...the CEO used to say, "If I'm not hearing from business leaders every week who want you fired because you are in their face, you're not doing your job."

Winter 1998

Bob Knowling's Change Manual

Bob Knowling has instigated change in corporate policy and structure at Ameritech and U S West and has been described as "a man who's learned to align all the elements of his character so that, no matter what the setting, he leads change."

Excerpts from an Interview by Noel Tichy

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 six 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 six brothers and sisters followed him into the ranks of professional employment. That's when I knew he was for real.

He joined U S 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.

. . . 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. That sounded like a lot of 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 changed 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 saw the job as an opportunity to fix a big operating system and change a culture of entitlement. 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 over- spending 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. . . . Instead you do several very-high-impact things in the first 30 days that are immediately distinguished 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.

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 . . . 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 on the line."

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.

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 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.

Let's assume that I'm not the head of a department-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 always tell people.

The first is that we all have some realm of authority that defines the sandbox in which you can play as an agent of change . . . 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. Be bold and take a few risks. Most of the time, if it nets out to the results 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 . . . As a change agent, you have to pick which battle you really mean to fight, and never sacrifice the war over one little skirmish.

Fourth, I believe that any change agent must have a model of change. That's what working in Ameritech gave me; it's what the Ameritech Institute was all about.

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 . . . 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.

A more difficult political problem is being seduced by the organizational opportunity to play it safe. A change agent who's looking over he hedge at the next opportunity isn't going to succeed. I don't believe change agents can stay safe . . . . 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.

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, 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.

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