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Transcript: The messiness of managing change

iQoncept / Chris Lamphear/iQoncept / Chris Lamphear

Karl Moore: This is Karl Moore of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, Talking Management for The Globe and Mail. Today I am delighted to be speaking to Warner Burke who is a senior professor at Columbia University in New York.

Good afternoon, Warner.

Warner Burke: Hi Karl, good afternoon.

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KM: Warner, it seems in an uncertain economy that we have been through, and it appears that we are still in, that flexibility, the ability to change and to go to different places, is absolutely required for managers and executives. What is some of your latest thinking on how you lead change?

WB: I think that change leadership is really the important element today with respect to people in the C-suite, with respect to people who have major responsibilities of organizations. After all, as we now know, change has joined the inevitabilities of death and taxes. So it's just a way of life today in terms of dealing with change.

I think change management itself is unique. We can talk about leadership in general but change leadership is much more about the transformational aspect of leadership, which means that you have to have a fairly clear sense of vision that is responding to some sense of urgency about bringing about change.

The biggest problem with trying to lead and manage change is that it's messy. What happens is, we plan it, and we plan it as if it's linear, and then when we come to implementing it it's anything but linear; it's very non-linear, which means it's messy, it's chaotic. People don't do what I predicted they would do, or people don't do what I think they should do.

So how do you deal with the kinds of things that you do not anticipate, and that's the key to really being able to lead and manage change over time. So when something happens that you didn't anticipate, it's extremely important to get on top of that and do something about it immediately because if you don't, you are going to lose momentum.

KM: When you look at change, is change best led from the CEO? Where does change most effectively come from in an organization, Warner?

WB: If the top of the house is not involved in the change effort, it's just going to dwindle away. So change has to start from the top, it has to be led from the top; otherwise people will just give up and not continue with the process that has been put in place. People will not believe that change is for real unless the CEO says it is and shows it in terms of his behaviour day to day.

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The main thing is that, when things go wrong, people tend to say, "I knew it wouldn't work, so let's just forget it and go about our business and get back to business as usual." That is the biggest mistake that can be made in a change effort, it's giving up.

What did Jim Collins find in his book Good to Great? Perseverance, on the part of the chief executive officer, was key to the success of the organization in terms of bringing about long-term change. So change cannot happen in a 24-hour period; it simply is not at the level that is important like culture.

The primary problem today is that the culture of an organization cannot respond fast enough to the changing external environment. So the market places, especially capital markets, change so much more rapidly today than the organization can keep up with and it's the culture that is lagging, or it is the culture that is pulling them back. So to attack that you are never going to get anywhere unless you get to the bottom of the culture, so to speak – the underlying belly of the organization.

KM: This has been Karl Moore of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, Talking Management for The Globe and Mail.

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