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Industryweek 30044 Sinking Ship

A Ship without Informal Leaders on Board Is a Sinking Ship

Nov. 12, 2018
In the name of self-preservation, middle management and line employees often push back or "slow walk" senior management's direction.

Rapid change is a fact of life in today’s continually evolving manufacturing environment. Unfortunately, at many companies, senior management fails to realize how threatening change can be for middle management and line employees. Ultimately tasked with implementing the dictations and vision of top management, these personnel have built up ways of getting work done. Change often makes their tried-and-true approaches no longer relevant—and in some cases, even counterproductive.

In these cases, middle management and line employees often push back or  “slow walk” senior management’s directions. The end result can be suboptimal implementation of a change initiative or, at best, the eventual implementation of senior management’s vision—but at a substantially later date than originally anticipated.

In a worst-case scenario, the vision is never realized, with inertia on the floor grinding the initiative to a slow but eventual halt.

Suppose, for example, that you are planning to install a piece of capital equipment in your assembly line that will not only improve throughput, but also reduce product defects from 10% to 5%. This sounds like a pretty good idea. Now look at this same idea from the point of view of the employees who work on your production line. This new piece of capital equipment will probably entail a significant amount of worker retraining with the possibility that some long-term employees might not have the skills necessary to operate it effectively. That is pretty threatening. In addition, productivity and product quality may decline during the training and startup phase, placing additional demands on your workforce.

In short, what appears on first pass to be an intelligent decision may run into substantial challenges and resistance.

The important point here is a simple fact of life that is often ignored in practice: While senior management in fields like manufacturing definitely have the power to prohibit something from getting done (e.g., they can refuse to fund a project), just because senior management wants to get something done does not mean that it will ever get done. In such cases, many successful companies have learned to rely on their “informal leaders” to help lead the way.

While C-Suite executives are the formal leaders within an organization, the informal leaders they need to seek out and engage are typically mid-level and line employees who see the opportunity inherent in the situation. These informal leaders help energize skeptics and build a consensus for change.

We have identified four different types of successful informal leaders (and there could well be other types that we have just not seen).

1. Self-satisfiers. Some informal leaders are able to effect change by helping their colleagues see “what’s in it for them” if the initiative is successful. This helps reduce the skepticism and nay-saying that can stifle any change effort before it even gets off the ground.

2. Consensus-builders. They will sit down with their colleagues and explain why the success of the initiative is so important to the long-term health of the company. They will encourage their colleagues to speak up and share any concerns or challenges they see with the new direction that senior management wishes to pursue. This “airing of grievances” eventually results in a strong consensus and commitment at the line level to the success of the new strategy.

3. Cheerleaders. We have seen informal leaders who win you over by their enthusiasm and high degree of commitment to the success of the initiative. These leaders are typically very well-respected among their peers and they leverage this respect to broaden the level of dedication among their colleagues to the program’s success.

4. Relentless Cheerleaders. Some informal leaders take this one step further and literally beat you into submission with their enthusiasm and commitment to the change program. I know of one informal leader who entered a store manager’s office at a big-box retailer and told the somewhat startled manager “I will not let you out of this office until you agree with me that you will support our program.”

Having worked with companies for over 25 years to improve performance—both inside and outside of the manufacturing industry—I consistently find that what differentiates successful organizations from those that achieve little or no return on their investment is not the quality of my analyses or the degree of senior management commitment to our program. Rather, what differentiates the winners from the losers is the ability of executives to recognize the importance of their informal leaders and energize and empower them to effect change.

John Larson is the senior partner at John Larson & Company, an organizational consulting firm, and the co-author of Capturing Loyalty, along with Bennett McClellan. 

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