Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Right Way To Shake Up a Company

There’s nothing wrong with being humble. “Effective change agents don’t go around shouting about it,” says Dev Patnaik, managing associate of Jump Associates. “The smarter ones don’t want to seem interesting, but interested.” That’s especially true if someone is brought into a company to transform some part of it, but it also makes sense for a manager who has been promoted or given a new assignment that is likely to disturb the ecosystem. As Miriam Javitch, director for global organizational change at YSC, a management consulting firm, says: “Understand and honor the DNA of the organization. The system will reject you otherwise.”

Pay attention to the informal networks. It’s not enough to win the support of the leaders high up in the hierarchy (although without the backing of the chief executive, the chances of failure are pretty good). You also have to convince the opinion leaders—those who influence employees in ways no organizational chart will reveal. “If an individual simply invokes the name of the CEO to ask for change, they’re doomed,” says Janice A. Klein, a senior lecturer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. “You have to build a network and a case for change.”

Determine a company’s tolerance for change. In some cases, if you move too quickly, you’ll lose credibility; in others, if you wait too long, you’ve lost your chance. For outsiders in particular, it’s important to suss out a few people who can be informal advisers—cultural interpreters, if you will. “Listen to them to understand any symbolic faux pas,” says Jane M. Stevenson, a global managing partner at recruiters Heidrick & Struggles International.

An early success can do wonders. When you are pushing for a fundamental transformation of a company, don’t try to do everything right away. “Have a big dream, but don’t do a lot at once,” says Vijay Govindarajan, a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. Taking a small step first gives you credibility, contains the risk, and, even if you make a mistake, gives everyone the opportunity to learn. Companies and people, he says, have a finite capacity for change.

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