The School for Change Agents

If you’re under pressure, and you have a target, you get it done — and fast.


Lesson 1: Swamp as School

In the middle of the Florida Everglades a group of pale-skinned, white-collar high achievers from a German technology company is floating along in canoes through the sawgrass and sun. The group leader announces that this is where they will make camp: afloat, in the middle of the swamp.


“We didn’t expect that,” says Roland Polte of Siemens Nixdorf (SNI). “We were in the canoes, mangroves all around, just sitting there saying, ‘Shit.’ We had to build a platform where we could eat and sleep and not get wet. But that was one of the big lessons — if you’re under pressure, and you have a target, you get it done — and fast.”

Lesson 2: School as Swamp

Switch to a conference center on the outskirts of Boston in the depth of New England winter. The high achievers from SNI are being tutored in the art of change. “Tutored” may be too gentle a word. The two dozen young businesspeople are being led, blitzkrieg-style, through the latest American management concepts, from finance techniques to marketing strategies, from team-building methods to technology applications. It’s a two-year MBA compressed into four weeks of twelve-hour days, with a couple hundred pages of reading required for each day’s classes — all in English.

Each year for the last three years, SNI has selected a class of “change agents,” lifted them from their normal duties, and put them through a year-long program. The goal: to teach them advanced business concepts, to expose them to U.S. business practices, to show them how to look at their jobs as continuous opportunities for innovation, and to return them to the midlevels of SNI as forces for constructive skepticism, entrepreneurship, and leadership.

The program was designed and run by Mark Maletz, a U.S.-based consultant and a long-time architect of change efforts who is working with SNI’s CEO Gerhard Schulmeyer. His SNI school for change agents is a series of interlocking elements spread across two continents:

  • Before being accepted into the program, change agents must propose a change project from their part of the company that is strategically significant to SNI’s future.
  • Change agents must engage a senior management sponsor and get a commitment from that sponsor not only to pay the costs of participation in the project (including the change agent’s salary and six weeks of travel in the United States), but also to absorb the costs of the change effort.
  • The senior SNI executive must commit to making that change project one of his or her top three priorities during the year.
  • To support the project, Maletz and SNI have engaged McKinsey & Co.’s change center, working with it to develop classes and engage instructors for nearly five weeks of intensive, MBA-style seminars. McKinsey also provides coaches, offering experienced outsiders to whom the change agents can turn for advice.

One of Maletz’s favorite training exercises teaches the change agents how to read a cultural situation: During their time in Silicon Valley, the change agents go out in small groups to a half dozen small bars, each of which has a distinct personality. “They go out drinking anyway,” says Maletz. “So we send them to a bar where people go to be seen, a bar where people do deals, a techie hangout, a drop-out hangout. It’s a way of giving them a new lens on the culture — the difference between Silicon Valley and Munich.” Between nights in the bars, Maletz brings in a social anthropologist to help the change agents understand what they’re seeing and to look at the bars with fresh eyes the second night.

One group got in a bit of trouble at a bar in the hills of the Bay Area. A change agent found a beer bottle cap sitting on the edge of a pool table. Being a good German, he swept the bottle cap into the garbage — sending a retired IBMer into a tantrum over the loss of his “lucky bottle cap.” The Germans, puzzled, scoured the garbage but couldn’t come up with it.

The next day, when the anthropologist explained the significance of the good luck token, the Germans determined to redeem themselves. They returned to the bar the second night with a peace offering: a six-pack of the brand the bottle cap had come from.

About the author

Charles Fishman, an award-winning Fast Company contributor, is the author of One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew Us to the Moon. His exclusive 50-part series, 50 Days to the Moon, will appear here between June 1 and July 20.