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Oct 9, 2017

This is part one of a three-part look at how companies can manage change in meaningful ways that make sense for individual employees and the organization as a whole. Today’s post focuses on the role of decision-making in change management.


Change makes me nervous. There, I said it.

It unsettles me for the same reason it unsettles you — because as much as today might suck, tomorrow could suck worse. (Want proof? Watch CNN’s political coverage.)

Of course, you’re not supposed to actually admit your insecurity. In job interviews, during work meetings, and when speaking with colleagues, you’re expected to talk about how change brings fresh possibilities and new opportunities. You’re supposed to spout some bullshit about how you thrive in uncertainty and ambiguity. Bring it, yo! You’re a change agent! And don’t change agents love change?

We like our changes

No! Change agents like when they initiate change. But they’re just as likely as anyone to get the jitters, maybe even more so, when someone else grabs the wheel to careen down a new road. Still, when an organization tinkers with people’s routines, you know the response it wants: Yes we can!

Yes we can! But do we want to?

Take what happened at IBM a while back. The company’s Chief Marketing Officer Michelle Peluso had announced that U.S. marketing staff will no longer be permitted to work remotely or out of smaller district offices. Employees had 30 days to decide whether to report/relocate to one of six “strategic” locations: Austin, San Francisco, New York, Cambridge (Mass), Atlanta, and Raleigh. What’s more, they did not get to choose the city.

Peluso explained that “it’s really time for us to start bringing our teams together, more shoulder to shoulder.” (Is that the new face-to-face?) I liked Steve Boese’s explanation more: “Yahoo, Comcast, or any other organization that resorts to the ‘No more remote working for anyone’ card is sending a signal that they are kind of out of ideas on how to generate better ideas.”

IBM’s decision to pretend that it’s still 1950 got me thinking a lot about change management (mismanagement?). It reminded me of an article I wrote a few years ago, in which I interviewed 25 top execs at major companies about how they deal with change.

“Hey,” I asked them, “how do you develop a five-year plan when the next five days seem hazy?” Or something like that. So in this first of three posts, I’ll be sharing excerpts from their replies — because even if you hate change, you have no choice but to adapt to it.

What HR leaders say about change

Read below what leaders from Prudential, Walmart, McGraw-Hill, Eli Lilly, and other big companies have to say about how they approach change.

Note that companies and titles reflect people’s roles at the time the article was published. Their current title and company are included. Currently, almost none of the 25 executives interviewed work for the same corporation, and even fewer hold the same job. You know, things change. To view their full comments, and those of other leaders, check out the original article, “Will Your People Be Ready?

Mark Ferrara

VP of Talent Management, Eli Lilly and Co.

I remember when voicemail emerged to replace those pink slips of paper when somebody called, the vice president I worked for said, “We will never get voice mail. I want to talk to a human.” Today, I get almost no voicemail; I communicate through text and instant messages and emails.

The speed at which we communicate today is faster than what I think wisdom would say is prudent. Just because I get an instant message doesn’t mean I have to instantly answer it, but you’re sometimes baited into doing so simply because technology makes it possible — even though it would be wiser to think through your answer in greater detail and depth.

It’s the tyranny of the urgent. Similarly, companies make decisions too quickly just because they feel they have to, but I’m more interested in a company seeing the bigger picture than providing what they think is the right answer right now.

Kurt Metzger

VP of Talent Management, Prudential

To keep up with change, we’re trying to drive skills around intelligent risk-taking — that is, how do you make smart decisions with imperfect information? To do this, we’ve had to rethink how we recognize people. We think it’s more important to reward and compensate people for going through the right decision-making process as opposed to strictly based on outcome — because a good decision doesn’t always have a good outcome.

Diane Holman

now, SVP, Chief People Officer at athenahealth; formerly, Chief Talent Development Officer, Wolters Kluwer

We can no longer make decisions that are tied to the legacy of print publishing. It’s important to acknowledge there are many digital companies as our competitors. If you always associate yourself with a competitor that’s a print publishing house, then you tend to keep operating like one. The world has changed, and we need to get out ahead of it.

Craig Williams

now, Teaching Instructor, College of Business, East Carolina University; formerly, VP of Global Organizational Effectiveness, Walmart

It’s equally important to realize when not to stick to a change. A good example is how over the last few years, we worked to change a number of things in our U.S. stores, such as assortment — but we found that our customers did not want some of those changes, so we quickly reverted to what worked before. When we make mistakes, we quickly learn from them and leverage them in our next steps, and we don’t pull out our hair and bemoan that something didn’t work out.

Shawn Zimmerman

now, Vice President Human Resources, Kellogg North America at Kellogg Company; formerly, VP of Global Talent and Organization Capability, The Hershey Co.

Too often, companies get organizational ADD, where they develop a strategy and then something comes along that distracts them — some bright, shiny, new thing that doesn’t necessarily fit within the strategic framework. That creates potential distractions and more internal change than is necessary. At Hershey, we’re very focused on sticking to our strategy for disciplined growth. Growing globally presents enough challenges; we try to avoid compounding the difficulties by staying the course and not deviating from our strategic plan.

Howard Marcus

now, President, HRM Leadership Advisors and Senior Consultant at Ampersand Leadership Group; formerly, VP Management and Organizational Development, McGraw-Hill

The idea of a five-year plan may have made sense a few years ago, but the planning cycle has greatly shortened. This doesn’t necessarily mean we’re doing things dramatically differently — just being more flexible, realizing that plans made today will be reassessed in a few months.

Mark Sullivan

now, Senior Lecturer, Fisher College of Business, Ohio State University;  formerly, VP of Talent Management, Battelle Memorial Institute

The secret sauce for Battelle is having people who know how to ask the right questions, critically think in ways that are not obvious, and sometime listen to the unarticulated but present messages in the mix.

John Zoeckler

now, President,Zoeckler Consulting; formerly, Global Change Management Lead, Air Products and Chemicals

We try not to implement changes too quickly, so that people really have a chance to fully incorporate the latest shift. Otherwise, the original intent of the change falls short. It’s important for an organization to avoid oversubscribing its resources.

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