Operation Enduring Change

By Ron Ciancutti
Photo: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / edharcanstock

The verb “sur·vive”

1. To remain alive or in existence.
2. To carry on despite hardships or trauma; to persevere.
3. To remain functional or usable.
4. To live longer than; outlive.
5. To live, persist, or remain usable.

Phil felt the buzz of the alarm on his watch and slowly opened his eyes. He once could wake at 5 a.m. without need for an alarm, but those days were gone. In his 20s, 30s, 40s, even early 50s, his wife often teased him about this phenomenon. “It just goes to show you never relax,” she would say. Phil had to admit that was true. He was always active and looking to improve himself. He didn't believe in combed-over hair, dyes that could take the gray out of his mustache, or liposuction, but he did feel a man should try to maintain his health. So on this foggy, rainy morning, Phil got out of bed quietly as his wife slept and went down the hall to his stationary bike. He logged in 30 minutes, and after a hot shave climbed into the shower to cool down. His coffee machine had been preset so he simply clamped the lid on the cup as he readied his briefcase and retrieved from the refrigerator the lunch he had made the previous evening.

The car was turned around in the driveway and all gassed up for the week. Exactly one hour after Phil had awoken, he was on the road. The ride to work was about 20 minutes, so he arrived in the parking lot with usually 10 minutes to spare. He keyed into the office, fired up his computer, and sat down to check his voice-mail messages. He made a handful of notes, set his smart-phone to charge, and took a sip of coffee. The day ahead would be busy with meetings and details about the annual budget review, and then he needed to fill out his “changing” list.

The changing list was a tool Phil had created after his first 20 years with the company. With his share of promotions and accomplishments, clearly his career was winding down, but it was noteworthy that Phil was now working in his fourth management overhaul. He was the hardworking underling for 10 years, the creative middle manager for another 10, the accomplished professional for the last 10, and now he was like a senior statesman. He served as a constant reference point, a historical icon that was still in there throwing hard like a seasoned baseball pitcher. His curve didn’t have the same stuff, but he still had a blazing fastball. Phil was no fool. He had survived those four management and cultural renovations by staying alert, remaining open to change, and most importantly knowing what he was good at and applying that over and over, albeit each time in a different form.

Continuous Improvement
Phil was a survivor. He knew his strengths and his weaknesses. He flexed the strengths and never stopped trying to improve where it was needed. As computer programs and technology changed, he pecked away at night-school programs to stay current and versatile. As smart-phones became a key to staying relevant in the company, he made sure he bought one and drove the young clerks crazy at the app store trying to learn all the nuances and terms. His Scottish grandfather's voice rang in his ears, “And now, young Philly, just what are you prepared to do?”

Over the years Phil knew well what the answer was. “Whatever it takes, Grandpa, whatever it takes.” And now he was at that mental intersection every day. The executives were young with fresh, energized ideas. The middle managers would assume him to be slower, softer, and uninformed. The secretarial staff might find him antiquated in his methods. What could he do about that? Well, plenty. He read all of the business dailies to stay up with all that was relevant and happening in the city. He made his age an asset among the secretarial staff by exhibiting old-world manners, a fatherly appreciation, and the type of integrity that made people smile when his name was mentioned. He knew his place and the reputation he had created. He was a family man and embraced his quiet life completely.

And Phil was wise. He knew he was ignorant of many things. Socrates was once called the wisest man who ever lived because he openly admitted there were things he didn’t know. Phil didn’t spout off at the wrong time in meetings or even during coffee conversations. He maintained a dignity that others came to admire.

Communication Is Key
What Phil did best was apply the lessons from the past to this new culture every day. In the latest administration he noticed that the emails, text messages, voicemails, E-vites, and tweets were replacing face-to-face conversations in many divisions and departments. After about a year under the new management Phil felt he was falling behind in keeping current with what was happening in the company. He often went entire weeks without speaking to his director. This was unheard of in the previous administration, so Phil asked for a meeting with his supervisor.

In the meeting Phil said there was too much he was responsible for that was going unreported to his boss. Although emails and notes were sent, he was getting fewer opportunities to discuss the way he had handled a problem and the methods he had used. This made it difficult to see if he was on track with the company’s mission and the current management's culture. Feedback had become minimal. He said, “Give me 20 minutes one day a week, and I will be prepared to fit it all in.”

The boss agreed and Phil was extremely prepared. The list was tight and concise. “Be prepared, be brief, be gone,” he thought. Within a few weeks the meetings rarely went less than an hour because there was so much gained through the shared information that produced amazing results. Phil returned to his staff fully informed, and the “why’s and why not’s” that had been clogging progress before were being cleared away. There was no need to correct errors of misunderstanding because items were so much clearer from the beginning.

In fact, two other chiefs within the company who had dealt with Phil on several issues requested the 20-minute updates for their departments as well. Phil scheduled all of the individual meetings on one day. On that day everything was set straight, and his staff had all of their questions answered. Clearly, Phil’s strength in communication had taken on a modern, customized form that others soon copied.

Stand-Up Meetings
Phil observed some other habits of the new, young “hurry-up offense” administration. A monthly staff meeting was too infrequent for people who needed to check with each other. The weekly attempt at a staff meeting always seemed to get bogged down on a particular problem occurring that day. In response, Phil instituted a daily, 10-minute, stand-up meeting that began in his office at precisely 9 a.m. Each staff member had one minute (if necessary) to update everyone in the department on what he or she was doing that day or ask any questions or make suggestions. If the “give-and-take” evolved into a discussion, the parties “took it outside” after the 10-minute update.  By standing, the staff had an urgency to move quickly and note only pertinent information.

This was a great working idea, and everyone felt they had a role to play and an identity to exhibit by stating their accomplishments and goals aloud. Examples might be, For example, “Well, I finally finished the Wasserman project so anyone working on support documents can file them with me and be done with it!” or “I'll be out all next week on vacation! I need you guys to keep an eye out for a letter coming from the Sanford Company.”

As a communicator, Phil knew that no matter how times change, nothing replaces a face-to-face conversation. So he stuck to what had always set him apart but modified it to fit the new-wave “company profile.” Thus he ensured his relevance in the company that he never took for granted. That’s why Phil is still working today--trusted, relevant, and moving forward.

Ron Ciancutti is the Director of Procurement for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at rdc@clevelandmetroparks.com.