Change

pioneers, American history, log cabin

First log cabin, Douglas County, Nevada, from the Historic American Buildings Survey

What images come to mind when you hear the word “pioneer”?

I was recently in Gunnison, CO on a trip with my sons when we stumbled upon Gunnison Pioneer Museum. It wasn’t on our exploration agenda, but we were staying across the street and made an impromptu decision to check it out.

As I expected, there were many artifacts from the 1800s. This was not a small, one-building museum. There were original houses and cabins filled with incredible displays of period clothing, weaponry, farm implements, arrowheads and mining equipment. There were numerous railroad exhibits. We saw items like school desks with inkwells, a milk wagon, an ox cart and farm tools. These are the images the word “pioneer” conjures when I hear it.

What was most surprising to me was that even though it was billed as a pioneer museum, there were artifacts and displays up to the present time. This included the introduction of cameras and electric trains and kitchen appliances – stuff that was invented in my lifetime. I took pictures of these items to share with my brothers – things like a stereo resembling the one my parents owned and the hand held beater that was a staple in my mom’s kitchen. It was a trip down memory lane.

The big “wow” factor to me was that all these items and inventions became a part of my life. I never thought about them being a part of history. They simply assimilated and became the norm. Seeing them now in a pioneer museum made me realize that future generations will see these artifacts and, most likely, will smile and shake their heads at their antiquity thinking that what they have now, in the present, is the best it will ever be.

History is being made every day. We live it, it evolves and it never sunsets. In our personal lives, something new comes along and we rush out to buy it. In our business, an innovative concept is introduced and we want to be the first to test it. At the time, we think it might be the ultimate, but it is only a matter of time before the “new and improved” version comes along and the prior one becomes “history.” And when we have the opportunity to look back, 30, 40, 50 years or more because we happen to stumble upon a pioneer museum, we understand the impact and that we were, indeed, a part of our own history in the making.

What items from your personal history have you not thought about lately, but recognize as pioneering?

In a recent post I linked to my piece on the psychological challenges of culture change published in Dialogue Review.

One of the items left on the cutting room floor and not published with the article was an interview with an Elliott Davis Decosimo client, David White, then-President of Shealy Electrical Wholesalers. David was kind enough to respond to some questions about the challenges he experienced with Shealy’s own culture change. Since I found his responses insightful, I’m posting the interview in two parts so that others can read his experiences. Part I was posted on Monday; this is Part II.

How did you as a leader work through those challenges? What decisions did you make?

We are working through them now. Trust is built over time and through positive experiences.

As a group we defined roles, explicit responsibilities, and accompanying expectations for each position. I have communicated these throughout the organization and built an executive compensation plan to support the company objectives.

As a leader I look for opportunities for our leadership team to spend time together in teams creating strategy, developing innovative solutions to problems, and supporting customers.

Did the culture change your company experienced improve your company’s position?

It has improved our company’s position. Our challenge has always been to provide a unique, meaningful set of solutions and services to create a great customer experience. In earlier days our customers had a generalist from Shealy who tried to manage the entire customer relationship. While that generalist philosophy has its benefits it also has its risks.

The risk we tried to eliminate was of one person “owning” the customer relationship.

Today we have an account manager who acts as a quarterback and directs a team of specialists to engage with the customer at the appropriate place and time. The customer benefits by having product and application expertise more readily available. We benefit by having a deeper, broader relationship with the customer through an array of Shealy contacts which leads (we hope) to better customer retention, more share, and better margins.

If you were to do it all over again, what might you do differently?

I would try to push accountability deeper into the organization faster. As we grew I maintained too much responsibility for developing strategy, defining objectives, and managing outcomes. In order to identify and develop more leaders I needed to let them play the game and not over coach.

What one or two primary principles of managing culture change would you offer a CEO whose company is experiencing significant culture change?

Communicate frequently – be as transparent as possible with information. It’s better for people to know than to “guess” or “think” they know.

Communicate more than just the “what” or the “how” – spend time communicating the “why”. When implementing change or driving culture it’s helpful to have those affected by change (or who feel that they are having change imposed on them) to understand the “why”.

In my last post I linked to my piece on the psychological challenges of culture change published in Dialogue Review.

One of the items left on the cutting room floor and not published with the article was an interview with an Elliott Davis Decosimo client, David White, then-President of Shealy Electrical Wholesalers. David was kind enough to respond to some questions about the challenges he experienced with Shealy’s own culture change. Since I found his responses insightful, I’m posting the interview in two parts so that others can read his experiences. I’ll post Part II on Tuesday.

At the time of the interview, Shealy Electrical Wholesalers, Inc., established in 1945, was a $225 million supplier of electrical products and services to customers in the construction, industrial MRO and OEM, utility, retail national account and international contracting segments. Shealy was a closely held S-corp with 18 locations throughout the Carolinas and 340 full time employees. (Shealy is now with Border States Electric, an ESOP company in North Dakota, and Doug is Executive Vice President there.)

What strengths does your company have — what does it do well?

We have developed a culture that manages rapid changes well – we are able to identify a new opportunity (customer segment, product segment, customer, product, etc.) in the marketplace and have the ability to quickly engage, make a decision and execute a plan to take advantage of that opportunity. We are not afraid of taking a risk or trying something new.

We have a well communicated strategic/shareholder vision supported by specific, achievable long and short term initiatives. The organization, from top to bottom, has embraced the vision and strategy.

We have a strong, well-respected brand in our market, and long lasting relationships with some of the most coveted customers and suppliers in the industry.

What weaknesses does your company have — what might it do better?

We, at times, have a tendency to be more opportunistic than strategic with sales – we will shoot at anything we see rather than act intentionally with our strategy and selectively with our efforts.

What one or two major instances of culture change has your company experienced?

We’ve grown from 3 to 18 locations in the past 12 years and have built a matrixed sales organization that requires the leadership to trust one another and to work collaboratively. We expect the organization to act as “one Shealy” and not 18 independently managed business units. The combination of rapid, intense growth and the different structure has involved significant culture shift.

As we’ve grown we have developed more managers and a larger leadership team. These managers had a wider range of responsibility when they worked in smaller organizations — they pursued a wide variety of activities. One challenge for those managers at Shealy is to learn to work with a more limited range of responsibility.

What were the primary challenges of that culture change?

A matrixed organization requires trust and collaboration – leaders must be selfless and put the interests of the customer, supplier, and fellow associate in front of their own.

Trust takes time to develop, particularly when you’re an acquisitive organization that is continually bringing into the company new leaders and ideas with each acquisition.

Last month I was honored to have a piece published in Dialogue Review, a print and online magazine “for leaders and managers across the world.”  In the article I use examples from two leaders of companies I know who have engaged in the hard work of change.

I’m posting an excerpt below of one of the six psychological principles of change, but I hope you enjoy the entire piece over at DR’s website.

Shift gears decisively

Analyse, assess, and decide on your course methodically and slowly. But once the important decisions have been made, move swiftly and decisively. This is absolutely crucial. The concept of swift movement in the midst of change may seem counter to other advice, but the reasons for swift movement are compelling. Swift movement prevents the opposition from developing resistance; they simply won’t have enough time to formulate a plan and take action. For those who are eager for change, swift movement is encouraging. Too often, corporations announce ‘big changes’ and get people excited, only to move at a snail’s pace, allowing the resistance movement to gather strength and put up roadblocks. The end result is that neither side is happy. If you want to quickly see the rewards that are the result of improved company and employee performance, make it happen. Many will relish the rewards of change.

 

Today is Throwback Thursday on the blog, and I’m posting an excerpt from the second of two articles on the cultural changes we pursued at Elliott Davis DecosimoBattlefields & Board Rooms: More Cultural Transformations in a South Carolina Company was published on the BizSC media platform and covers four more principles of culture change. (In June I posted an excerpt from the first of the “Battlefield & Board Rooms” articles.)

We needed to help people find the right roles and use their strengths.

Washington was a surveyor, a scout, a commander of a regiment tasked with defending Virginia’s “frontier” in the French and Indian War, and a farmer — all before the age of thirty. The lessons learned in each of those roles later translated into leadership traits on the battlefield. His strengths were well-suited for his time as general of our country’s first army.

At the same time, the decisions Washington made about recruitment of other leaders within the army were some of the most important that he made during the war. Time after time, appointed leaders were tasked with certain vital war duties — sometimes by Congress. When they failed at those tasks, Washington made decisions to replace them with more suitable leaders. His actions in getting the right people in the right job were assertive, and of course, sometimes desperate. At one point, he replaced his most experienced general, second-in-command Charles Lee, in the very midst of battle. He selected a German, von Steuben, to conduct the vital training that the army needed during the long winter of Valley Forge. He placed Henry Knox in charge of transporting immensely valuable artillery across 300 miles of ice and snow. He recruited Nathanael Greene to take over the logistics of managing the supply transport for the army. All these moves were master strokes of placing people in the right roles during the war.

At Elliott Davis, our old system encouraged people to try to do everything: manage business, do the work, develop staff, be out in the community, bring in business. We all were wearing too many hats.

We discovered that discerning and recognizing people’s skills and drives, and then allowing them to gravitate towards their strengths, reaped bigger and better benefits. We wanted people to ask the question, “What are my strengths and how can I develop them to achieve goals?”

Our people needed to have a clear career path based on their strengths rather than striving desperately to be “good at everything.” They needed to be great at pursuing and developing their own strengths. Far from feeling constrained or fettered by unrealistic expectations, there’s a certain relief in knowing that you’re not expected to be something you’re not. And there is motivation in seeing where you can end up. As others have said before, it’s about putting the right people in the right places doing the right things.

 

I’m posting an excerpt from one of my articles that was published in the March 2014 issue of South Carolina Business magazine. The article covered three changes we made at Elliott Davis Decosimo. If you want to read the whole piece, feel free to check it out — “Battlefields & Boardrooms: Three Cultural Transformations in a South Carolina Company.”

 

We needed to change the way we communicate.

Perhaps no American leader is as revered for his various “addresses” — addresses to Congress, addresses to his troops, addresses to his officers, his extensive letters — as George Washington. His language was formal and his phrasing complex. But behind the language was intense feeling — feeling that some of us, aspiring leaders in the 21st century — might do well to express a bit more often.

Washington, for all of his scrupulous honor, his sense of tradition, his formality, and his dignity had a way of bonding with those who worked under and with him. One of the more well-described scenes during his farewell tour after retiring as General of the Continental Army was his goodbye to his officers at Fraunces Tavern in New York City. He filled a glass, held it up, and stated simply: “With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.” And then, Washington wept. As each man came forward in silence across the long tavern room, Washington embraced him, tears flowing.

One does not often see such a display in corporate America. We live, it seems, with a bit more distance and reserve and what some call “ironic detachment.” It’s much easier to be sarcastic and witty, then easily touched or passionate.

However I do know one thing. It’s much more difficult to connect with those who live like the former, and much easier to love those who live like the latter.

Elliott Davis leaders have not taken to weeping; but we have changed the way we communicate.

For one thing, we discovered that we simply weren’t communicating frequently enough — not face-to-face nor in writing.

We also weren’t gathering enough input from everyone. So not only were we not giving information; we weren’t receiving it either.

We recognized that we needed to share information at all levels, not simply the “management level.” And we needed to be open and candid. We needed to discuss the right things with everyone.

Finally, we needed to talk more as a group, in front of one another, in order to exchange and process information together, rather than in small groups alone.

The communication channels we opened up at Elliott Davis allowed us to connect with one another more broadly and more deeply. Consequently, people at all levels understood more about what we were trying to change, and more importantly, why.