Corporate Diary: Be the change catalyst

“Don’t be a product of your environment, make your environment a product of you”. I heard this quote first in the movie ‘The Departed’. At the beginning of my career, I believed this was not achievable for junior employees. However, I soon discovered that I was wrong and was able to improve my environment within a couple of years. Many people complain about cultural issues in their team or department, but they never provide feedback to their seniors. This could be due to a culture where critical feedback to seniors is not appreciated. Sometimes, the issues are minor and could be resolved easily if the team were empowered and encouraged. As you move up the corporate ladder, your sphere of influence increases, but you can still bring about positive changes in your team early on by working with your team leader or manager. Although some feedback may not be implemented, many can bring about positive changes, some of which can spread like wildfire.

Fresh graduates and mid-level managers often ask me how I rose quickly up the corporate ladder and what they can do to succeed. While luck does play a role, there are many competencies that you can develop that are lacking in others. I had some of these competencies before starting my job, but I learned many others the hard way. I started the “Corporate Diary” series to share anecdotes that may benefit others.

Sara Blakely’s famous quote, “Embrace what you don’t know, especially in the beginning, because what you don’t know can become your greatest asset. It ensures that you will absolutely be doing things differently from everybody else,” emphasizes the importance of keeping an open mind and being willing to learn. When employees, both junior and senior, join a new company or project, they often assume that the existing team/setup is functioning well and try to fit in. While there may be nothing wrong with learning and fitting in, it is essential to keep an open mind for potential improvements. Additionally, lack of contextual knowledge can rid you of biases that the existing team may have and help generate unique ideas. This goes back to the Imposter Syndrome, which I discussed in another article. You can read more about it here:

When I say “culture,” I’m not talking about amenities like Ping Pong tables, free meals, or massage chairs. Culture refers to the behaviors, systems, and practices that are in place within an organization. These can vary across departments and teams, depending on the leadership and change catalysts present. Let me give you an example of a recent change I had to push for. Another department had hired a “User Experience” expert for a big program, but after six months, the expert’s work had dwindled, and he was considering leaving the department or even the organization. I had a need for someone with those skills and opened a role. The expert approached me, but our organization didn’t support sharing of experts or cross-domain collaboration. The discussion of funding began once sharing was brought up. Eventually, I worked with my peer Director to make this into a formal process for anyone interested in such an arrangement. This helped break down silos across departments, and the interactions that resulted led to more standardization and normalization across the organization. As Barack Obama said, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

I have always been an advocate for meritocracy and striving for excellence within the team. This principle extends to the hiring process as well. From my experience, I have observed that the hiring process varies greatly across organizations. A few years ago, I had to urgently hire for a transformation program. Despite multiple rounds of interviews with expert team members, we were still finding that some of the new hires were not the experts we were looking for. I realized we needed to make a change.

During our recruitment meeting, a new hire from a previous organization suggested introducing coding assignments and live coding rounds to the hiring process. This change significantly improved the quality of hires and quickly became the norm for the entire organization. Now, it has become a common practice in the industry. While this example pertains to computer programmers, we also designed different rounds for other roles that demonstrated real-life problem-solving skills. It is worth noting that this suggestion came from someone who had less than 5 years of experience in the organization, yet they were able to be a change catalyst and influence the organization’s culture.

Henry Ford once said, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” It is crucial to embrace change and new ideas to drive progress and growth within an organization.

In some cases, observing the negative consequences of a decision can teach you what not to do within an organization. Although providing feedback in such situations is important, it may not always result in implementation. One example that comes to mind is with technology transformation programs, which are common in the industry as software systems have their own life cycles. When a product is fully built out and in BAU mode, the team is usually reduced, and those who stay gain contextual knowledge and develop relationships with other stakeholders. However, when a company plans to build a new software to replace this old one, they usually build a brand-new team. This approach often results in two major problems:

  1. existing team members don’t cooperate on knowledge sharing, and
  2. the new team underestimates the importance of domain knowledge, workflows, nuances, and relationships to the success of the transformation.

The result is longer time and budget requirements and attrition in the existing team.

When leading a transformation program in my next organization, I made a simple change. I assured the existing team that their jobs were not at risk but that they needed to upskill themselves. I gave them the opportunity to do so by rotating or swapping two members every few sprints. This change had its own issues, but it helped alleviate the two major problems mentioned earlier. At the end of the day, change is iterative, and there is always room for improvement.

In conclusion, change catalysts can be invaluable assets for companies looking to navigate the complex and rapidly evolving business landscape. Their ability to identify areas for improvement, find solutions, and inspire others to embrace change can help organizations stay ahead of the curve and achieve success in the long term. As leaders, it’s important to recognize the value of change catalysts and create a culture that supports their efforts. After all, as the saying goes, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” So, if you want your company to succeed, embrace change and more importantly, encourage and empower your change catalysts to make a difference.

Credit & Copyright of comic – Dilbert