Tuesday was the day for a new beginning at the company. I was present at the management meeting, as a consultant. In the morning I went to see my friend, the director. He was in a completely different state than when I found him on Friday – and only four days had gone by. We quickly spoke about his short break, then I gave him a few pointers on how to run the meeting. At that point the secretary told us that the employees were already gathering in the conference room.
As we entered the noise subsided. The director greeted everyone and apologised for not having called the meeting earlier. He explained, as I had advised him, that he first needed to get to know the company a little better and establish what kind of problems the company was facing. Of course he couldn’t say to them that he felt completely lost when he took over the company. He introduced me as a good friend and a consultant. He explained that I will occasionally be present at the meetings. I noticed surprise on some faces and disapproval on others.
The meeting continued as planned. A short introduction of all the department managers followed. The director asked each of them to present the company through his or her own work and responsibilities, and also to explain where they were having problems and to present possible solutions and improvements. The administrative manager, who was sitting to my right, responded first. He explained that so far none of the previous directors had had any understanding of human resources, they always just expected and demanded maximum results from the employees, which often led to overloading and high stress among them and was resulting in an increasing number of sick leave requests and over the years led to high employee turnover. The administrative manager emphasised that he is hoping for more support and asked the director if he has a clear vision of where and how he intends to lead the company. In his opinion, this was essential when preparing an efficient human resources plan.
The company’s current ad-hoc approach to hiring did not enable them to get the best people. He also pointed out that, as an HR manager, he was mostly just putting out fires, and this had led to an even worse situation, of which he was unaware until only later. If unqualified or inappropriate people are hired, the results of these poor choices show in the long run in the work results. The director thanked him for his honest opinion and added that he himself has also noticed the increasing number of customer claims over the years. He said he would like to have a clear vision for hiring practices. Since he was not yet familiar enough with this subject, he asked the administrative manager to join a group which would prepare a strategic plan for the company. Although he was a bit surprised, the manager expressed a willingness to cooperate.
It was now the marketing director’s turn to speak. He also expressed his discontent with the current situation and the management approach thus far. His approach was perhaps slightly too confident or – to put it better – smug. Generally displeased, he stressed that the marketing department was primarily handling sales and that there was no sign of real marketing in the company thus far. He pointed out that he himself was adequately qualified and educated about corporate marketing practice and therefore suggested that, in the future, more attention should be paid to properly marketing the company. The general director, my friend, was consumed in his thoughts and staring in front of him. He listened carefully and stated that he found the marketing director’s way of thinking completely understandable, however he asked him to present a proposal of what should be done. Staff shortages were the first problem area, the marketing director pointed out. He also suggested an increase in the number of salespeople in the field and stressed that they should be present at various trade fairs more often.
The director nodded the whole time and then asked what kind of budget they would need for this. ‘I would be able to give you a more specific number once you tell me which direction you would like to navigate our ship. Without a clear course and expectations from management, I cannot give you an estimate’, the marketing director replied. Even though my friend had wanted to provoke him by asking for a specific figure he needed for marketing, the response pleasantly surprised him. Most people in such situations start looking for exits, usually in numbers. They start to calculate the amount they need for their own department, but in this case the marketing director responded very pragmatically and appropriately to the situation at hand. The director agreed and also asked him to join the new strategic group.
The production manager then spoke. As opposed to the previous two, he stated that everything was fine in his department, production was doing well. They all knew what their tasks and responsibilities were. He pointed out that there was a problem in marketing, they were not trying enough to secure projects on time and added that HR was sending them impossible employees.
When these opinions were expressed the tone of the meeting changed. Of course others at the table did not easily take criticism and vigorously denied the complaints. The finance director in particular fiercely rejected the accusations and asked mockingly, ‘And everything is fine in your department?! Oh, please! Your costs are the highest in the company!’
The verbal exchange continued with a sharp answer from the production manager. ‘Yes, of course. We also work the hardest! And you’re just along for the ride! We’re the ones earning your salary and therefore justifiably also expect the biggest support from your side, not that you just make our jobs difficult,’ he said. The finance director was not without a response, ‘If we are talking purchase costs, why do you always seek only one offer, and why have we been dealing with the same suppliers for years? And if I only look at how often you change your personal car, one would come to think you are getting some money on the side somewhere as well,’ she said.
‘Look, at least I can rely on my suppliers if I can’t rely on you,’ he replied. ‘I have managed to get 180-day-payment terms and even if we sometimes accidentally don’t pay on time, they understand. We always receive materials from them in time to complete the order. I do not have a family or children, so cars are my hobby. But I have no intention to talk about my personal life, there’s no reason’.
Since the tone of the conversation had become a bit rough, for some even offensive, I glanced at the director and hinted that it is time for him to calm the situation down. He stood up and at first just observed the co-workers. He only spoke when the employees stopped accusing each other.
He reminded them that the purpose of the meeting was to exchange opinions and that it must be held in a manner acceptable for everyone. If the production manager is unhappy about support, then we must focus on improvement.
The production manager was also invited to join the strategic group and was advised that he is expected to bring suggestions for improvement in his department and maybe also for procedures across the company. The production manager agreed that certain changes would be welcome. The finance director, although she was a bit offended, now continued with her presentation. She spoke mostly about project analyses which had shown that certain projects were too expensive and consequently bringing minimum profit. She stressed that she would like to have a more transparent overview of projects, especially financial indicators. This way she would know what the financial cost of certain operational steps are and be able to pinpoint where the highest costs come from. The director was deep in his thoughts, listening to the finance director and ultimately agreed with what she said. As she had also clearly presented the way she would like to manage project costs, she was also invited to join the strategic group.
The director asked all department managers to prepare proposals regarding their own departments by the next strategic management meeting and suggested they should cooperate with other departments as well. The proposals must include solutions for the flow of communication within the department and a list of which employees would be needed in which positions.
After the management meeting, the employees scattered back to their offices. The director and I went to his office, now very clean, and performed a short analysis of the management meeting. The first thing we established was that the employees were only interested in what is going on in their own departments. Therefore, an outside observer gets the feeling that the company is made up of four separate units, we could almost say that there are four companies in one and that instead of working together towards a single goal they are competing with each other. At least that is how their managers behave. Each of them has built their own garden and was cultivating it according to his or her own convictions. But no one was looking after good, neighbourly relations. The company cannot function successfully this way in the long run.
We also analysed the management meetings held under the previous leadership. They were organised every Monday and often lasted an unbelievable ten hours, usually from nine in the morning until seven in the evening. The main topic was usually solving problems and mutual accusations, so they mostly served as an opportunity for some directors to release their anger rather than discuss any actual creative solutions. At the end of each meeting they reached some sort of understanding, however they never agreed on any concrete solutions for the future – actionable items were missing. Because the current managers were used to things functioning this way, I had to make sure that the new director would not continue the patterns of the previous one. Since the team of managers remained the same, I knew that together they could overpower the new director if he did not immediately show them clear leadership.
First we needed to establish rules for how management meetings would be held. We decided on three kinds of management meetings. Strategic meetings, as the name says, were intended to discuss the strategy and development of the company and were to be held every first Thursday of the month. The upper management meeting was going to take place once a week, on Mondays from 9 to 11 a.m., while operations management meetings were to be held by individual department managers. They were scheduled to take place following the upper management meeting and were to last half an hour. Their purpose was to set up the flow of communication in such a way that everyone was regularly informed of everything. Once we had agreed on the forms of the individual meetings and their schedules, we took a step further and also determined their content. These instructions were also given to all of the department managers. It was important that everyone was aware of the intended workflow and that they respect it. We decided that the initial rules would be adjusted together with department managers and in accordance with the new work system. This meant that, in the end, these would be rules that they themselves had formulated. Once new management meeting rules were adopted, new communication guidelines were also established – which, importantly, included instructions concerning the communication of information to lower levels of the company hierarchy. At the same time, we also defined the format and basic content of meeting minutes.
Once we had introduced the use of meeting minutes, all key information and conclusions were written down. We also determined and noted who was responsible for the execution of individual items. With these steps we made sure that any conclusions that were reached would be recorded and passed on to employees by their managers in exactly the same form. Information would no longer be lost or transformed as a result of the process of communication. At the same time, we ensured that individual responsibilities would be traceable, each manager would know what must be accomplished before the next meeting occurred. Already by the director’s fourth meeting after establishing the new guidelines, the gathering lasted as long as it was supposed to and took place without any accusations or conflicts. We divided the upper management meeting into three parts of 45 minutes each. The first part was dedicated to current problem areas. Each director or department manager could present organisational or technical issues that they were not able to solve on their own. The second part was dedicated solely to marketing and the development of the company – discussing new opportunities, human resource development, inventions, innovations and new products. The third part was dedicated to the company’s internal and external projects with topics including: reaching or not reaching targets (time and/or financial ones), new projects and complex claims. A decision and actionable solutions had to be made regarding each item.
As I observed the managers and directors at the meeting, I quickly realised that anarchy prevailed at the company. The new director had dropped into a completely disorganised environment. When he started this job he also began to experience further deep changes in his already disorganised personal life. It usually happens that when one thing goes wrong, other things soon follow. The director had only two options: continue managing the company according to the system that had already been in place when he arrived or take a completely new path.
If he continued the existing way of working, the department managers would sooner or later overpower him and in time they would be running him and the company. This approach would offer him a certain ‘safety’ but this would be safety in foul-smelling stagnant water. Sooner or later he would end up leaving the company as a result of his own mounting dissatisfaction. After I showed him on the first day what the real situation was, he decided to put things in order.
Of course he had to decide whether to take the department managers as partners and outline a common strategic path, or to opt for a centralised autocratic leadership model and give them a clear understanding of what he expects from them, in the process perhaps even letting go or replacing some of the managers.
The director decided to create a new strategy together and invited the managers to join him as partners. He chose a more difficult path but ultimately the most successful one. Together we focused on equally redistributing responsibilities within the company and on making the work environment one that is energised by personal motivation. We wanted to encourage a business-like mentality in every single employee in the company, meaning that each individual is looking for business opportunities and possibilities for the optimisation of their work.
Already after the first upper management meeting it was clear to me that one of his major priorities must be to change the way of communicating, since certain sectors and their employees were not even communicating with each other at all. Each manager had created his own image of the situation in the company. This happened because upper management never informed their employees of the actual situation, resulting in chaos.
One important factor was also that the number of employees in the company had increased considerably over the past five years, from 250 to 870. The company had experienced enormous growth in a very short time and during that expansion they didn’t have time to properly adjust their operational procedures and guidelines for communication and organisation to accommodate growth. Eventually the individuals within the company with the stronger personalities prevailed. The business process started to adjust to those individuals and not the other way around, becoming a reflection of their habits, needs and wishes with the predictable consequence that those who were more assertive had more influence.
I know from experience that on paper existing processes are not hard to change, but the changes stay on the paper if we do not internalise them. Any process is created by the people who contribute to it and if we are to change it, we must first change our habits. To be more exact, we must change. Since our habits are rooted in our subconscious, we will often do anything not to change them.
Changing processes is one of the most demanding tasks of any manager. The managers in our case were also a reflection of their employees. That is why the transformation must start at the very top of the organisation.
We must be aware that no one has the right to demand someone else change their personality. This would be an invasion of employee’s privacy and is against labour laws. We can only change our colleagues by example. The previous director had acted in the exact opposite way, he took on the habits and patterns of those around him. Because he was overpowered by his subordinates he adjusted to their habits and became trapped, unknowingly taking a subordinate position.
I could simply not let the new director, my friend, do this. When I explained to him how an individual’s psyche works, he expressed a wish to reorganise the company in such a way that the workflows would be independent from the characters of individuals within those workflows. A key element for him was to not become emotionally involved in the business process, which meant that he was not allowed to look for solutions to his personal problems within the company or among his co-workers.
Together we also agreed to also pursue personal counselling concurrently with the business consulting, this would help him find answers to questions that had been following him ever since childhood.
Although we had first met each other in our early teens, I wasn’t familiar with his family background. To be honest I wasn’t even interested in it back then. We met again after he had already married. I had thought of him as a spoiled only child, but then he told me his twin brother had died at birth. This is why his parents subconsciously gave him everything and took extra care that nothing would happen to him. He himself agreed that as a child he was given everything he wanted. He enjoyed this and felt safe.
When he turned fifteen he experienced his first loss, his father died in a car accident. After that his mother took him even closer under her wing and that made him even more attached. Since she had already lost two in her family, she didn’t want to lose the third. At the same time, she forgot that this loss didn’t just affect her but it strongly affected her son as well. And it was even more painful for him because until then he hadn’t known what loss was. Because of the pain and the pressure from his overprotective mother, all he wanted was to escape his home environment.
His mother’s fervent wish was for him to become a doctor, one that could look after her in her old age and help her with medical issues. Since the situation at home was gradually suffocating him, after he finished high school he realised he had to change his environment. Despite his mother’s disapproval, he decided to go to the United States and study management.
Just the thought of going abroad was liberating for him. His idea of America, however, was an illusion constructed from watching movies – though he was not aware of this at the time. Over his mother’s objections he applied to a university in Chicago and was accepted. He found himself a flat and made sure he had a scholarship. Since his mother had been saving money for him, he had enough for a plane ticket and something to live from in the beginning. Saying goodbye to his mother was hard, of course, but liberating at the same time. ‘When it came time to leave, I hoped that my mother would approve of my decision. I remember her sitting at the kitchen table, I remember her distant look. When I put the plane ticket in front of her, she looked at me and even today I can feel the pain I saw in her eyes – but I had to do it, as soon as possible. I wished she would have understood and accepted my decision. I expected resistance and some pleading for me not to leave, but instead she just looked at me. She slowly stood up from behind the table and gave me a hug. ‘Take care of yourself’ was the only thing she said. In a way she had accepted my leaving. We said our goodbyes in peace. I was bursting with curiosity and there was a desire burning deep inside of me to get to know a new world and for a completely new life’.
After hearing this, I quickly realised that this event is still very vivid for him and, most of all, still very painful. Even today, when he thinks of it, he feels uncomfortable and feels pressure in his chest. I explained to him that his mother was not being completely honest when she wished him good luck. In reality she wanted him to stay home, with her. His departure made her feel even more alone and she had to face her greatest fear. Even though she never admitted it to herself, she was afraid of being alone. Instead of being proud of her son and his independence, she was angry. Her anger grew stronger over the years, because he didn’t keep his promise to phone her and come home regularly.
America lost its TV show sparkle for him already after just a few days of living there. But most of all, he was suddenly no longer the centre of attention, the best, the most beautiful. He became someone who had to fight for survival and prove himself – first to himself and then to others. He told me that he felt as if he had been reborn because he needed to live an independent and responsible life, step by step.
It was becoming clearer and clearer to me why he had made such a decisive change in his life then. Even though he was convinced that by leaving he would find freedom, the truth was completely different. It certainly took a lot of courage for him to decide upon and carry out such a radical plan, however it didn’t solve the fundamental problem inside of him that began to reveal itself in his way of life later on as he continued to repeat his same old mistakes. His decision to go abroad was mostly to escape from his mother. Even though she offered him an easy and carefree life, deep down he wasn’t happy. His anger toward her only grew stronger while fighting to survive at an American university. Suddenly his sole purpose for going abroad to study was to prove to her he could survive without her and succeed on his own.
When he graduated from the elite university, they offered him the opportunity to continue his studies – but this time he no longer felt the desire and the need to prove himself. He had reached his goal. He had proven he could take care of himself. He came home after six years for the first time. During all this time, he had only called his mother once. There were no visits or holidays at home and she strongly resented him for this.
When he came home, she didn’t want to see him at first. He proudly threw a diploma and a check for $100,000 in front of her saying, ‘You see, even without you I was able to educate myself, find a job and achieve a lot!’ His mother did not understand what was he trying to tell her. She was filled with anger, sadness and disappointment. She simply could not understand why he was acting like that toward her. She was willing to sacrifice her life for him, so this was even more painful for her.
They had spent only fifteen minutes together when he suddenly said goodbye and left again. Only after a year, after he found himself a serious partner, did he start to slowly realise what he had done to his mother. It was true she was suffocating him and not preparing him for life, but he knew that she didn’t know any other way to be, she was just doing what she thought was best for him. She wanted to protect him from the cruelty she had faced herself. Her approach to raising her son was based on her own experience.
Two years after returning to Slovenia he got married. His wife assumed the role of his mother, which she did because she thought that’s what he expected of her. She completely subordinated herself to him, looking after him in all respects, which pleased him. He was again the centre of attention. With his wife’s help he slowly began to realise how unfair he had been to his mother. It took him two years to apologise. He told me he would always remember that day. Finally, an honest conversation took place between them. That was the first time he felt relief, as if a burden had been lifted off him.
As we analysed his life, he became aware that nothing in life is self-evident, that he did not go to America to study just to find freedom, but also because of his anger. Everything about life he had learned while living in America he wasn’t actually using at home in Slovenia. He viewed his childhood and his life until then as a burden. When his mother told him she had cancer, this crushed him also brought them closer together. To his great disappointment he realised that he had spent his life in anger. Even though he looked happy on the outside – he had an important position in the company, an understanding wife, a new house, a good car – he knew he still had not found himself. He still felt like a child trapped in the cage of life.
From our conversations I learned that he was making the same mistakes in his marriage as his mother had made in hers. He put his wife on a pedestal, spoiled her and showered her with presents. He wanted to provide her with everything because he thought that is one shows affection. Of course, at the beginning of their relationship the wife seemed to love all the attention. For him, however, it eventually became too difficult to play this role, and most of all it proved to be too little to sustain a successful marriage. She eventually fell in love with another man, somebody with whom she felt emotionally safe and with whom she wanted to have children with. Because she had found this with somebody else, my friend and his wife no longer had a shared goal. She did not want an equal life, she just wanted to take care of a home and family and needed a partner who would provide an emotional safety net for her.
Towards the end of spring that very same year, he received a call from the hospital that his mother had died. On his way home he wanted to call his wife to tell her the sad news, but he couldn’t get through to her. Then he saw she had left him a voicemail. His wife let him know she could not deal with their marriage any longer and she was saying goodbye to him, saying they would handle everything through a lawyer from now on. At that moment his life fell to pieces. Suddenly he saw a car cross in front of him, it was too late to avoid it.
Later on he could only remember lying in the hospital bed feeling lonely and abandoned. In a single day he had lost his mother, his wife and had a car accident. If he was lucky enough to have survived, he was not able to tell yet. He finally thought long and hard about his life. Even though his mother had gone he was glad they managed to find peace together and, at least towards the end, had a good relationship. He was aware he had forgiven her for the mistakes she had made and was grateful she had done the same. He felt her death was a symbolic farewell to his childhood and his golden cage. At that moment he was no longer a boy, he became a man. The feeling of estrangement from his wife began when he started to forgive his mother. This is when his typical behaviour patterns, his way of life started to disappear. Because he no longer felt the same needs, his wife also no longer felt needed and fulfilled. She wanted the exact same life he had originally offered her and exactly the same partner he had been when they first met. They had started to drift apart because he had changed and she had not. The distance between them grew so big they became strangers. Because he was successful and ambitious, but at the same time also wanted to spend as much time with his wife as possible, his life had turned into one impossible rush and he had forgotten about himself. In a way, his car accident was a stroke of luck, a warning for him to stop.
We cannot blame our parents for our problems. Once we are of age, we are responsible for our own lives. We grow up when we decide to do so ourselves. Rushing through life is just running away from ourselves. It just means we don’t want to face ourselves. But with each escape, also a part of our life escapes us. Our time is limited and every moment that we fail to pay attention to it to leaves a tiny void in us. We should all learn to live neither for others nor for the material world but for ourselves, to be aware of every moment. Only when we are truly honest with ourselves do we start to co-exist in love.
His mother’s death, his wife’s departure and the car accident had pushed my friend to a dead-end. He felt he had no reason to live any more. He was falling faster and faster and it showed in all areas of his life. But he was given a second chance, at least professionally, one that could awaken him.
After a few meetings he was determined not to force anything or to be angry at anyone. By being angry we only build a cage for ourselves. Most importantly he realised he must put himself first. Business is a part of life, just like love, friends and even challenges are. By realising all of this, he would be able to positively influence his new work environment. Despite his new awareness and discoveries, he had not solved his personal problems yet.
Challenges and problems are part of life and we need to solve them as they arise. At one of our meetings he told me that from now on he is going to like himself and that he will lead by example and show others they need to like and respect themselves. He was convinced that that is the only way they could be useful to themselves and to the company. Our meetings gradually bore fruit. Contentious relations within the company were resolved, upper management meetings became more creative and there were fewer mutual accusations. After I had worked with the director for five weeks, the management board had become quite a pleasant team. Co-workers also noticed his new approach to leadership and began to support the director despite their initial disapproval of him.
Not everything was perfect, by any means. Some managers were still having trouble accepting the changes, resistance which was largely dependent on their life experiences and personality characteristics. But most were happy with the new approach. I let them know that I could also help them cut ties with their old behaviour patterns. We agreed for me to spend one hour with each manager.
The administrative manager was a brilliant student as a child. Schoolmates often teased him, calling him a nerd, and never entirely accepted him into their circle. He was always pushed aside, except when the end of semester was approaching. That was when they wanted to be friends with him – of course just for as long as they needed him. He put up with this but inside felt rejected. He didn’t socialise with anyone during his free time. He came from an average working family who could afford an average life, spending their evenings in front of the telly.
His parents didn’t spend much time with him, they had enough troubles of their own. The father drank too much on occasion and this sometimes led to violence. All this time, anger and resentment were festering inside him. When he was choosing what to study, he picked law. He thought that as a lawyer he could defend himself if anyone were ever to try to take advantage of him again, or even take revenge via a legal path. Since studying law didn’t meet his expectations, he decided to continue his postgraduate studies in human resources.
I had memorised his words from the very first meeting: ‘… so far none of the previous directors has had any understanding of the development of human resources, they always just expected and demanded maximum results from the employees, nothing else interested them’. These were not just his words but also his actions, since in his co-workers he saw the schoolmates who used him. So he transferred his anger onto them. In his previous director he saw his father acting out on him. The admin manager was the one who had anonymously tipped off the owners of the company about the previous director, who was improperly handing documents and later replaced. During our conversation he became more and more involved in his thoughts. Before the next management meeting began he came to me and shook my hand, looked me in the eye and thanked me.
I understood the gesture, but his actions spoke even louder. At the meeting he was more relaxed and he looked less stern. When he presented his solution for a problem they had been debating, the general manager complemented him for the originality of his idea. And the complement gave him important validation. At subsequent meetings considerable changes were noticeable in his demeanour. I watched him open up to his co-workers, allowing them to get closer and signalling that he no longer treated them as adversaries. This was also probably the first time he felt what it meant to have a genuine professional relationship.
The production manager was a special character. That’s what he was told throughout his childhood. He was an individualist, he didn’t socialise much and instead enjoyed exploring, repairing or ‘upgrading’ things. His parents realised with pride that he was technically minded since he disassembled everything he got his hands on. Of course not many of those things were then re-assembled. As he grew older he began to ‘improve’ things he received or bought, something which gave him great joy. He didn’t want to feel limited and wanted complete freedom, and since the previous director knew he was doing his job well and that the company was largely dependent on him, he gave him complete independence. In his personal life the production manager quenched his thirst for freedom with speed, mostly sports cars that occasionally attracted the attention of his co-workers. He liked the attention even though he was still a bit of a loner. Everyone needs attention, however we must not seek attention from the outside world but from within ourselves. That’s why we must praise ourselves occasionally. He also didn’t have a family; he enjoyed his single life and wasn’t ready to exchange it for a family. The general director knew that if he demanded detailed reports from him, he would be limiting him and hampering his creativity, which was bringing income to the company. He was also aware that it was not ideal for so many employees to depend solely upon one person. At upper management meetings, when the general director sensed that the production manager had found himself at a dead end, he suggested he take certain measures that would challenge him in a way that encouraged his creativity. When he was given a challenge he readily accepted it.
The marketing manager quickly sensed that cooperating at the management meetings meant a possible promotion. When the previous director was on his way out, he lobbied the owners to appoint him to the empty post. He wanted the attention, he was a good salesman who was ready to do anything for the customers.
Since he was only interested in external validation, he didn’t spend any time with the organisational requirements of his department, which was pretty chaotic and causing delays in the production process. The previous director had left him alone since he always had a lot of orders, but the director also never checked the prices. The marketing manager was good at psychoanalysing people and he could read the needs of the customer very well, so he was also adept at reading the new director as well and surprised him with a speech. ‘Mr Director, I will be able to tell you in more detail once you tell us in which direction you are navigating the ship…’ He let him know that he is ready to cooperate and that he respects him as his superior. He came from an artistic family, his mother was an actress and his father a musician. He learned at an early age what performing before an audience can give you and how to get them to like you. He was born when his parents were both over forty, already tired of performing but still desiring the attention. He learned from them that he had to always get attention, no matter the price, if he wants to survive. The parents didn’t have much time for him nor their home, so they lived in state of disorder. There was no noticeable difference between the department he was running and his former home.
The financial director was a beautiful girl as a child. Her parents tried to instil a great sense of respect for others in her. At first she was a brilliant student and her primary school years were straight out of a fairy-tale. Most would say she had a happy childhood. But she never felt true love from her parents. They talked a lot, they showed her a large part of the world, taught her how to survive, but there was not enough warmth and mutual attachment in their relationship. In high school she met a boy and went completely head over heals for him. He took advantage of her naïveté and was mostly just attracted by her parents’ wealth.
His circle of friends, which she became a part of, was into using drugs. Initially cannabis and then later heroin. When they needed money for drugs, she provided it. Eventually the parents realised what was going on and put a stop to it. Since she couldn’t buy drugs any more she was no longer of any use to her so-called friends and they kicked her out of their circle. At seventeen she was addicted to drugs, and after she failed three classes she no longer knew what to do. Her parents gave her an ultimatum: either she stopped using drugs and went to rehab or they will cut her out of their life. As a result of her naïveté she had found herself at the edge of society. She completely closed up and dedicated herself to school and passed her exams almost with flying colours. Her drug addiction was replaced with sports activities and she entered fourth year completely transformed on the outside but emotionally even more closed off. She no longer trusted anyone. She blamed her parents for not teaching her how to love herself and her friends for using her for her money. She focused on her business career and completely devoted her life to it. She continued doing sports activities to stay in shape while working at the office for twelve or more hours a day. Everything she did was for her career. She treated the previous director as she had treated her parents: she was angry at him but needed his help and support to get to the top – and she was willing to do anything to get there. When the financial director position opened up she was determined to get it, even if she had to use her feminine charms. At that time she was head of the accounting department and when she found out about the new opportunity, she didn’t hesitate and quickly made a plan to secure the position for herself. When an opportunity arose she invited the director to her place for dinner; that same week she was appointed financial director, without any job advertisement being released for the position. They were lovers, even though he was married, until he was released from the company. She didn’t mind the infidelity, since this was the only way to control her position within the company. The moment he was let go, she ceased all communication with him. She no longer took his calls and when he came to visit she didn’t even open the door.
When the new director turned out to be kind, open and honest with everyone, she felt a difference and warmth that she had never experienced before. Since he showed the same respectful attitude to every employee, she felt she will now have to show her knowledge and potential in order to keep her job.
Everyone left the management meeting content. They went back to their offices and, inspired by the meeting, started to prepare their next steps. Each of them had to think carefully about how they imagined a different kind of organisation, how the workflow should be organised in their departments if the department managers went on vacation for a month.
The director and I made a plan for how to motivate the newly-formed strategic team. Each individual was given a task which demanded his or her personal input and we gave each person a chance to express their creativity and to present proposals for the development of the company. At the same time, they also had to face the responsibilities of their positions.
Everyone had to make an organisational chart of the company and of his or her own sector. Thus the director and I learned from them for the first time who is doing what in the company and who answers to whom.
Creating the organisational chart was also a huge psychological relief for the department managers. By doing this, each leader realised that she or he is not responsible for everything and that their employees – their co-workers – must take responsibility as well. From almost all the diagrams it was apparent that within each sector there were tasks that repeated or were intertwined with others, such that it was impossible to determine who exactly was responsible for a certain task. They also realised that quite often they were doing tasks which were actually the responsibility of their employees. Once they began to rearrange their schedules with their employees and defined only one person for each individual task, their schedules were greatly relieved, some by even up to 40 per cent.
After coming to this conclusion, the managers no longer complained about having a lack of time but they did begin to question the abilities of their employees. Most of the managers were of the opinion that their co-workers did not have sufficient experience and knowledge to carry out the newly assigned tasks to the same standard as they themselves had before the change. Suddenly they were convinced that is was not going to work. When the new operations system was implemented in the company, the members of the entire strategic group – that is, the directors of the individual departments – began to resist.
The managers’ biggest problem was that they did not trust their co-workers. They were convinced that the employees in their department were not as competent as they were, so they would rather carry out many of the tasks by themselves rather than assign them to others. By doing this, however, they not only decreased the employees responsibilities but also their motivation. The managers let the employees in their department know that they thought they were not capable of doing more demanding and responsible tasks. If the manager always keeps the most important tasks for themselves, it has a strong demotivating effect on the employees – they are letting them know that they will never be as good as their superiors and that there is no use in even trying. Because of this, the department managers’ schedules became overloaded while their employees were less busy and less motivated. All this brought about resentments and subtle complexes.
These patterns led to blockages and caused mental garbage that created ever more puddles of stagnant water in the company. The more stagnant these puddles became, the more the mental pain of the managers grew, which manifested itself in increasing rudeness towards their employees and the community as the distance between them only increased. And the employees felt as if they meant nothing to their superiors – leading to even more recalcitrant behaviour.
In creating the organisational chart, the managers had to face themselves first and thus make space to clean away their mental garbage and smelly puddles of stagnant water. The tension was relieved but in the first phase only the cleaning of the least smelly puddles took place. Immediately afterwards new doubts came to light. Suddenly, they had the feeling that the director’s approach would create even more confusion in the company.
Mental garbage is information collected in our subconscious which has no clear meaning, creating negative thoughts that cause stress. Each of the managers was trying to convince the director that they could not hand over tasks to their subordinates because the latter simply weren’t up to it. They pressured him from all sides, so he decided to call an intervention meeting. Each of the department managers pushed their own point of view and portrayed him or herself as irreplaceable, and their subordinates as incompetent underlings who couldn’t be trusted.
The director listened, observing them carefully. They acted like a herd of wild animals intent on fulfilling their desires at any cost. When they started repeating themselves, he nodded and asked them, ‘Does this mean that we now have to replace all the employees in your departments?’ They all looked at him surprised and replied ‘no’. The director was not distracted and continued, ‘Is this how you are going to work for the rest of your lives?’ Again, a no from all of them, this time in a calmer tone and a wondering look in their eyes.
What are we supposed to do then? Do we need new assistants and where are we going to get the money for them? Everyone went quiet. They were left speechless, without arguments or ideas. The director took advantage of the situation and calmly continued, ‘Since we cannot change all of our employees, maybe it’s time we started thinking about changing their managers’.
The facial expressions around the table betrayed their true feelings. As they all sat in shock, the production manager said jokingly, ‘You can’t be thinking of us, can you?’ ‘Yes, you’, the director calmly replied. ‘If you cannot find a solution, I will. The previous director was replaced because he couldn’t find one. So, if I am to follow the reasoning of the owners, I must replace you’.
Everyone came to the intervention meeting intending to persuade the director that reorganisation measures in their sector were unnecessary, time consuming and damaging instead of useful. My job as consultant was to prepare the director for the ambush that awaited him. The department managers acted quite impulsively, so it was important for the director to calm down in order to be able to react appropriately. The key was not to play their game. Because they all came to the meeting with the same goal, they thought they could win him to their side. Of course they were expecting that they would have to use a considerable amount of persuasion to show him they were right, but he surprised them by not playing their game and instead just clearly and calmly stated his position. Because they were not prepared for such an approach they were left without any arguments.
Still surprised, the financial director spoke, ‘This is too much, this is blackmail!’ ‘Not at all, these are only different, more radical ways to achieve a goal. If we want to achieve these goals, I need a team of people who will not only see problems but will also be willing to search for solutions,’ he replied to her. He explained that he was not looking for final solutions but suggestions which can be developed and researched in depth. Nobody wants to just search for reasons why they shouldn’t be doing something. He wanted them to find arguments for why something must be done. If they just resist, they are only spinning around in circles and this doesn’t bring results, it only increases loss. The current situation was forcing them to carry out change, firstly on themselves, so that afterward they could demand it from their employees. Once they write out all the proposals that were requested of them they still won’t have solved any problems, but they will be able to clearly see the whole picture. It is crucial for the director to see individual pictures as parts of a bigger picture.
We wanted to explain that, once they look at their own departments, at first they will see even more issues and problems – but they mustn’t panic, because their common task was to begin solving them. The problems were there all along but because of their strained workload they hadn’t noticed them before. In all such situations it is of key importance to define things and only then start changing them – comprehensively, as a whole. Solving them only partially would cause even more problems. This is because with a partial solution to a problem we can create new problems or even expend the existing ones.
This is why a comprehensive overview of tasks and responsibilities in the company is important. The department managers did not just draw an organisational chart so they could figure out each employee’s responsibilities and define who does what and how, but mostly to establish how they work together as a unit. If they wanted to create a common work strategy, they had to provide a comprehensive approach to the work.
The director managed to calm his heated colleagues. He advised them to continue with the task he gave them. At the same time, he assured them he is counting on their further cooperation and assistance. He reminded them that at the next management meeting they will thoroughly inspect the procedures of each individual sector and discuss the problematic issues and solutions for each department together.
The intervention meeting was a success, all the department managers had completed the given tasks in time. They all made the organisational chart and the list of tasks the employees in their department should have. They also completed an organisational chart which included a diagram depicting the flow of information in their department. A list of the issues that needed attention in the department, together with their proposed solutions, was prepared as well.
They all submitted their materials to the personal assistant on time. Before the next meeting, the documentation needed to be sorted and compared with the company’s articles of association, the internal regulations outlining the company’s structure. The director instructed his assistant to prepare an analysis of tasks for every single employee. The analysis had to contain a comparison of the tasks given to the employees by their department manager and the tasks which the employees were supposed to be carrying out according to the company structure as it was defined on paper. A comparison of work procedures followed, those from the lists from the department managers with the ISO Standard documentation. Both he and his secretary had to work over the weekend, of course, but they had all the documentation ready for the meeting on Monday.
As the department managers came in to the meeting, one could feel their light step and sense of relief. They were all proud to have fulfilled the director’s expectations and prove to him that they are capable of leading their departments.
The meeting began with the director’s greeting, then he complemented and thanked everyone for their cooperation and readiness to complete the first comprehensive task. A discussion of current challenges followed. The department managers suggested potential solutions for the issues that were presented. They agreed upon all further measures together. The business secretary wrote down all the conclusions and prepared the minutes of the meeting. Each decision was clearly defined: what needs to be done, who is responsible for the execution of that task and the deadline.
An overview of the documentation that was gathered from each department manager followed. The director presented, individually for each sector, all the deviations he had found, that is to say, the differences between the department managers’ observations and how the company should be functioning according to the company’s articles of association. The differences were huge. Some employees were not executing even a single task defined for their position in the company’s description of positions. The company was in a state of complete anarchy. The department managers were left speechless. They couldn’t believe how great the differences actually were.
Their astonishment grew even more when they saw the actual information flow and organisational procedures in the company. At that moment they realised that the current state of the company did not correspond with the articles of association, which now served no purpose whatsoever. The director managed to prove to his colleagues that the workflow in the company was not rationally organised and that each sector had adjusted them to its own needs.
Suddenly they all became vocal. They wanted to explain themselves and most of all, blame somebody else. The director leaned back in his chair and listened. Since he did not react to their accusations, they slowly calmed down. Then the silence was broken by the admin manager. ‘For goodness’ sake, why don’t you want to discuss things with us? It looks as if our opinions aren’t important to you. Why don’t you say anything?’ This was now the second time the director had been challenged. Since he was still not ready to dance to their music, they were even more confused. They experienced a shock, a positive one. The director had put a mirror up to them: they themselves saw what was going on versus what was supposed to be happening. He gave them an insight into reality and showed them they themselves could be wrong.
He looked straight into the eyes of the admin manager and then with a calm yet firm voice responded, ‘What am I supposed to say if you are all talking at the same time. I don’t even understand what you are trying to say. I think we are old enough to carry out a conversation and not scream at each other. We are all adults.’
Once they had all calmed down the conversation continued in a normal tone of voice. Suddenly there was no tension, sarcasm or violence, just a more relaxed manner of conversation. The director let them know that they, too, were capable of making mistakes. But by being calm and understanding toward them he gave them a clear sign that his intention was not to look for guilty parties, but to find solutions for everyone and to improve things.
But this was a critical turning point for another reason as well – the department managers had put their masks away and began to cooperate with one another. The director let them know that he accepted them the way they are. The most important thing for him was not to step away from his intentions. Even though he had confronted the co-workers with the results of their own work, mutual relations actually started to improve. They were all just people with flaws, but also people who were striving to reach the same goal. And this is key in every organisation: common vision, common goals and a well-defined strategy.
When they continued with the next item of the meeting, everyone shared their ideas on how to save time and material and who could be their new customers. There were no major comments made here. They nevertheless now understood that the work to be done was much more complex than they had imagined it to be. Every manager had a completely different vision of who the target clients were. Once they started talking there were a lot of proposals on the table. They agreed to organise a team-building session by the end of the month, with the subject being ‘finding new potential business opportunities’.
In the last part of the meeting they went through all the currently active projects and saw that they did not even have a complete overview of all open orders. They agreed to set up a summary of all offers and divide them into categories (‘in preparation’, ‘in negotiation’, ‘ready to sign’, ‘being executed’) and to list all the projects which were being executed (including in which phase they are and who is in charge of each one ). Only in this way could they get the feeling that some progress had been made.
After the meeting everyone felt ‘relieved’. They had new directions and there was no more resistance. This was apparent already at the next meeting when everyone came prepared and with their assigned tasks completed. Subsequent meetings were all much more relaxed, occasionally someone even made a joke here and there. They started to talk about their mistakes and their solutions at the same time. And already after their third strategic meeting they suggested that these sorts of meetings be transferred to the lower levels of the company hierarchy as well. They all agreed to organise similar meetings within each department.
The department managers, despite their initial resistance, accepted that these kinds of management meetings were an efficient approach to communication. They all started to get along better with one another and the meetings became more polite and relaxed. Actually, they became a necessity for them. The department managers had to change their habits and accept new work methods. Since they established fairly quickly that the new approach was more effective, less demanding and less stressful, they adopted it as their own. Of course this was not the end of the rationalisation process, which had begum at the very top. It still had to work its way down the ladder.
It was the general director’s turn first, followed by the department managers. The next step was to put it into practice among the individual heads of departments. When implementing changes into existing procedures it is of utmost importance for the individuals to first feel the need for these changes. The director himself felt this need. After working with him on a personal level, together we defined his personal and business goals. He felt that other employees must also start to work differently. He couldn’t do this by demanding them to change. His only weapon was to lead the transformation by example. Because the general director was sending out positive vibrations with his way of working, he motivated other department managers as well.
If we want to work differently, we must change our habits. The reorganisation of a company means changing the habits of the people. It succeeds only when changes also begin to take place in the minds of the employees. When the wheel of change starts to spin, we must make sure it keeps spinning, it mustn’t stop or start spinning backwards. This would bring about even more chaos than that which existed before the changes were implemented.
Laying down new rules is one of the ways to make sure that the wheel does not spin backwards. The individual department managers quickly sensed the director’s new approach and followed him at first. However, after tasks were assigned at the management meeting they began to resist. They wanted to stop the wheel of change and go back to their previous state. But once we take a step forward, there is no going back. Even if we want to go back, we never go back one step, but two or more. This is because unconsciously we want to remove ourselves from the point of change. If we only take a single step back, we are still right in front of the point of change. If we take two or more steps back it will be much more difficult on our next attempt to convince the employees to begin to change things.
In our case, the general director persisted on the path of transformation and swiftly guided his colleagues away from hitting a dead-end. The department managers had made a big step, a quantum leap, and stepped back onto the wheel of change. Since the director and I made sure that they did not get the chance to stop themselves then, there was no more resistance from them later on.
After four months of transforming their work methods they had almost completely changed their habits. They said themselves that they could no longer imagine working the old way. Later on they took the initiative of implementing these changes to lower levels as well. The wheel of change continued to churn forward. All the guidelines we established at our first upper management meetings were transferred to lower levels of the company. Within a year, step by step, the entire company started to function in line with the new principles.
A fragment from the book The Dynamic Leadership model
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