The first time I really paid attention to Bob Knowling, he was working late into the night, using all of his persuasive powers to overthrow the work I was doing to help transform Ameritech, the telecommunications giant based in Chicago. Twelve hours later, he was standing in front of the whole executive group saying that he'd been wrong.
That's when I knew he was courageous.
Over the next six months, he played a consistently constructive role in the Ameritech transformation effort — until he was assigned to set up and run the Ameritech Institute. And he resisted that. After a few months on the job, he built the internal change team that reported to the CEO and blossomed as a remarkable change agent.
That's when I knew he was gifted.
Over the next 18 months I saw him engage 30,000 Ameritech employees in community service, shift millions of dollars of Ameritech Foundation money into high-leverage community activities, practice his change skills in revitalizing the Chicago YMCA, and bring his passion to Detroit's Focus: HOPE, the country's largest inner-city manufacturing training center.
That's when I knew he was committed.
I saw him in South Africa, six weeks before Nelson Mandela's election, addressing an audience of blacks and whites — some of whom had never attended a formal talk given by a black man — describing the fundamental tenets of change.
That's when I knew he was farsighted.
I heard him describe his upbringing to MBA students at the University of Michigan — how he was the middle child of a family of 13; how none of the first 6 made it past ninth grade; how he was the first in his family to make it through college — and how every one of his last 6 brothers and sisters followed him into the ranks of professional employment.
That's when I knew he was for real.
He joined US West in February, 1996 as vice president, network operations. His new job is to lead more than 20,000 employees in a large-scale change effort to improve service to U S West's more than 25 million customers. Bob Knowling is a change agent's change agent, a man who's learned to align all the elements of his character so that, no matter what the setting, he leads change.
When did you finally see yourself as a full-fledged change agent?
My Road to Damascus experience was the day I woke up and realized that I had freedom: instead of worrying about my job, I only worried about never compromising my change agenda. That realization unleashes the real power of the change agent.
This goes back to 1994, when Ameritech Corp. decided to create a pool of fully dedicated internal change agents. I was selected to lead the Ameritech Institute and I was not a happy camper. I'm an operating guy. I wanted to go to the front lines. Intellectually I understood the importance of the job. But man, my heart was in the field.
In the new organization we were creating, nobody had a job. We created the institute first. Then the leadership team, with our help, picked the presidents of the units, and then the officers of those units. It was a reemployment process. I've been an athlete all my life. My new assignment as a change agent was like the owner of the Bulls telling Michael Jordan to pick the team and design the plays, and then saying, By the way, you don't get to play.
Meanwhile at the institute I was trying to invent a model that nobody in the world of phone companies is familiar with. We benchmarked GE's Crotonville center, we looked at other best practice-change models. But it was difficult because we didn't know what we didn't know. What did it mean to be an internal consultant to the business heads? None of us could understand the authority that we'd have to drive change in the organization. We were going to put system changes in place to deal with the hearts and minds of people, while also working on real strategic issues? Yes, that sounded fun.
But it wasn't happening. We weren't being bold. We were still operating like bureaucrats. It was as if we'd been neutered. We had all of this room to play in, we had all this air cover from the chairman, but the only bold initiatives were coming from external consultants and they were getting frustrated with our change team.
Finally, one of the consultants asked me, "What are you afraid of?" I'll never forget that conversation. I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "You have great instincts, but when the chairman does something dumb, you look the other way. When a business unit leader has an operating style that is totally different from the change model, you won't call him on the carpet. Do you want a job so bad that you're willing to accept what you know is wrong?"
Man, that was heavy to wear. He finally said, "You're not free." It took some time for all that to soak in. Then I decided, "What's the worst thing that could happen to me? I could lose my job. But if I lose my job because I've developed into a world-class change agent, there ought to be about a dozen companies out there ready to pick me up."
I realized that I couldn't live in fear. Whether or not I change the company, I knew I would change myself. I'd have new skills and capabilities. I'd be a very valuable commodity.
How did that realization change the way you did your job?
What you don't know while you're having that Road-to-Damascus experience is that once you've put your toe in the water, it's not so cold. Then the confidence factor kicks in.
Once I got my freedom, I got bolder. As I got bolder, the more invaluable I became to the chairman and to the company's leaders. In fact, the CEO used to say, "If I'm not hearing from business leaders every week who want you fired because you're in their face, moving them to new levels of leadership, you're not doing your job." It became the new norm in the organization.
That experience happened at Ameritech. What brought you from Ameritech to U S West?
I started here 10 months ago on the heels of a very difficult reengineering process. When I walked in the door, the company was experiencing service performance problems in the marketplace. Many of our customers had to wait over 24 hours for us to repair their service. New service orders and activation took us an unacceptably long time to deliver.
I saw the job as an opportunity to fix a big operating system and change a culture of entitlement. Like a lot of companies that have been subject to government regulation, we didn't understand the competitive marketplace. It's not just this company. The banking, trucking, airline industries — all the industries that have been deregulated — have had to go through a major change process.
But it's even more intense in this company. We're positioned at the threshold of the future in every one of our product lines and services. So the question is, How do you take stodgy, old, bureaucratic, entitled companies and make them competitive enterprises?
Making that change is a challenge that even successful companies face as they age and grow. How do you get started?
For me, it begins with changing a culture of entitlement into a culture of accountability. My first week on the job it was immediately apparent that nobody had been accountable for the reengineering effort. Beyond that, no one had been accountable for meeting customer expectations or for adhering to a cost structure. It was acceptable to miss budgets. Service was in the tank, we were overspending our budgets by more than $100 million — yet people weren't losing their jobs and they still got all or some of their bonuses.
That's very much like Ameritech had been. When people failed, we moved them to human resources or sent them to international. When I got to U S West, I felt like I was walking into the same bad movie.
To get started, I used the change model I'd learned at Ameritech. First, you never announce that you're launching a change agenda. The reason is simple: change agendas have been done to death in these companies. Everybody's completely turned off to change agendas — they dismiss them immediately as the "program of the month." In my first two days I found out all of the "programs of the month" that they'd had in the last four years. If you come in and announce, "Here's the next change program," you're dead. You've just painted a target on your chest. There's a target there anyway; this just makes it bigger. So you absolutely don't announce a change initiative.
Instead you do several very-high-impact things in the first 30 days that are immediately distinguishable and immediately shake up the organization. From my perspective, U S West was standing on a burning platform. Unfortunately, a lot of people didn't see it that way. So I had a 30-day agenda to create a buzz in the organization, to demonstrate that something's very different.
What kinds of things did you use to create that buzz?
For example, service was in the tank. So my second day on the job I initiated a scheduled phone call involving my department heads to review service performance in all 14 states. I scheduled that call for 6 AM It was a literal wake-up call for the organization. It told my department heads, You're going to serve the customer between 8 AM and 5 PM, so the call happens at 6 AM A few days into the job I changed it, because they couldn't have the data at 6 AM So I moved it to noon and took away their lunch hour.
The norm is to bring people into a meeting, talk about things, but nothing ever happens. We're not going to do that. Something has to be different. Having to get your butt up at 6 AM to understand where your business is, that's a watershed event for an organization that's asleep.
A lot of change programs involve changing people. Did you shake up your team?
That was the next high-impact event: to make some personnel decisions within 30 days. Most lethargic organizations study things and study things and study things. It's the proverbial aim, aim, aim, aim. And never pull the trigger.
But it's not that hard to form an assessment of people within 30 days. In fact, I could tell within two weeks who the players were simply by immersing myself in the organization. I very quickly announced to my boss that I would not be attending very many meetings and I did not want to be part of conference calls. I told him, I'm putting on my combat fatigues and going to the line.
I had a constant dialog with each of my direct reports, and I touched base every day on the service call. Of course, from the service call there were follow-up coaching opportunities. Because the folks who get it, get it quick. For those who don't, you have to say, "On the service call, you didn't know your numbers, you had no idea where your organization stood, you're in the process today of disappointing 52% of your customers, and you have no contingency plan. Let's talk about how you run your business."
That's how I immersed myself in the organization: I touched people. And I immediately got a good sense of each person's work ethic. I could see who was strong in terms of leadership and direction. I could see if anybody had a plan. Unfortunately, few had a plan or an operating model. That's why the results were where they were.
After you'd made your assessment, what did you do?
Within 30 days, I made one varsity cut. After I fired him, I immediately met with his direct reports. You have to deal with the survivors when someone leaves. What I didn't do is to try to convince them that the firing was just. I didn't even deal with the firing. That's the open wound, so why go dig in it?
Instead, I wanted them to understand their emotions, and to get them focused on my expectations for the management team. At the end I wanted them to understand the accountability model: if we have shared expectations, then I'm not going to stand over them making sure they perform every day. My job is to make sure that they're enabled. If there's a capability problem, I'm going to work with them on their skills. If there's a problem of barriers or inadequate resources, I'm the resource granter. My job is to be the cheerleader, the developer, the coach.
Now you've got their attention. But you're dealing with an organization of 20,000 people. How did you roll out the program?
As part of my 60-day program, I decided to delayer the organization. Phone companies historically have lots of layers: you go through six levels before you get to a corporate officer. I figured we needed to have three layers of management between the technician who meets the customer and me.
Delayering was traumatic for us. When you start to delayer, you're immediately fighting an HR system that says, "You can't do that." Then you get the other departments looking over the fence, saying, "Can you believe what this idiot's doing?" All that noise makes the next department wonder, "If he's doing it there, are we next?"
The delayering was also a watershed because when you've finished, when the music stops, there are not enough chairs for everyone who's there. That's good. If you leave it to the old system, they'll take away a layer, but there will still be the same number of seats as when they started.
After the delayering, I needed to launch an organized change process. Again, I didn't announce anything. But I decided to do something called "Focus Customer." The name was critical, because it told the organization that the first thing we needed to fix was our customer performance. We'd worry about the cost structure second.
I brought the top 106 people in my organization together for three or four days to talk about our biggest business issues. No theory, no academic stuff. We didn't deal with fictitious models or case studies; we dealt with real work that they face every day. Where are our three biggest problems? They then had eight to ten weeks after the meeting to take on a significant change process, lead it, engage their people, and produce results — just like we'd practiced. I've got to tell you, it scared the bejeezus out of some of my people.
Do you consider fear a positive or negative force for change?
I don't think it's positive or negative. Fear is part of change. Once people have figured out that something very different is happening, fear permeates the organization. You can cut it with a knife. I've come to the conclusion that you cannot un-fear an organization. But I do address it. You have to tell people that if they allow fear to paralyze them, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy: it will be their undoing because they're immobilized; they can't make decisions.
I also tell them that accountability is the best remedy for fear. If you focus on serving the customer, if you ensure that you are improving customer service, if you get after controlling costs, then you don't have anything to worry about. If you're accountable, you don't have anything to fear.
From your experience, which is more important to change first: attitudes or behaviors?
I've found that you have to be focused on results and deliverables, not attitude, expectations, or emotions. When you've got a burning platform like I've got, I don't care whether people believe it or not. Give me the results! The numbers have got to improve. Of course, there are some people who already have the right attitude; they've been waiting for this opportunity. In fact, most people said, "It's about time. Put me in, coach! Where do I sign up?"
When you come into a system that's having problems and you introduce bold initiatives, you face the challenge that there is no belief system. People don't know what they can believe in. So you have to demonstrate that everything you've said actually can happen. That is a huge challenge. Part of that 60-day agenda has to be significant movement in at least some of the areas you have to fix.
Now I got lucky because we saw tremendous improvement in the first 60 days. As a result, this organization has done some things that are being talked about in the analyst community and among the leaders of this business. They can't believe the changes. That kind of early success creates its own belief system; more people sign up, and the momentum takes off.
Let's assume that I'm not the head of a department or a division — but I still want to create change in my company. What can I do to be a change agent?
I get asked that all the time. There are eight things I tell people. The first is we all have some realm of authority that defines the sandbox in which you can play as an agent of change. A lot of people don't understand that. They think that if they're a change agent, the first thing they've got to do is work on the human resource system to give them a pay-for-performance model. They spend their time thinking, "I've got to get the HR people to cooperate." That's wrong. The place to start is with the things in your organization you already control. There's a tremendous amount you can change.
But they need to understand and accept that limitation: you're not going to revamp the reward and compensation structure, so don't make it an issue. Look within your world and find the boundaries. Then within those boundaries, go for it.
The second thing is that aspiring change agents want permission for their change agenda. I've always felt that asking for permission is asking to be told no. Don't ask permission. You know where the boundaries are. Be bold and take a few risks. Most of the time, if it nets out to the result that you wanted, you're going to be a hero not a goat.
The third thing to remember is that the system is stacked against you. Never underestimate that. Pick your battles. As a change agent, you have to pick which battle you really mean to fight, and never sacrifice the war over one little skirmish. You have to learn to think of leading change like working in an emergency room. If you go to an emergency room, the triage nurse decides who lives and who dies. The kid with a broken finger can wait for five hours while the medical team deals with a life-or-death case that's on the operating table. I faced this at Ameritech. There were 60,000 people, all potential patients. The change agent has limited resources. So you keep coming back to the question, What are the priorities? Some people are going to have to sit in the waiting room.
Fourth, I believe that any change agent has got to have a model of change. That's what working in Ameritech gave me; it's what the Ameritech Institute was all about. Even people who barely understand the change process, who have no idea about a change model, can have a foundation if they stop and ask themselves: What's my point of view?
Fifth, every change agent has to deal with the political issues of change. That means they have to understand that being an effective change agent is not about being a kamikaze pilot. The few kamikaze pilots I've met since I started learning about change are genuinely stupid, bent on self-destruction. I learned a long time ago that a change agent has got to learn to stay alive. A dead change agent doesn't do anybody any good.
What's a more common political problem, and ultimately more difficult, is the issue of being seduced by the organizational opportunity and staying safe. A change agent who's looking over the hedge at the next opportunity isn't going to succeed. I don't believe change agents can stay safe. They've got to answer the question, How am I going to deal with this thing called a career and this political system?
What I now know is, if you do this thing right, if you've got a point of view, if you are bold and free, you've become one of the most valuable people in the organization. People with those qualities can work anywhere. In a technical company like this one, give me a choice between somebody who understands bits and bytes or a change agent, and I'll take the change agent.
Sixth, you have to understand what the job of a change agent is. It's about talking about the issues that we don't want to talk about, the ones that drive the business. It's about moving people out of their comfort zones. It's also about focusing on financial performance and creating shareholder value. This is not just about the "soft stuff." Change agents who don't really understand the financial issues of the company aren't worth much.
Seventh, if you want to self-destruct as a change agent, practice the notion of, "Don't do as I do, do as I say." A change agent has got to walk the talk. After all, if you're doing this work the right way, you're completely exposed. And the moment you compromise your integrity, you're rendered ineffective. That's Change Agent 101. A change agent who doesn't walk the talk? I don't think so.
Finally, if you're going to be a change agent, I think you come to a point where you no longer think of what you do as a change program. It just becomes the way you do business. I can't imagine doing any job in any corporation where I wouldn't have a change agenda.
Noel Tichy is one of the world's leading experts on large-scale corporate change. He is a professor at The University of Michigan Business School, where he is director of the Global Leadership Program. From 1985 to 1987 he led management education at General Electric, where he was manager of the company's Leadership Development Institute, Crotonville. His many books include "Control Your Destiny or Someone Else Will: How Jack Welch is Making General Electric the World's Most Competitive Company" (Currency Doubleday, 1993), coauthored with Stratford Sherman.
A version of this article appeared in the April/May 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.