There are legendary stories about change agents rescuing local businesses from failure or bankruptcy: John Dean rescued Central Pacific Bank; Mark Dunkerley saved Hawaiian Airlines; Wesley Park helped give new life to the St. Francis Healthcare System, Liliuokalani Trust and Hawaii Dental Service. John Komeiji, who will step into the presidency at Hawaiian Telcom once the merger with Cincinnati Bell is complete, calls Park a wizard at bringing businesses back from the brink.“He understands organizations,” says Komeiji, who worked with Park on several projects. “For all his informal way of addressing things, he has a keen understanding of organizational structure and how structure leads to certain results. He would spend time and create all these organizational charts and show how one structure would be more beneficial than another.” Change agents like Park have to be stubborn, resilient and committed to the goal, despite potential opposition and rejection, Komeiji says. “You have to have the intuition, empathy, or the ability to understand where the people opposing you are coming from to craft a solution as well as trying to accommodate at least some of their concerns.”
Some change agents are effective but unsung, says UH Shidler College of Business professor John Butler. The best known ones are usually associated with crises, but Butler says leaders and companies ought to be thinking in a transformational way every day as a matter of course.
“Good organizations are constantly saying to themselves, ‘Is there a better way to do this, improve the product or enhance employee communication?’ The ones doing that, we don’t hear about because they don’t end up in crisis mode and don’t need heroic efforts.”
Butler, chair of Shidler’s management department and the Harold and Sandy Noborikawa Chair of Entrepreneurship, says that in many ways a change agent has to be a consummate salesman, able to energize people and convince them of the issue and the solution.
“Yes, they have to have a good idea but just telling people to do something doesn’t always get the results you want. A lot of managers don’t recognize the need to get inclusive buy-in and provide the logic about why it needs to be done.”
It’s a much easier sell, he admits, when things are bad and everyone is worried about their job and future. “It’s easy to get cooperation when everyone recognizes we’re in trouble.”
That said, adds Butler, change agents also have to persuade the staff that they’re there to learn from them, and that they need as much information about the organization as possible, with the primary goal of restoring profitability. You don’t want your best employees leaving, Butler says, so you want to communicate that it has to be a group effort AND you believe it can be done.
“You also have to be perceived as someone who is putting in long hours and hard work because that is what you’ll expect of everyone,” he says.
Butler believes change agents must be willing to try something, recognize if it’s not working and move quickly to an alternative. “I don’t think it’s good to assume that the first thing you come up with is always going to work. Some things will and some won’t. A good change agent recognizes they’ll have a certain percentage of things that work well, and some that are bad choices. The key is to get rid of the bad choices as quickly as possible, and move on to something with a better outcome.”
Dean couldn’t agree more.
“Paralysis is the kiss of death,” says the man who has turned around four banks during his career, with Central Pacific the most recent.
“To not make a decision is worse than the wrong decision,” continues Dean. “You need to have a willingness to make decisions quickly with imperfect information, knowing you’re going to be wrong on a number of them, and, if you’re wrong, being willing to go back and fix it.”
Dean also believes change agents need to be comfortable working in chaos or uncertainty. “A very structured, sequential and overly disciplined person would often struggle in these situations,” he says.
Butler says change agents are all over town, from small family firms to larger organizations. “Everyone has managerial styles that work for them,” and change agents also have a diversity of styles. But, adds Butler, you can’t be an effective change agent locked in your office shooting out emails to your staff.
“You have to sell the organization on what needs to be done.”
Dean seconds that idea.