Confessions of a Change Agent

Emily Morgan is one of Tom Kasten's most obsessed change agents. She also personifies the new generation of leaders at Levi Strauss & Co. "Several years ago, when we recruited people to lead this process, I told them they would be ambassadors or assassins," Kasten says. "Emily is the ultimate ambassador. When you see her in front of 200 people, and she's painting the vision, explaining the impact, you can't help but get excited. She has lots of credibility."

Morgan, 48, makes for an unlikely activist. She's a 27-year Levi's veteran who joined the company as a secretary in the advertising department and began a slow-but-steady rise through the ranks. She became an assistant advertising manager, then held a series of jobs in distribution, merchandising, and sourcing. But the more she saw how the company worked, the more dissatisfied she became.

"We were dysfunctional," Morgan says. "We were internally competitive, one division against another, one country against another. Everything suffered: quality, delivery, lead times."

Which is why, in 1992, as talk of reinventing the company spread through headquarters, and senior management began looking for volunteers, Morgan told her colleagues, "I'm gone." She's been part of the change initiative ever since. Morgan was an original member of Kasten's Third Floor brigade. She led the team that designed the Develop Sources process, a system for working with suppliers. Then she helped design a transition strategy for Asia and Latin America.

Finally, Morgan designed a new career for herself. In March 1995, she applied for, and won, a critical role in the new organization. Her title: vice president for customer fulfillment, Asia. Her job: oversee the web of Asia-based textile mills, button factories, sewing centers, and other contractors that make Levi's products. Morgan moved to Singapore last October and now spends half her time on the road, traveling to Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, and other Asian outposts. She visits San Francisco about once a month.

All of which makes her life hectic -- little of which seems to matter. "I love it," she says. "Throwing out ideas and watching people turn them into reality is very seductive. I thrive on it."

Morgan has a quiet style, although Kasten says "it's velvet around a hammer." She does relish her ability to have an impact. "For years I was frustrated," she says. "I wanted to change things but no one listened. Now people are listening. My marching orders are simple: help transform the company."

Making change in a place with as much diversity as Asia -- geography, culture, language -- has been tougher than Morgan imagined. "Almost everyone freaked out at first," she says. "They weren't prepared for what was coming. They wanted to know, `Will I have a job?' Then they resisted: `There's no way this can work. It's too complicated.' But once we showed them how the changes we were asking them to make related to other changes in the company, they got it."

Morgan began staffing the Customer Fulfillment operation soon after she arrived in Singapore. She hired a few deputies, a controller, and a 4-person HR staff to support the 350 people in her unit. Next she hired 20 direct reports, 1 to 5 for each of the 8 countries in her region. These new hires, most with the title "source relations manager," are key players: they work with targeted suppliers to improve their costs, quality, and on-time performance.

What lessons has Morgan learned about making change? She cites three:

Context is king: "People can learn to deal with ambiguity; they may even learn to prefer it. But they need a clear picture of the end goals. You've got to be able to explain the past -- how and why we got here -- in order for people to understand the future."

Check in early and often: "Implementing change is a dynamic process. You always have to worry about how far and fast people can move. It's intuitive -- how are people feeling? You have to listen carefully."

Be a catalyst, not a controller: "Let the people who are going to do the work fill in the blanks between the `big concepts' and what's happening on the ground. As soon as you can, turn over the next phase of change to the people who have to make it. That's how you generate commitment."

Would she do it again? "In a second," she replies. "I've got the bug bad. I hope we won't have to go through something this radical again. But who knows? If we need to do it all over, sure, sign me up."

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