Our first OD Innovator Spotlight features Donna Jordan, SPHR, a New York-based consultant whose 20-year career includes multiple transformations of organizations in diverse industries, including commercial real estate and high-tech companies. She has extensive experience creating and implementing programs and building human resources departments from the ground up.
Of the various business transformation initiatives that you’ve spearheaded, how did you get the ball rolling?
Transformations always start because something isn’t working. Usually, the first indicator is that everyone is overwhelmed and a feeling of being burned out. If your company is expanding and you’re bringing on new accounts, that’s one thing. But if you’re getting mired down in process, you don’t need more hands. You have to determine the fundamental problem at the beginning and identify the owner. It may take some reverse-engineering to determine the root cause. Maybe you don’t have the right people—or the right process. That’s usually the catalyst to get people thinking about transformation.
In one firm, a senior partner realized that it was taking too long to process work through the organization. He reached out to me and the chief operating officer and his partners, and they engaged a technology consultant who had handled business transformations. This was an operational issue, in need of technology support.
How do you sell your ideas to senior leaders in the organization?
When you’re in a quarterly or monthly meeting and manager’s talk about hiring 25 people, the partners or C-suite always ask, “Where is the money coming from? The conversation typically focuses on the spend. Why are we hiring the people?” At that point, my question is, “Do we really need those people?” The ask is almost always for more headcount. Companies don’t typically look for process change or for technology to become more efficient and more agile. By digging deeper, OD professionals can help direct a productive discussion about the underlying issues and potential solutions.
Fortunately, you’re in the room to have that conversation. How have you been able to position yourself as a trusted advisor?
When you get into an organization as an HR person, you have to position yourself as a strategic partner from the beginning. You have to learn all you can about the business. If you don’t understand business, how can you recruit the right people?”
HR people need to understand the business, and they need to have strong business acumen to back that up. Then, you can prove to senior management that you understand the business and know how HR can support that business, whether it’s hiring the right people or bringing together the right stakeholders.
In the past, HR was often used as a gatekeeper, a difficult department where things get caught in red tape. Now HR is—or should be—viewed as a business partner.
In your current role, you launched a pilot program, even though the CEO didn’t see any issues. How did you persuade him to consider change?
CEOs often don’t know what’s happening in an organization in terms of process. They’re not in the trenches; they just hear the occasional complaint from an employee or client. You have to bring issues to their attention in a respectful manner, and you have to help them understand what’s happening with their people. Sometimes you bring awareness to a CEO that doesn’t have all the facts. They’ll typically ask for an example, and you have to share what you’re hearing from general population. For example, “We got XYZ Project done in record time, but we burned everyone out in the process. Now people are unhappy.”
The bigger issue for CEOs can be the spend. You need to present the change as an investment in the people and the company. Make a business case. “We can hire 50 people and spend the money, or we can make this initial investment. Up front, it will cost us more, but in the long run, it will save us money.” Show them the ROI over the next five years so they can see the real costs.
You don’t necessarily need leaders’ buy-in of the process. You need to get the spend. They can’t feel pain during the process. If you can continue to perform during the transformation, you’ll never hear from them during the transformation, but you’ll hear plenty when they see and hear the results. That recognition is priceless to employees.
Once you’ve received the green light for an initiative, how do you build momentum among stakeholders?
I start by focusing on a core team of supporters. Typically, these are subject matter experts (SMEs) in each department. One company went through a complete business transformation, and so many employees were opposed to it that I started to call my dozen supporters the “Sunshine Committee.” Their sole job was to talk positively about the initiative, to sprinkle that positivity throughout the organization. It was an easy way to build positive momentum and to energize the masses because this group believed in the project.
People are more likely to speak to their peers about how they’re feeling than with management. If they hear somebody in their department saying great things, they’ll be more likely to think about potential opportunities.
The committee did an excellent job of building momentum about what a great opportunity this would be and then, on the other side, what a great accomplishment it would be to take part in this. They also pointed out that people’s lives were about to get much easier. The prevailing mindset before this transformation was, “I have to work hard for management to see that I’m valuable.” This wasn’t about working harder but smarter, as the old cliché goes.
Organizational transformation often takes months and years. How do you maintain momentum for such a long period?
You have to have support from the senior management team member who is spearheading the initiative—and a realistic attitude. You’re going to hit snags. You think some things will work, and they don’t. Communication is key, and people have to know that it’s okay to have hiccups along the way. Nothing great ever comes without a little pain. Constant encouragement is needed.
Don’t be afraid to pause and step away from the project to regroup if needed. A deadline is a deadline, but sometimes the goalpost has to move for a better end result. It’s not the end of the world. Having said that, don’t get caught up in the pause. Soldier on in a relatively short amount of time.
As you’re undertaking a transformation, how do you spread the word about what’s happening within the organization?
Beyond the “Sunshine Committee,” we published announcements and updates on the company intranet. We created and displayed posters with graphs and charts around the office so that people could see the progress. Development took place in sprints, completing a specific number of development tasks every two weeks. At the end of each sprint, we provided an updated view of what things looked like. Different people have different ways of learning, so we provided both visual images and written text. We built an atmosphere of continuous improvement.
What have you found most effective in managing resistance during the transformation process?
You always have naysayers, the 5-10% that will never be happy. You have to confront that behavior head on, so we invite people to see where we were and how we fixed a process or changed certain things. We ask those people to provide feedback and suggestions. Right there, you’ve got them engaged. They feel like part of the transformation process, and guess what—they truly are! All of a sudden, you see the tide turn, and people aren’t quite as vocal in their negativity. You can’t completely get rid of it, but you can manage it.
The people working in the trenches need a constant boost. The last thing they want to hear is all the noise.
How do you start the process of changing deeply ingrained mindsets?
When it’s a company-wide initiative, we make a public announcement of what we’re about to do. Then, we’ll have individual conversations with people. Sometimes it gets down to having tough conversations: “Maybe this isn’t for you.” After so many conversations, you realize that you just won’t win that person over.
Sometimes the greatest resistance comes from people who received promises—about a promotion or salary increase, for example—from a manager. Part of that is a cultural issue, and you need to level-set expectations and people’s sense of organizational worth.
A lot of times, when you undergo transformation, the proof is in the pudding. You can cheerlead all you want, but at the end of the day, you have to deliver and keep everyone updated. Show them that it’s better. Think about a leasing department, where a 40-page lease takes half a day to get through. Change the lease to four pages, and employees can review it in a half-hour. Show them why the new process is better, using pilots and case studies.
How do you monitor and encourage adoption in a transformation?
It goes back to the people who are part of the process. We rely on the different committees and focus groups for feedback on how things are going within the population. You can hear the buzz and feel it, but those in the trenches can get feedback on how their co-workers feel. Sometimes they come back and report, “My group isn’t buying this.” Be prepared for that and think about how you can use some of the methods described above to re-engage them.
One critical aspect of transformation is to give up the need to be right. It’s not about being right; it’s about finding the best way to get things done. Leaders can sometimes get wrapped up in thinking that they have to have all the answers, but we don’t. We have to rely on our people and listen to them. They’re the ones doing the work. If the process has to be a certain way, it has to be a certain way. Employees may have valid complaints or issues, and you have to listen to that, which also helps with adoption rates. If you’re listening to your team, they’re more apt to buy in.
Do you have any final lessons that you’d like to share?
You have to have open communication, buy-in and engagement among the population.
You have to instill in people that they can’t hold information close to the vest. Sometimes you may have someone who’s blocking the process, thinking that “if I hold on to this information, I’m more valuable.” The reality is, they’re more valuable if they share the information and feedback to make the process better. Remove the stumbling blocks by creating an atmosphere and culture of sharing information. A collegial and collaborative environment has a greater chance of success.