Al Comeaux specializes in change. As the former VP of Travelocity and change champion at GE and American Airlines, as well as a breadth of other experiences, Al has dedicated himself to figuring out exactly why it is that an estimated two trillion dollars per year are wasted on change initiatives that simply don’t work.
In this episode, Al shares the four actions and qualities that business leaders must embody to create lasting, impactful change. And he explains the very important difference between telling your tribe that things have to change and leading them to want to change.
Nikki Van Noy: I am joined today by Al Comeaux, author of the new book, Change (the) Management: Why We as Leaders Must Change for the Change to Last. Al, thank you for joining me today.
Al Comeaux: Thanks for having me, Nikki. Really appreciate it.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah, I’d love to start by giving listeners an idea of who you are, tell me a little bit about your background as it relates to this book.
Al Comeaux: Sure, I’ve spent 30 years in corporate life and the last 20 or so years have been at the tops of companies, tops of large divisions, largely in a communications role, but that role can morph itself into many things. About 20 years ago, I was part of a leadership team at the top of a division and we were trying to drive change and, without going to too much detail, we failed miserably at it.
I decided that I needed to understand why we’d failed, and I started learning more about change. I set out to understand why companies, large and small, try to change, and largely, they fail. What I found is, two-thirds of change efforts fail, by my estimation, a conservative estimation. We spend something like three trillion dollars a year on change efforts and if two-thirds of them fail, that means we’re wasting two trillion dollars.
I’ve been at a range of companies, I’ve seen it, tried and done well and done poorly at different companies, but what I keep seeing over and over again as I got interested in this subject of change, a couple of decades ago and since, is there’s one key element that is missing from unsuccessful changes, and one key element that exists in successful changes.
It has to do with leadership. It has to do with whether the leaders are engaged and the mindset that they have. Leaders will tell you that they’re engaged but mindset can be very different. You know, what I’ve learned through all of this–I’ve been at .com’s, Travelocity during the .com boom and bust, I’ve been at large companies, American Airlines, and GE, and a small online lender, and I see this throughout my own experience and by talking to lots of different people–that if we try to get our people to change, we will fail.
That sounds counterintuitive but it was sort of my big aha. If we try to get people to change, we will fail. Instead of trying to get people to change, we have to get people to want to change. That sounds like it’s not very different but those two things couldn’t be more different. Getting people to want to change requires them to get an emotional buy-in and to want to do the work. Getting people to change is compliance and it doesn’t last. I’ve seen it over and over again and the habits come back, the way we’ve always done it is the way we’ve always done it.
I finally took the time out after 20 years of looking at this and talking to so many people at so many different companies and asking the same questions and getting the same answers. I finally took the time out to share what I’ve learned, I guess in the hopes that other people do not have to go through some of the changes I’ve gone through, in hopes of having more competitive companies in our day. And for my kids, they’re going to be in the job market in a decade or so and I’d like to make sure that we have changed the depth of the companies and organizations to work for, with leaders who understand that they’re going to have to get their hands dirty and get involved in the change.
Have to Change or Want to Change
Nikki Van Noy: I’m very intrigued by this difference between having to change and wanting to change, which makes a lot of sense to me. How do we get people to want to change though? What might that entail in a real-life scenario?
Al Comeaux: Well, one of the things that I learned in this process is something called force compliance theory, which tells us something that’s very counter-intuitive. You say yes, obviously, our people have to want to change. That sounds so easy, but force compliance theory has been studied for decades, and so has been sitting on a shelf for decades, and people who focus on change haven’t really understood it or taken the time to study it.
Force compliance theory teaches us that the more money or the more pressure we put on people to change, or to do something different, the less likely they are to believe in what they’re doing. The more money and the more pressure that we put on people to change, the less likely they are to believe in what we’re asking them to do.
You might say well, we give bonuses to sales teams for going out and conquering that hill. That’s right, we give them a bonus to conquer that hill, and they conquer the hill, and they come back and say, “What’s my bonus? What am I going to get as a bonus for next year?”
But if we were to ask them, well, you’re going to change from consultative sales to value selling, two different ways of selling, they would curl up and want to go in a ball.
When we push change on our people, they naturally want to curl up into the fetal position, they naturally want to throw things at us. They get something called cognitive dissonance, and this is something that’s working against us and we need to understand. Cognitive dissonance is the reason why millions of people, every night, avoid Fox News if they’re liberal, or avoid MSNBC if they’re conservative. It’s the psychological discomfort that we get when a value or something we could hold dear is challenged or countered.
We don’t want the psychological discomfort and we avoid the messages that might cause us that discomfort. In the workplace, the value, the thing we hold dear, all of us–and I’ve worked in 30 countries–the value that we hold dear is the way we’ve always done it. The way we’ve always done it is tried and true, it made us successful.
When we tell our people that the way we’ve always done it is not the way we are going to do it, they get cognitive dissonance. We have to get them to be emotionally engaged in the change. I’ve basically boiled it down to four things that we have to do to get people to want to change, to be emotionally engaged in the change.
Guess what? They all come down to leadership. They all come down to leadership doing things, mostly in advance of the change. We have to, first of all, understand from a mindset standpoint. The big difference is in our mindset.
From a mindset standpoint, we as leaders have to realize that we’re going to get our hands dirty. If we want our people engaged in the change, and wanting to change, we can’t be in our Barcalounger with our remote control, watching and yelling at the players and coaches on TV. They can’t hear us anyway. We have to, we absolutely have to, be on the field and actually not even on the sidelines. We have to be in the game with our players, with our people.
We have to get our hands dirty. The average executive decides on a change and decides that they’re going to put this perfect communication together. I’ve been in communications my whole career and so I’ve developed these communications for these leaders who are so certain that, if they get the perfect communication out, it will just be great, and everybody will want to follow.
The next time that they’re really engaged in a change is in a conference room two weeks later when they’re looking at key performance indicators. What’s red, what’s yellow, what’s green, what’s working. They’re so focused on, “Should that be green? Because we haven’t started it yet. Should it be empty and no green?” That’s how engaged they are in that. They’re engaged in the Barcalounger or remote-control work. When they need to be out in the field, getting people engaged in the change and showing people the way.
That’s one way that we get people to want to change is by getting our hands dirty.
Another way is by pulling our people through the change. I guess the average executive is very likely to have come up and become an executive because she or he is great at solving problems. We all are good at solving problems and that’s why we get to where we are.
We see a problem, we realize there needs to be a change, we solve that problem, and then we tell our people what to do. We push change on to people. One of the ways we have to do it is to get our hands dirty by pulling our people through change. Not pushing the change on people. I have examples in the book that talk about this.
Another thing that we absolutely have to do is listen to our people for their ideas, and there are a couple of real reasons why we want to do this. We don’t’ want to hold the change secret until the last minute–until we all have the answers.
Instead, we want to go to them without the answers. We want to go to them with the problem and we want them to be involved in the change by listening to them. We have to listen, and we have to be sincerely listening. We get better answers if we listen because the reality is, as leaders, we actually don’t know what goes on in our organizations.
Many leaders may sound sort of disappointing to hear somebody say that, but we know what goes on our organizations, but we don’t know all the handoffs, all the rubs, all the baton exchanges that have to happen for things to really work, and this can be in an organization of 20 people. We don’t really know everything. But our people do, they know how these things work. So, when we come to them with everything figured out, our ideas are naïve. They don’t really work.
They smile and they nod, and they’ve got cognitive dissonance because this is getting pushed on them. Instead, we have to go to them with the problem and then listen. We’ll get better ideas, again, a better solution set because our people know the situation much better than you do. If we want their ideas, something fascinating happens.
Our people will feel heard. There is example after example that shows that people will do extraordinary things. They will go way beyond if they feel heard.
Finally, the fourth thing that we as leaders have to do is model the change, and there are all kinds of different ways to do it. I have an example in the book where a furniture manufacturer is trying to get his people to go into these new social spaces that he’s put in his office because he is doing it in 150 countries around the world but his own organization won’t actually sit in a social space.
It is because of the culture. So, people don’t feel they have permission. So, he goes out and he upends his calendar, and he puts all of his meetings in the social space, this collaboration space that he is building. Everybody sees that it is okay to do, and suddenly you can get a seat in the collaboration space.
So that’s, in a nutshell, what I’ve learned is that it is a mindset shift that has to happen among leaders.
Impossible to Predict
Nikki Van Noy: All of that makes perfect sense put together, but you are right that these don’t tend to be the innate ways that people or companies ask. I am backtracking a little bit here, but one thing you said that really struck me in terms of the current situation is that people are attached to the way things were or are, and that can impede change–obviously! We are coming into a time of great change in ways that I think are still unclear to a lot of us, outside of the fact that we are looking at change on a lot of levels.
What do you have to say to that right now? What do we do with this attachment when there is really no avoiding doing things a different way for so many companies?
Al Comeaux: Yeah, it is interesting because I see a lot of people out there, futurists and others, who are predicting how the office of the future will now be. I remember talking to somebody in the 1980s about the paperless office and I look around my office and I still have lots of paper. So, there are all of these people who are sort of saying that this is how it is going to be and it really is impossible to predict.
I was in the London war rooms where Churchill ran the war–World War II–and there was a diary from the young officer or staffer who was there and every day he writes, “We were not invaded today. Invasion didn’t happen today.” And you get into his mind and you’re like, wow, he thought, and so did everyone, that they were going to be invaded by Germany.
I think about the times in my own life. So, the narrative after the Gulf War in 1991, was that the big new thing was going to be a Hummer. It is going to be huge! And it was big. But what really came out of that? The thing that came out of the Gulf War was GPS. That’s what really changed our lives. It took years before it became commercialized. But we all watched these bombs that would head towards a building and they’d say, “Oh, it is going to hit the third window on the left,” and it would hit the third window on the left and we were mesmerized by that.
Think about how GPS seeped into our everyday life and how it is part of all of our days is another story altogether. So, we can’t really predict what is going to happen. But I will make this prediction, there will be change. That is a real hard predication to make, but I am going to go out on a limb. So, the prediction I would make is let’s say we have Company A, a furniture manufacturer, and some person at Company A comes up with some new insight having to do with office furniture–home office furniture that can blend in better than it already does into our living room furniture. So, Company A invests in that, and Company B finds itself, a year and a half later, behind the curve. They are going to invest in all of the things they normally invest in, plus they have to go back and make up for the competitiveness that they have lost out on because they didn’t have this insight. What is going to matter at Company B is whether the leaders are really going to be able to lead the change the right way.
Are they going to have the mindset that says, “We have to get our people to want this change, recognize it, not only rationally, but emotionally?” I have seen lots of people see that there is a rational reason why we need to do this, but that doesn’t mean I need to change my everyday habits. That doesn’t mean that I need to do anything myself. So, we have to get the leaders to show people the way or company B will be further behind the change curve.
That is the kind of thing that’s going to happen, and why it is going to be important that leaders, now more than ever, are going to have to walk the talk, because without it, it is a lot of gibberish that really is nice, and it is a lot of work, but I estimated that it is $2 trillion in wasted change efforts.
Principles of Effective Change
Nikki Van Noy: So, what I am hearing from you, and correct me if I am wrong, is that these principles of change really apply in any circumstances. They are just for change, whether it’s culturally extenuating change like we’re looking at in the future in some way, or just a company deciding on their own accord, for any number of reasons, it is time to make a shift.
Al Comeaux: Yeah, and it doesn’t have to be a grand transformation, that is one thing. You know, I stayed in one company where they were trying to make a grand transformation. They were trying to do something really big with their own organization, so you think maybe that is a rework. No, they were trying to add a new core value, which is much harder to do. The core value was continuous learning and the leaders there recognized they had to get their hands dirty.
So, they were a financial services company and they had gotten stale after the 2008 recession and they told everybody not to take any risks. But this lack of risk-taking was actually driving their company into the hole, and they realized that their company wasn’t going to be around if they didn’t take risks. So, they just chose to add a new value called continuous learning, after talking to a lot of people and listening to a lot of people.
Continuous learning is kind of vague, so they epitomized it. Once every quarter, a leader would stand up on the stage of that town hall all alone and talk about, of all things, a failure of theirs. And they would share this failure that they’d had and what they had to do to get over it, and then they’d talk about what they learned from it and how they applied that learning to become a much better leader, to become a much better employee, and how they grew as a result, and it actually helped their careers.
So, by doing this over and over again, it suddenly became safe for people to change. So yes, it can be a huge transformation in mindset, in the organization, and where it wants to head. It can also be changing the way we develop software. It can be so many different things. It doesn’t really have to be monumental, because we have to make lots of changes all the time. In fact, Gartner says that the average company has more than one enterprise change a year.
So, you can imagine all of the minor changes that go on beyond that, and in all of these cases, the leaders have to lead the change. They have to show the way, get their hands dirty, listen for ideas so that the change isn’t naïve, and pull not push the change on people.
Nikki Van Noy: Beautiful, Al. You know, I think as you have been talking here, one of the things that really strikes me about this book is really you are speaking to human nature. We might not always think about these ideas in the context of business, but if you take it down to a relationship level, no one wants to be told that they have to change, obviously, we all know that. So, it is interesting to take these pieces of humanity that we just understand to be true and then to apply them to different areas.
Al Comeaux: Yeah, you know people will say it is common sense, and what you are saying is common sense. The challenge is it is not common practice. So, we as humans know that we have to change. We can see that we have to change. The problem in our brains is that we might rationally understand something, but emotionally aren’t ready for it. So, like you were saying, no one really likes to be told that you have to change, and I am suggesting that you don’t actually do it that way.
There is actually neuroscience that tells us that every decision human beings make requires both an emotional and a rational side of the brain. There is a neuroscientist, he’s at USC nowadays, his name is Antonio Damasio, and he studied these patients who couldn’t make the smallest of decisions. He would ask them, “Where should we go to dinner tonight?” And they would say, “Well we could go to this restaurant because it is a good restaurant, except lately I’ve noticed it is not popular. People don’t seem to be going there anymore. But if we went, we could get a table, but maybe the food is bad. But if we went, we could hear each other talk. But maybe the service is bad.”
They would go on and on and on and it would drive Damasio and his associates crazy because they were just trying to get an answer to something about how to go to dinner that night.
What they came to understand is that this group of people who had this challenge, they were missing a part of their brain. So, either the amygdala or the hippocampus, some part of the limbic system, which governs emotions and allows for emotional thought to happen, they were damaged or had been extracted because perhaps it was diseased. So, what they were able to understand through these neurosciences is that every decision has both a rational component and an emotional component.
So, we give our people the rationale. We tell them that there is this problem, we hope that they’ll come along with us, but we absolutely have to meet them at an emotional level if they are ever going to actually change in a sustainable way. We have to meet them at an emotional level, not just a rational level.
Nikki Van Noy: Beautiful. Al, I really appreciate you joining me today and talking through all of this stuff. It is very interesting. Outside of the book, which again is Change (the) Management, where can listeners find you?
Al Comeaux: So I am at alcomeaux.com or primedforchange.com–and primedforchange.com is easier to spell than alcomeaux.com, which has a strange spelling to it. So I will just say primedforchange.com.
Nikki Van Noy: Perfect. Al, thank you so much again and best of luck with the book.
Al Comeaux: Thank you.