Lessons from John Kotter

December  16,  2010 / By Tony Signore

Recently, I joined fellow CEO’s and industry influencers at the annual dinner for members of the Council for Public Relations Firms, which was held in NYC in advance of its Critical Issues Forum.  Over the past decade, the aforementioned Council events have provided me with an opportunity to learn from some of the most innovative and successful leaders in our field. Council President Kathy Cripps deserves a special commendation for her continuing efforts to foster a truly collaborative environment whereby agencies of all sizes openly share best practices and discuss emerging industry trends.

This year’s event was particularly gratifying to me given the diverse mix of senior Council members who extolled Taylor’s radical transformation, which was the subject of a recent Harvard University Case Study.  It was the first occasion to informally address the case with industry colleagues since “Transformation at Taylor” was presented by Harvard Professor Dr. Ashish Nanda at the Council’s Leadership and Decision Making for Superior Performance seminar in June 2010.

The teachings of John Kotter quickly came to mind as I described key elements of Taylor’s organizational shift as an on-going process – not an event – with multiple phases that spanned nearly five years.  Yes, I too was inspired by Kotter’s insight and the lessons he’s presented through the years. In fact, his comprehensive analysis of failed transformation efforts left an indelible impression on my mind and clearly impacted my approach to initiate change at Taylor beginning in 2004.

I found it interesting, but not surprising, that a majority of the questions posed throughout the night pertained to challenges faced rather than rewards reaped in transforming Taylor from a publicity-oriented agency to a brand counselor and marketing communications partner to a select portfolio of category leading brands.  Why wasn’t I surprised?  For one, they all recognize the need to pursue change (culture, vision, business model, approach…) in order to remain relevant, competitive and successful in this business climate.  They also know that initiating true organizational change requires a steadfast commitment and sacrifice.  It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted as there’s a significant price that must be paid every step of the way…an obligation that’s often underestimated by senior management and probably the reason why Kotter focuses on reasons for failure as opposed to success.

Among the agency principles in attendance who studied the case this summer with Dr. Nanda, some felt Taylor’s movement away from 62 clients — who did not align with our new vision — was the most difficult decision, while others noted the agency’s unwavering approach to infuse senior level analysts and strategic planners during an economic downturn. When asked to reveal my greatest challenge during the transformation, I noted that a review of stage five in Kotter’s change process – particularly the pitfalls outlined – would shed light on the answer. You see, once a decision and firm commitment is made to undergo organizational change, everything and everyone must be in alignment with the vision.  If not, the most admirable efforts will be undermined and well conceived plans will fail. Understanding this simple, yet consequential insight should inspire a disciplined approach to planning and preparation that will strengthen your leadership position when, not if, the time comes to remove the barriers to success.

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