After a longer break than anticipated due to some last minute challenges in the setting up of our new coffee shop in Painswick, I’m bringing you a continuation of last weeks’ blog – ‘Change is The Challenge for Future Success’.
…All around me, colleagues, people, humans were lost in the cycle of change but few knew how to handle their individual grief, far above and beyond the practicalities of ‘where the next meal was coming from’.
On Saturday afternoon, I left work early and walked purposefully to the brutally engineered Birmingham central library, so lovingly crafted from concrete, famously captured by Prince Charles as “a place to burn rather than read books”. (Just a few years before this, Telly Savalas had said of the monolith that “it was like being propelled into the 21st century!)
In the early eighties, I’d spent many hours in this mausoleum of literature, whilst studying for exams, but actually daydreaming for hours, gazing at the concrete beams and listening to the hum of forced ventilation blowing across the roughcast ceiling and floor panels.
On this day however, I had real purpose, I was going to read about change and the process that ‘mr or mrs average’ will take through their journey.
I studied works by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, and soon learned that change was an alternating pathway of highs and lows, originally designed to explain the grieving process. Whilst you can rest assured I won’t be teaching grandma to suck eggs in this blog, the psychology of change grasped my attention all those years ago and hasn’t left me since.
I set about short-handing some of my new found knowledge and building a story around the theories that all my colleagues would comprehend. Whilst even writing these words makes me sound patronising, the conversion of ‘big words’ into more commonsense and concise terminology was my aim – I knew that this deeper understanding may just help me and my colleagues understand the bigger picture and allow them to consider next steps in a more constructive and less emotional way.
Over the next week, I scribbled and typed (on Dad’s old Olivetti typewriter) about 500 words, entitled ‘this thing called change’.
Along with the uneven and slightly faded type, littered with ‘tippex’, I included a few sketches that demonstrated ‘change’ designed for those people who like me, were more adept at ‘understanding through pictures’.
I was incredibly proud of my manuscript. Outside of school theses, this was the most learning I’d undertaken since my ‘O’ levels. I was sure I’d have a captive audience of management and staff and I was ready to launch!
How I reflect on this enthusiasm and the effect it had on my friends – this really was a huge learning!
Following my industrious day off, at break time on Tuesday, I eagerly made my way to the almost deserted 4th floor, where one could find the management offices. Wiping away some facial perspiration, I spoke to the secretary requesting a meeting with the store manager. I was pleased she knew me by name and reflected on my earlier commendations – maybe it was her with the sub standard spelling, I thought?
To my amazement, the manager, in his Captain Peacock-esque grey suit, red tie and matching handkerchief halted on his way through the door onto the shop floor.
Seeing him, I piped and said “I was just talking about you….”
He looked slightly taken aback, almost seeing this insubordination as a slight on his role, position or even his character! With a feintly interested “yes”, he listened to my reason for my talking about him and with some brevity, asked the secretary to book ten minutes with me later in the day.
Lunchtime in the canteen came and went, where I discussed my meeting with colleagues who looked quizzically at me. I didn’t seem to be gaining any traction with them at all. (The word traction wouldn’t have been used in 1987, but i’m sure I’ll be forgiven with using a modern day corporatism?)
With not a moment to think about reconstructing my pitch, the time had come to talk to the big cheese in his oak-lined office.
I started with standard patter, my sales figures, commission earned and talked of some new Pierre Cardin suits, that I thought would meet with his approval. I talked about the upcoming store rebranding and segued into my research and prepared notes.
I explained the reasons for my enthusiasm and stated (quite obliquely) that I felt the way change was being pushed on the troops was detached and inconsiderate. I told him that cascading a fait a complis such as ‘The New Lewis’s’ was not just a short-term shock, but was having a detrimental effect on our performance. At that moment, I clearly overcame my nerves and unwittingly became the voice box for colleagues that I believed needed attention and assistance to overcome their unhappiness.
What happened next was to stay with me until today and will do until my demise.
Firstly, I was given a lesson in 1987 corporate etiquette and manners. Not to call a manager by his first name on the shop floor and not to be ‘cheeky’. It was quite clear, I’d put him in a tricky position in front of his secretary.
Secondly, he informed me that a significant number of my colleagues actually wanted to leave, wanted to take the generous golden handshake and were just “acting sad”, so as not to offend those of us that we’re staying on the sinking ship or who weren’t fortunate enough to be receiving superannuation. The fact was, he went on to explain, that my supervisor, Brian, earned less than £7k PA and with that pocket-money supported a wife and kids. Brian was for the chop, with a pay-off under five grand. To be honest, Brian was a cracking bloke but in the fashion led city of 1986, wouldn’t be working in retail again, anytime soon.
In an almost continuous stream of angst and frustration, he also highlighted that The New Lewis’s also meant new management. Sears had dumped the department stores chain like a runt from a dog’s litter. He, like all but the Personnel Manager were to leave the store in April, despite his 25 years of service.
The Store Manager was displaying all the traits of someone who was deeply affected by the grief of change, but I’d lost my gravitas (nay, my bollocks) and found myself without words, without a way to provide solace.
The man who led his team to the slaughter was also about to be slain. Did I have an answer for that? No! Did I console him with well thought through words? No!
I sat in silence and waited for his next reaction. Whatever I’d learned from Kubler-Ross and however I’d prepared my strategy, I’d neglected that the real effects of change are omni-directional. I’d read my audience wrongly. I wouldn’t rush to be in that position again, anytime soon!
In the final part of this blog, I’ll not just talk through the ‘what happened next’, but also my personal recommendations for those involved in any type of change. The rule book evolves all the time, but I hope in some small way, this story demonstrates the importance of understanding the effects of change – on everyone.