We Have Met the Enemy...

Sometimes, to get your point across, you need to play the role of devil's advocate. The creator of the Society for Leadership of Change did more than that; he created an entire professional association of devil's advocates.

Randy Kesterson, founder of the Society for Leadership of Change (SLC), has dedicated his career to helping business leaders learn how to manage change more effectively. While serving as VP and COO of Curtiss-Wright Controls Inc., Kesterson helped turn the company around from an initial loss to leading its industry in profitability in 2003. Now the 500-member SLC, Kesterson's most recent project, which launched in August, serves as an open forum for discussion among leaders heading similar efforts, as well as the exchange of leadership development resources.

While the SLC's work is interesting and promising, even more interesting is that of the SLC's nemesis: the Society for the Status Quo (SSQ). Trumpeting slogans like "No change is good change," and "Why change? We've always done it this way," the SSQ directly challenges and counters the SLC -- and the value of its work. The SSQ's literature lauds the value of tools like "Four Sigma," which could lead to 20,000 lost articles of mail every hour and 5,000 incorrect surgical operations each week. The SSQ singles out the SLC by name and even links generously to the SLC's Web site.

Are the people behind the SSQ's "plenty good" approach to quality serious? Do other leaders really disagree with Kesterson's work that strongly? No. The SSQ's Web site was designed and written by Kesterson and his brother to create hype for the SLC -- and to look at the lighter side of change and quality improvement. Fast Company checked in with Kesterson to learn more about why creating your own competition is a smart marketing move.

Fast Company: Why is there a need for an organization like the Society for Leadership of Change?

Randy Kesterson: When I was inside the corporate world, I saw that many of the business leaders who reported to me needed to lead change within their organizations, whether it would be increase sales, improve customer service, or reduce cost, but they didn't really know how to go about it. What I saw lacking within that corporate environment, and also in the outside world, was an organization exclusively focused on the leadership of change. There are countless for-profit consulting firms and training organizations, many of which seem to emphasize one tool or one philosophy. There was a need for an organization, an open forum for the sharing of the best tools, practices, and philosophies for leading change.

FC: How do members interact and collaborate?

Kesterson: They can access forums where they can interact with change leaders from around the world. They have access to a quarterly newsletter and an online career center with jobs related to change management. It's a very inexpensive way to stay up to date on the latest techniques, whether in healthcare, banking, manufacture, or any other sector.

FC: Why did you create the Society for the Status Quo?

Kesterson: You are constantly looking for benchmarks. You want to compare yourself to your competitor. You want to compare yourself to the best in the industry. But after looking at literally thousands of professional membership organizations, I did not find one that was really a true competitor to the SLC. So I created one. The intent was to create two camps. One camp, the SSQ, really takes an absurd position and is against all change in any form. Hopefully, they will cause people to flock to the SLC, the alternative.

FC: You often use humor to relay your messages. Why is something like the SSQ an effective marketing tool?

Kesterson: If you use a purely serious message or approach, people tend to not pay that much attention. But if they hear something that's a little bit humorous or something that's unexpected, they begin to pay attention where they might not otherwise.

FC: What's the response been like?

Kesterson: When the SSQ was initially launched, the response was really gratifying. Nine out of 10 people thought it was a great idea, very creative. Only one out of 10 believed that it detracted from the seriousness of the SLC. I needed to explain that we were serious about the SLC's mission and they shouldn't allow this humorous aspect to detract from it. But 90% of the people think it's a good way to point out the antithesis to leading change. Almost everyone is opposed to change in some area. Most people can relate to the SSQ, and I think it helps them understand why others might be resistant to change in the area they're proposing.

FC: Besides maintaining the Web site, what does the SSQ actually do?

Kesterson: Well, the SSQ is incorporated and my brother, Kris, is the president of the organization. We plan to sell items bearing the SSQ logo and some marketing phrases in support of the SSQ. That'll probably happen in the fourth quarter of this year.

FC: Do you think distributing such gear might detract from the serious message of the SLC?

Kesterson: The plan is to keep them at arms length. Items bearing the SSQ logo won't mention the SLC. The only way people will be able to connect the two organizations is by visiting the SSQ Web site, where they'll see discussion about the SLC as the enemy organization. Hopefully they'll visit the SLC Web site. It's just another way to draw attention to the SLC.

FC: I spoke to Professor Richard D'Aveni from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, and he said that ridiculing the opposition is not always the right thing to do. Sometimes it rules out discussion. Is the status quo ever OK?

Kesterson: Oh, absolutely. The status quo in many cases is perfectly OK. I advocate against change for the sake of change. To change something for aesthetic purposes or because you're bored with the current solution is not right. The SLC is about advocating change to improve business performance. The SSQ ridicules the SLC and pokes fun at what the SLC is all about. Conversely, the SLC does not ridicule the SSQ. The intent is to remain above the fray and not ridicule the status quo because in some cases the SSQ position may be correct.

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