Change the person or change the person.

Driving institutional change requires far more than executive buy-in to the concept, leaders themselves must set the fast pace through their own performance. Particularly when the stakes are high, when a company has urgent matters to solve, I know of no better method than: change the person or change the person.

This approach allows organizations to rehabilitate real talent that simply requires assistance yet also allows for terminating those who may be too myopic or incapable of professional growth. Either outcome also reinforces positive company attributes because transformed professionals are able to instill growth & development throughout a company while terminations become so obvious to all they can be conducted without friction, fear and raw emotions typically associated with a high-profile dismissal.

When properly conducted, changing the person or changing the person is anything but a long drawn-out affair. Driven by clear-cut objectives, evaluated through meaningful performance metrics and measures as a highly collaborative effort I find it’s rather easy to quickly get to the proper destination.

This morning I concluded a brief project for a company that has had significant problems in a small but once highly profitable manufacturing division. While the business unit VP had once been a rising star in the company, corporate executives were so convinced he was now their biggest impediment to restoring profitability they had apparently made up their minds to terminate him quite a while ago.

However, fearing nobody else in the organization could step up and not having a detailed understanding of the division’s daily sales and operations themselves, parent company executives allowed a condemned man to stay in his role until they could find the right time and figure out what to do. During my initial meeting with corporate leadership, I introduced the change the person or change the person concept and got the typical response: “Oh, you can’t teach this old dog new tricks…he’ll never change…”

Though I must admit the first couple of days were tense and this VP was highly suspicious about my stated intentions, it didn’t take long for him to distinguish himself. He was clearly a very bright, very motivated, very committed, and very willing top-tier professional who had encountered market conditions, competitive forces and performance pressures unlike anything he had ever before experienced in his career. He wasn’t unwilling to learn and change; in fact that was the furthest thing from the truth! He just didn’t know how, and because what had once worked for him was now failing he had lost total confidence in himself. Perhaps more telling, his initial distrust about my role was really about his now distant relationship with corporate executives.

By working closely together in this intense process we quickly discovered a number of revenue-building and cost-improving measures that were successfully instituted. August will be the division’s first break-even month in roughly 2 years and all indicators are they’re on track to eek out profitable months for the remainder of 2009. Though a far cry from the business unit’s best days they are on course to get there. And because the division’s leader has successfully transformed himself he’s now requiring the same from all staff which is why I’m quite confident they will once again be the parent company’s darling much sooner than anyone realizes. I’m equally certain that they would be much further behind, quite possibly on the road to eventual company shut-down, if we just focused on changing the person when the company already had its best VP in that role…he just needed help and direction so he could change.

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