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A Modern Day Rasputin – Mary T. O’Sullivan

by Mary T. O’Sullivan, contributing writer, business leadership

Consultants are mystical people who ask the company for a number and then gives it back to them. – Unknown

It’s not uncommon for leaders to be faced with “big rocks” to solve. (Forbes, “What Are Your Big Rocks?” January 21, 2020) They are complex issues, and with full plates, leaders turn to other experts for support and guidance. As one wise leader put it to me “Mary, none of us know what we are doing, we’re all guessing.” When faced with an intransient culture, resistant to change, leaders hire consultants to assist in their efforts and decision-making process, and to overcome their “big rocks”.

Jack Welch famously leveraged the expertise of Noel Tichy, a well know organizational leadership expert, to introduce the concept of the “Learning Culture” to GE, and in the mid 1980s ran GE’s Leadership Center at Crotonville, N.Y. (The Growth Institute, 2020). In similar fashion, the W.L. Gore Company, makers of Gore-Tex fabrics, hired Michael Pacanowsky, another well-known authority on the issues of organizational change, to help guide the company and its leaders for 29 years to instill the “lattice” structure throughout the company.  (Commentary on Organizations, “The Gore Culture as a Competitive Advantage”, December 11, 2016)

My experience is very different from that of GE or W.L. Gore. After over 30 years in the industry and many experiences with a variety of consultants, it’s hard for me not to start a discussion on the topic without a few consultant jokes. 

A consultant is …

  • Someone who takes the watch off your wrist and tells you the time.
  • A man who knows 99 ways to make love but doesn’t know any women.
  • Someone who is called in at the last moment and paid enormous amounts of money to assign the blame.

One consultant specifically stands out in all my years’ experience, Ken Markell. Ken was hired to bring “change” to the culture at a large Fortune 500 firm over a period of 10 years. Ken’s key strength was his ability to influence the right people at the right level, especially the company president. He had a number of intriguing ideas, mostly centered around turning around the prevailing “entitlement” culture and transforming it into an “ownership” culture, a long-term goal of the company president. It turned out to be a lucrative four- or five-year assignment, since “entitlement” was deeply entrenched into the corporate DNA and undoing it would take a Herculean act. Now, Ken didn’t have the strength of Hercules, but he did have impressive staying power.

It appeared that Ken, this new consultant, was hired to be a “disturbance handler,” a job description I discovered in the Harvard Business Review, (The Manager’s Job: Folklore and Fact, March–April 1990). According to HBR, …the disturbance handler role depicts the manager involuntarily responding to pressures. Here change is beyond the manager’s control. The pressures of a situation are too severe to be ignored—a strike looms, a major customer has gone bankrupt, or a supplier reneges on a contract—so the manager must act.”

When I read what HBR described as a disturbance handler, I immediately thought of the role Ken had played. Although Ken was not responding involuntarily, it was apparent the company president did not want the job of single handedly dealing with a very entrenched culture. So, the chore of engaging the transformation from “entitlement” to “ownership” fell to Ken.

Ken earned a high salary, but many employees felt he did not provide the services for which he was hired. Instead, they felt he led the company president, Tom Jones, down a rather circuitous path without addressing the “functional and structural changes” needed.

In fact, Ken’s nickname among employees was “Rasputin” for the undue influence he appeared to have over Tom.

One change Ken instituted was a personality analysis assessment that all employees were required to take. The results were to be displayed on employee badge cards and on 5”X7” plastic stands in work areas. The assessment wasn’t unique to Ken or the company and was in the same category as many other well-known personality assessments. This one measured people’s personality by applying the interpretive results of a multiple-choice test everyone was required to take. The results were like an ink blot test, as various shapes determined a strength in the form of colors indicating where someone’s personality was strongest in a number of situations.

As you can imagine, people were not happy about walking around with badges that showed personal information about their personalities on public display. Many people considered the information gathered in the assessment to be private information.

In addition, Ken and Tom selected certain employees to undergo “change management” training. These people were called “White Knights.” Ken and Tom recognized that fundamental changes in how the company did business were needed to deal with new challenges. They came to the conclusion that in order for the company to be successful, their internal and external processes, structures and management style needed to transform in accordance with the changing business environment.

This change would involve successfully shifting from a sole source environment where the company automatically acquired new and follow-on business without competition, to a competitive environment, where numerous bidders entered the fray. It could also mean changing from a major subcontractor role to a major prime contractor, directing subcontractors.  

Company surveys showed that the biggest obstacle to making change happen was the middle management layer. These people had been in their jobs for years and found ways to circumvent anything new because to them, it didn’t make sense and it was too much trouble. After all, they’d been successful doing what they’d been doing the same way for over 20 years.

Ken and Tom felt that by selecting people from the layer under middle management, they could bring needed cultural revolution to the company. Since the company was known for its “entitlement culture” they did not anticipate the ensuing challenges. They didn’t succeed at by-passing middle management because the people who chose the “White Knights” were the middle managers themselves, the ones who were mired in the old way of conducting business. Additionally, something went terribly wrong with the selection process, for the “White Knights” became known more for their arrogance and superior attitude, and less for making viable change, much to the chagrin of other employees.

Ironically, becoming a “White Knight” seemed to be the path to promotions and better jobs, because at the time, just about every “White Knight” appeared to be promoted ahead of other employees, regardless of competency. Consequently, the only change that seemed to take place, according to employees, was to produce yet another crop of supercilious, insufferable coworkers.

Truthfully, some of the exercises the “White Knights” were told to do made no sense. At one meeting I attended, the entire group of 80 people arrived only to find the conference room doors locked, instead of propped open as expected. These doors had always been open well before the meeting started, so to find these doors closed and locked was disconcerting to say the least.  To add to the confusion, our usual spot for coffee and water was deserted. No food or drink in sight, again, very much out of the ordinary. We all knew there were strict rules about being late, but it was only 7:00AM, and most of us had not had our coffee or anything to eat. The dining center was an entire building away, and people began to panic. We all knew that being late was not an option, but we all wanted our coffee! Everyone in the group was overcome with confusion and worry, and I figured this was yet just another silly game the management team and Ken were playing on us.

Since I knew Tom had installed small convenience spots in most of the buildings, although I didn’t know if they had coffee, I was determined to find out. I was not going to scramble to that dining center and come back racing through buildings, and I needed my caffeine! The little shop indeed had coffee, and I was the first one in. Only a few of the 80 people even acknowledged that I had made this detour, and those few and I got our coffee and were back at the meeting room in plenty of time. Later, we heard that the catering service had forgotten the morning coffee service delivery, but that was not credible. No one in the entire company would forget when a meeting with Ken and Tom was scheduled, regardless of time of day.

As it turned out, this exercise was designed to make us “think out of the box,” but it caused so much consternation, most of us were disgusted rather than inspired. If this was “change management,” we were not buying it. We were disgruntled and angry. The coffee service finally showed up at 10:00AM, but since most people were so stressed for lack of food and drink, its presence was anti-climactic.

In this sense, the shock value of the locked doors and the lack of coffee service didn’t really teach us anything about change management. We were so stunned by the incident, the only feeling most of us had was resentment. It didn’t matter whose idea it was, Ken’s or Tom’s, it only mattered that we felt played with and blindsided.

Another incident apparently designed to imbue change management in people was what looked like “Truth or Consequences”. In a misguided effort to improve communication, Tom and Ken told their life histories, and then each “White Knight” was expected to do the same. It seemed that the “White Knights” just didn’t understand the art of tact and diplomacy. We heard stories of divorce, abandonment, and hardship. Great personal sagas for sure but how these stories impacted the company’s ability to change its culture was lost on me. 

Once, a Vice President arrived wearing a Hawaiian shirt, and proceeded to play an old Frank Zappa record backwards over the loudspeakers for about 15 minutes. Then he asked for volunteers to tell him what we’d heard. Nobody knew what that act was supposed to achieve.

In another incident, I witnessed the conference room doors being locked at exactly 7:30AM, once everyone had arrived for a select meeting. Of course, people arriving late would have to bang on the door in order to get in. This particular time, Tom was speaking to the group from the stage when we all heard loud banging on the conference room doors. Everyone froze in their seats. No one dared to get up and open the door. So, Tom walked off the stage, while still talking, only to open the door and castigate the late comer in front of the rest of the group.

The question here is: did the consultant, Ken, accomplish his mission of change management? Did he live up to his title of ‘disturbance handler’?

It appeared as if Ken at least went through the motions of everything that was required of him: he administered the personality test, he led the meetings of the “White Knights”, he worked with senior leadership at retreats and conferences on topics ranging from changing mindsets to proper talent placement,

One element that could not be predicted by Ken, or anyone else, was the caliber of people who were chosen to take part in this change management experiment. Ken could not foresee how the personality assessment would be used, thereby making employees feel their privacy had been invaded. Nor could he have envisioned how wrong the “White Knights” would present themselves to the rest of the company.

And how imperfect the “White Knights” turned out to be! Mistakes were made on a regular basis. A female engineer became a program manager for a huge program (multiple billions) and her job was jumped two levels, into the incentive compensation range. Her nervous personality, and lack of confidence, stood in her way of top performance, and she never really got the hang of the big job. She bounced around until she landed in a different location, moved out of engineering and into diversity. She always looked so nervous and self-conscious, other employees started to refer to her with the nickname was “Eight Cups of Coffee”.

Another woman rotated from contracts to subcontracts, also jumping two levels. She had a reputation for non-responsiveness, non-communication, and being overly sensitive. After a few months on the job, the complaints rolled in. People complained she didn’t know what she was doing. She mixed up client files, confused one program for another, and proved overall difficult to work with. Because she knew someone who protected her, she survived, but not because of her stellar performance.

After enduring a year of this “change management” training as a “White Knight,” most of those people moved on. The irony is that even though they were hand-picked for the “White Knights” they turned out not to be the best choices for the job. And, no mystery, bad decision making can be traced back to their managers, who incorrectly perceived the program as some kind of “development program.” The people chosen for the “White Knight” program were moved up the chain too fast for their level of competency. It began to be the easiest way to get promoted if you could survive the whole year of “White Knight” meetings and sometimes inscrutable projects.

Since this effort was based on shaky postulations, the “White Knights” fell out of favor quickly.

Then, there was an unexpected change of management at the top, and Tom was let go. Rumors circulated about violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FPCA), but to this day, no one knows if any of this is true. Without Tom in the picture, Ken’s tenure with the company came to a halt. The new management didn’t feel they needed to spend the millions of dollars a year Ken cost when he brought so little value to the company. His dismissal was swift.

The company reverted to its original “continuous improvement” process and its old, established employee diversity groups to initiate change. Employees tossed out the personality cards and displays, and the “White Knight” effort became part of the change management bone yard, along with other futile change management programs: “Red Tape Removers,” “Transformers,” “High Impactors,” “Gladiators,” and other “flavor of the month” efforts. 

It seemed Ken, like many others before him, led the company down a path it didn’t need to tread, and paved the way with the company’s dollars. Indeed, the consultant’s job was to serve the best needs of the client, to “undertake a special project on its behalf” as stated in the research, and in this case, the consultant failed.

It’s hard for me to believe that Ken had confidence in any of the unorthodox “change management” exercises that were part of the “White Knight” experiment. Common sense would dictate that you don’t lock people out of a room, bar entrance early in the morning without the expected coffee service, play old records backwards, and allow people to grovel in their despairing personal stories in order to engender change. Not one of these practices improved the company’s readiness for change. No company processes, procedures or policies, were ever improved or modified as a result of the “White Knight” implementation.

In fact, old line managers dug in even deeper, sticking to the letter of the law, once the “White Knights” were dispersed and Ken and Tom were gone. The fact that Ken misled or misunderstood Tom, and came back year after year, collecting his millions, makes me wonder what those two were really up to. I know that Ken worked as a consultant all over the country. How he could go along with such useless and pointless “White Knight” activities seems to border on the unethical. I often wonder, since he had a reputation to uphold, why didn’t he guide his client to a better outcome? Where was the accountability for making real change happen? What was the basis of his contract with the company?

These are some critical questions companies need to establish answers to before signing on any consultant. Consultants are responsible for the success of their clients. If clients could make the needed changes on their own, they would.

We may joke about consultants as a matter of course, but good consultants make a huge difference in how a company responds to change. Consultants used at GE under Jack Welch guided GE’s HR and Talent Selection process.

W.L. Gore Company (of Gore-Tex fame) had one consultant for 29 years to support their unorthodox “lattice” organization.

Good consultants work hard to avoid even the slightest appearance of impropriety and make sure to steer the company in the right direction.

Good consultants bring more than experience, they offer insight, integrity, and results.

Although there were many offenses committed by this consultant, truly the most damage was done to himself. By engaging in these misleading business practices, the consultant damaged his reputation, which is a consultant’s stock and trade. Without a good reputation, a consultant really has nothing at all to offer.

Consultants offering solid, evidence-based guidance truly help an organization grow and maintain its competitive posture. They support trends that make sense and are accepted universally at every level. When the consultant’s work doesn’t enhance the reputation of the person at the top, the leader’s credibility could be seriously damaged. And as historians have postulated, with the Romanoff family in 1917, once Rasputin was overthrown and assassinated, the dynasty was gone forever within a few weeks. If Ken had guided Tom better, and offered his best knowledge as a consultant, where would they both be today?

We can only take the lessons to heart. Choose your closest confidants wisely.

_____

Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas.

Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society.

Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University.

Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.

(401) 742-1965

www.encoreexecutivecoaching.com/