in comparison to sticking with the fundamentals, which are too basic, too simple, too pedestrian, too boring, and too painstakingly slow to have the kind of impact that’s needed.

So, those changes come and go, and nothing changes.

It’s just different.

Real Change

Suppose a leader wanted to make the kind of change that really does make a difference. For example, changing safety in a way that a lot more people actually go home, alive and well at the end of the day.  It would be a shame if that kind of change went for naught; producing only sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Said another way, how do you really change things for the better?

For any leader who’s thinking about pressing forward with the next big change, Jim Collins’ landmark, Good To Great, should be required reading. Collins asked the question, “Why do some companies make the leap, and others don’t?”

I suppose Collins could have invented a theory and solution on his own; instead he did research.

First Collins operationally defined a great company. He did that based on shareholder returns in publically traded companies. His criteria: three times the average company – over fifteen years. No one hit wonders.

Collins found a handful of companies meeting that criteria. Next, he identified a control group: same industry, same type, same number, but competitors that didn’t make the leap from good to great. In the same time, they went from average to average. I.e. nothing changed.

Then he dug in, studying the companies by interviewing executives and reading all the stories published about those companies.

Assuming you haven’t read his book, here are the possible explanations. You get to vote for the best answer:

  1. A bold new product or service that took the market by storm
  2. A breakthrough technology that revolutionized the industry
  3. A business strategy or acquisition that produced competitive advantage
  4. Happened to be in the right business at the right time
  5. A few leaders, simply leading a whole lot better

You’re probably clever enough to guess the correct answer. But, honestly, at the point where the research project started, would you have bet on, “A few leaders leading a whole lot better” being the difference that causes a few companies to make the leap from good to great?

Me neither. I was as shocked as anyone.

So, was Collins, who didn’t go into this research believing, as he put it, “Leadership is the answer to everything.” But he had to admit: “Finally the data won.”

In every single case, when a company made the leap from good to great, one leader was all the difference in that happening. Moreover, every one of those leaders was “cut from the same cloth” as Collins put it. Similar personality, similar approach. But totally different than the rest of their peers.

Collins called them “Level 5 Leaders.” Those guys were not at all like the kind of leaders whose pictures regularly grace the cover of the business periodicals and routinely show up on CNBC.

But there’s no mistaking the imprint of their leadership on their companies: in no case was there a program or a process launched to make things different.

Instead, what every one of those Level 5, “make the big change happen” leaders simply did was to make a conscious decision: to go from good to great! “Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice.”

Too simple for you?

Saying Isn’t Deciding

A leader can say, “We want to be great.” At safety, for example. Leaders say that all the time.  Is saying that the same as “making a conscious choice” to be great at safety?

Unfortunately, not.

Leaders routinely underestimate their followers. Leaders assume followers don’t pay attention to the details, but followers are keenly aware of the minute details of what their leaders do, particularly when their leaders don’t think they’re being watched. Sometimes just one look is all that takes.

Leaders assume their followers aren’t capable of figuring out whether what they’re being told is what the leader really thinks, as opposed to just ticking a box, saying what they’re supposed to say. Fair to say, that process depends in part on what’s being said to followers.

Once upon a time, a new CEO was asked, in his first town hall meeting, why he didn’t say a single thing about safety. “I shouldn’t have to. Safety should be like breathing: something you just do without even having to think about.”

Making it easy for all those followers in that room.

The reverse isn’t nearly so easy. Were a leader to tell a room full of followers he’s “serious as a heart attack about safety” the process operates more like this:

First, the leader says something about what’s important. “Starting today, my goal is that nobody working here should get hurt.”

The followers are thinking, “Heard stuff like that for years. This guy’s no different. This too shall pass.”

A few weeks later, the followers hear that message again. “I told you before I didn’t want anyone getting hurt. I meant it. Somebody just did, and that’s unacceptable. We gotta do something to make darn sure this never happens again. What is that?”

Followers: “Hmmm. This is interesting. But, that guy’s got a boss, a budget, and this is ACME, Inc. Nothing’s gonna change.”

A month later, that leader shows up in the last place in the world the followers would ever expect him to. On midnight shift, for an overtime call out job. At 4:30 pm, out in the field, when the temp is 100 degrees in the shade. At 6:45 on the way out to the crew line up meeting, where the leader is picking up trash off the sidewalk. On Sunday afternoon in the control room, during football season. What’s with this guy?

That’s the point where followers start thinking, “Maybe this leader really is serious about safety. That’s a change. Wow!”

Back in the 80’s a new leader at a big company named Paul O’Neill did roughly the equivalent of that. Thirteen years later, the injury rate at that company, Alcoa, was one tenth of what is was when he came in.

One more case of one leader making a difference….simply because he decided to.

Paul Balmert
July 2017

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