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Forbes - John Kotter's Change Leadership

John Kotter
April 14, 2014

By Cameron Welter

Like many frequent travelers, I always keep a book on hand for those pesky times when you are forced to unplug. A few weeks ago, this habit allowed me the pleasure of reading Steven Mandis’ What Happened to Goldman Sachs? while traveling cross-country, courtesy of United Airlines.

In his book, Mandis, an adjunct professor of economics at Columbia Business School, draws on his 12-year career with Goldman as well as interviews with current and former employees to discuss the history of the investment banking giant and how he has observed a distinct “organizational drift” at the company. This drift, a series of subtle internal changes and shifts in the external environment, resulted in a drastically changed corporate culture and resulting public perception over the course of a few decades. Mandis maintains it was this drift that led Goldman to become a firm that represents to many the excesses of Wall Street – rather a different picture than the conservative private investment partnership of the century before.

As I sat reading his story at 35,000 feet I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Mandis’ account of Goldman, and what I was experiencing flying cross-country that day.  Was it possible that United Airlines had experienced their own form of organizational drift? Was the race to the bottom in the airline industry fundamentally changing the nature of United Airlines and leading to some clouding of vision that the opening of financial markets had created for Goldman?

At one point, air transportation was the height of modern luxury and travel but I think we could all agree that this is no longer the case. Indeed, the fact that I was even reading Professor Mandis’ book was brought on by a lack of wireless internet – the stuff of nightmares for a consultant whose job is only made possible by my ability to communicate with people all over the world instantaneously. To alleviate this stress for the modern commuter, some airlines have begun to respond to the increasing connectivity needs of their passengers by offering Wi-Fi and outlets to charge their devices. Southwest Airlines even created a service so passengers can stream live TV directly to their own devices, saving the airline the expense of installing televisions while still providing value to their customers.

Responding to the needs of the business traveler is a key way to maintain brand loyalty in an increasingly competitive market – just as the inability to meet the needs of customers will drive them away. The difference between these two is often a difference in clarity of strategic vision.

Could it be that turbulence in the market, possibly from the announced merger of American Airlines and US Airways, distracted United from its strategic vision to better serve passengers? An extra row of seats could provide some additional revenue at a low cost to help offset the stiffer market competition. This would also explain why at 5’9” my knees were squashed against the chair in front of me in a way I had never experienced.

So as I sat there squished into my seat wondering how many hundreds of emails awaited me upon touchdown, I noted to myself a few key lessons on maintaining strategic vision applicable to every company – from Goldman Sachs to United Airlines – operating in environments of accelerating change and intense competition:

  • You must give the customer what they need, and should strive to provide those things that they want – while a packet of pretzels and a can of soda are certainly appreciated on a cross-country flight, I am more concerned with being able to stay in contact with clients and colleagues as I travel. Always keep your core constituency in mind, and ensure your strategic vision is best on serving your customer.
  • Focus is critical, but focus on the right things. Too much focus on the bottom line can ruin it – that extra row or two of seats might help provide for some additional revenue today, but in the long run, your customers will choose the competitor that provides them with more value (and leg room)
  • Constant awareness is a must – as described by Professor Mandis, organizational drift is a slow, barely noticeable, evolution over time that can yield drastic outcomes. To stay at the top of the pack, businesses need to be constantly surveying the marketplace and communicating with their customers to make sure they are not falling behind or out of touch. Awareness will help keep the vision clear, compelling and relevant.

It is easy to say “we are customer focused” and overlook subtle changes in consumer demand, or to justify cost cutting as a rational business maneuver in a tough market environment. But if these measures don’t accomplish your strategic vision or sync with the reality of your customer, there is little hope for leading the market.  At the end of the day, all the power resides with the buyer. That said, I can happily say that when I travel from Boston to New York next week, I will be riding comfortably aboard an Acela train – not flying the friendly skies.

Cameron Welter works at Kotter International, helping leaders accelerate strategy implementation.

John Kotter
April 9, 2014

By Cameron Welter 

Spoiler Alert: If you aren’t fully caught up with the show, advance at your own peril!

Alright people, after a long nine months, Game of Thrones is finally back! In addition to my second full read-throughs of the book series, “A Song of Ice and Fire,” I occupied my Sunday nights since season three ended by reading more blogs and joining more fan forums than I should probably admit. The combination of my love for all things Westeros and the work we do with business leaders at Kotter International has made me keenly aware that the leadership styles we see in Game of Thrones are frequently played out in real life. Therefore, in the spirit of our favorite show’s return, let’s take a look at some of the parallels we can draw and see what we can learn from each.

 Logo from the television program Game...

  • Robb Stark – Young, confident, successful. The Young Wolf’s march south to avenge his father, and his leading the North to independence from the Iron Throne is one of our favorite stories. Undefeated in battle against superior foes, Robb looks nearly invincible. Despite all of his successes in battle, however, he is slowly losing the war as the ever changing world around him leaves him increasingly powerless. Eventually a single blunder in his personal life is all it takes to unravel him and he ends up defeated. We have all heard this same story too many times – a successful business led by a charismatic leader flounders due to a scandal, addiction, or feuding at the top. Whether in Westeros or in our world, Robb can teach us a valuable lesson about the perils of blindly leading, heedless of the changing environment. In today’s rapidly changing world, you may think you are doing everything right but miss out on the bigger picture with a more ominous future.
  • Tywin Lannister – Full disclosure, Tywin is my favorite character in the series. Ruthless, feared and respected. The Lord of Casterly Rock is known for his brutal handling of those who oppose him, but is widely recognized as a brilliant tactician.  At the end of season three we see Tywin facilitate the betrayal of Robb by the Boltons and the Freys, proving that some wars must be won with swords, but others can be won with pens. Steve Jobs and Jack Welch have been described as both feared and respected leaders, though the question must be asked… is it enough to only be loyal to one’s family name or brand?  Ruthlessness and fear may work to unify an empire, but as discontent in Westeros grows in season four, we will wait to see if a brutal leader can maintain his grip on power in the face of discontent from below.
  • Daenerys Targaryen – Daughter of the deposed Mad King Aerys Targaryen, Khaleesi believes the Iron Throne is her birthright. As she moves her way across Essos, however, the Mother of Dragons quickly takes on a new form – the Breaker of Chains. In freeing the slaves from those cities she conquers, Daenerys shows that she is loyal to those beneath her and that she is truly the matriarchal leader type. The question remains, will it be her birthright that drives her to reclaim the throne of Westeros, or will she rule by the consent of the governed, whose loyalty she strives to earn?
  • Joffrey – The incompetent heir. In addition to being one of the most reviled characters on television, Joffrey has proven himself utterly useless in a leadership role. His handling of Ned Stark precipitated a major war, despite the better advice of his advisors. It goes without saying that we all know of someone in a position of power who either didn’t deserve it or couldn’t handle it. Working for this type of manager (note that I chose not to describe these types as leaders!) is a tough pill to swallow and can feel like watching a car crash in slow motion. In a rapidly changing business environment, a manager who neither manages well nor leads effectively is doomed to failure – the question becomes when – and will they take the organization down with them?
  • Jon Snow – Another of the fan favorites, Jon Snow is the illegitimate son of Ned Stark and the only taint on the otherwise morally righteous leader. Even upon joining the Night’s Watch, a contingent of the rejected, Jon finds himself the outcast. Time and time again, we saw Jon choose duty over love, in direct contrast to Robb. Despite seeing a clear path forward and  sacrificing for the good of others in the name of duty, Jon is reluctant to claim the mantle of leader, another personality we frequently encounter in organizations.

Looking around your own organization, are you led by a Tywin Lannister, ruling with an iron fist? Or maybe you work for Robb Stark, noble and steadfast to the end, but lacking the vision or awareness to see the bigger picture. Whatever the case may be, we should all ask ourselves what type of leader we want to be and who we want to work for. These questions have broader implications than just personality typecasting – this is about supporting that leader whose vision of the future we want to be a part of.  While I won’t ruin the story line for those who are unawares, I will leave you with a parting thought for leading both kingdoms and companies alike: “when you play the Game of Thrones, you either win or you die!”

Cameron Welter works at Kotter International, helping leaders accelerate strategy implementation.

John Kotter
April 4, 2014

“Slow down!” Does this sound familiar?

If the passenger is your significant other, you have a few choices at this point. You can debate (once more) the validity of that request either by pointing to the speedometer, recounting your life-long accident-free track record, expressing out how late you are, or any number of arguments. Or, you do what I do after 25 years of marriage: You slow down with a sigh.

Translate this experience to the corporate world and you discover a significant insight. Speed feels very different to the driver, than to the passenger. The implications of this simple truth shouldn’t be underestimated, because we’re living in a world where the speed is increasing.

In a car, it’s usually okay to slow down (and often it’s in the best interest of your marriage). But in the business world, slowing down can be much more dangerous than hitting the throttle. The question often asked is, “How do we get our passengers (or employees) to embrace change?” This is the wrong question.

stop sign

Helping your employees get a sense of control will in turn make all the difference in how fast you can go. Try asking another question: “How can we get more drivers urgent around the opportunities facing the organization?”

Some people choose the passenger seat. It might be their habit, their nature, or a conditioned response, but either way, they will complain about speeding. But most organizations (particularly large ones) have hundreds, if not thousands of people who’ve been placed in the passenger seat, perfectly willing and able to help you move faster. But you must first provide the right conditions for that to happen. If agility and speed are your primary concerns, then finding ways to put as many people as feasibly possible behind a wheel is a simple, yet powerful strategy. In his new book, Accelerate, Dr. John Kotter outlines what it takes to get from a few drivers, to many, many drivers in your organization. And believe me, I’ve seen that this makes all the difference.

At Kotter International, Holger Rathgeber helps leaders accelerate strategy implementation in their organizations. He is also co-author of Our Iceberg Is Melting. Follow Kotter International at @KotterIntl, on Facebook or LinkedIn. Sign up for articles and leadership insights from Kotter International.