HomeOpinion & AnalysisRe-imagining the workplace: Of empires and turnaround strategists in the workplace

Re-imagining the workplace: Of empires and turnaround strategists in the workplace

This week we close our look at groups that get formed outside the formal structure in the workplace.

We have treated the subject of what we called fiefdoms and kingdoms in the workplace, which are groups that are not part of the formal structure but present themselves as being very influential in companies and some leaders will consider such structures and consult the ‘kings’ and leaders of fiefdoms informally when making decisions.

The whole idea behind such consultations being to avoid resistance that such ‘leaders’ and their ‘followers’ are bound to bring about.

Take for instance an organisation that is in the process of negotiating a code of conduct, a document that needs the input and approval of all parties involved. In this case the process can run smoothly if the concerns of informal opinion leaders are taken care of in that informal way because they do love attention even as they know they are not part of the formal structure.

A leader who does not choose to insist culturally on formal structures will play ‘politics’ and allow ‘weeds’ to have a say in the fields. The other way around it is of course to be thorough about using power where the company has put it. This would mean nipping any ‘weeds’ that threaten to mushroom, in the bud.

Within these formal structures, leaders tend to want to work with certain people and even those that preach change and the need to embrace change secretly defy this in practice, choosing, instead, to work with the same personal assistant, costing accountant, buyer, secretary, and many other positions one finds in different organisations.

I recall working for a big group of hotels when we had a new CEO joining us and coming with a whole new structure in all critical positions. Troubled organisations needing a turnaround strategist do head hunt such ‘celebrity’ leaders who have made names for themselves in the area of taking sinking companies out of the woods and there is a growing culture of these strategists bringing their own structures to swift sail through the change process. I am sure you have read the irony of this if you have been following, that as a change strategist, one is expected to model the principles they have come to inculcate but when they need cushioning themselves regarding their own process of changing the culture and operations of the organisation they are helping then there is a slight contradiction inherent in the whole process.

The argument for this approach, where a ‘celebrity’ leader insists on coming with his whole structure is that the change strategist needs the comfort and the cushion to sail through and take the company to the other side of the river. If they are made to swim with the rest of the people going through change then they might not perform as well as they would if cushioned. There is some sense in that, but one cannot help but see the inherent contradiction in terms of a leader needing to model what they preach and walk the talk they make. A change agent will make such calls as people need to step out of their comfort zones and feel the heat of the learning zone.

They are likely to not only change systems, but to change structures as well, making certain people report to new bosses and some to work with teams they may never have wished to work with.

This, indeed, is stepping out of comfort zones and dancing with uncertainty and the idea behind throwing people into strategic uncertainty is to create the possibility of openness to the new, and to what we have not seen or would not see under normal and certain circumstances. A learned change agent knows this, and learns it from nature that there is a ‘terrible beauty’ that uncertainty holds and if explored carefully we emerge with that beauty.

The Covid-19 pandemic, for example, has put people in creatives modes regarding many things and that is out there for all to see. Blogger turned New York Times best-selling author and creator of the social media movement, The Single Woman, Mandy Hale puts it aptly in one of her quotes; Trust the wait, embrace the uncertainty. Enjoy the beauty of becoming. When nothing is uncertain, anything is possible.

This is what change agents do and this is where they place individuals and groups needing to change. The contradiction we are exploring today is what has become normal for most of these change agents when they refuse to ‘eat their own dog food’ and want to throw change and uncertainty at everyone except themselves. Dogfooding acts as quality control and one wonders how the change agent tastes their own process without experiencing it. When such a leader joins a going concern with employees holding certain positions, the practice of bringing their own structure does disturb the peace of the organisation in question and can be resisted by such employees who will view the new leader and his or her imported structures as strangers who have come in to take over what their place and territory is. That’s a bad start already because that resistance can disturb the change process.

If the resistance is not felt during the change process, it is unlikely that what is introduced will stick because the change agent is ‘giving what he or she doesn’t have’ which is the resilience needed for the change to stick. He needs structural comfort and so comes with those he has always worked with. Some organisations even go to the extent of letting certain people leave to create way for change to happen, which is understandable because in some instances some people do stand in the way of change.

These ‘empires’ that celebrity leaders carry with themselves whenever invited to assist in changing the fortunes of troubled companies can be both good and bad. A leader does need comfort to move swiftly and create change, but it would make more sense if the leader ‘eats his own dog food’ and walks the talk.

It would be business culture prudent to challenge researchers in the area of the workplace and change to investigate the many failures we see in organisations that bring in serious turnaround strategists who come in and shift things, cracking the whip in terms, mainly of financial controls and operations. Many of these changes are not sustainable and we see such organisations going back to zero most of the time.

The comfort of the change agent is critical but so is his need to walk the talk to ensure that when he eventually leaves what he has come to change, he leaves it with a sense of buy in and sustainability. Turnaround strategists tend to enjoy hefty salaries, the freedom to bring in all the human resources they need, huge perks and other benefits but Zimbabwe still does not have clear models of productivity, even when we look at those that have been touched by serious turnaround strategists.

We still have a challenge we need to explore, and this article contends that, the failure by these strategists to live what they preach is at the centre of our failure to create our own corporate culture models such as the international giants like Google, HubSpot, IBM and Microsoft.

  • Bhekilizwe Bernard Ndlovu’s training is in human resources training, development and transformation, behavioural change, applied drama, personal mastery and mental fitness. He works for a South African organisation as a learning & development specialist, while also doing a PhD with Wits University where he looks at violent strikes in the South African workplace as a researcher. Ndlovu worked as a human resources manager for several blue-chip companies in Zimbabwe and still takes keen interest in the affairs of people and performance management in Zimbabwe. He can be contacted on bhekilizweb.bn@gmail.com  

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