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Change is Hard, Even for Change Agents

By Phil Bertolini, Deputy County Executive/CIO, Oakland County, MI

Phil Bertolini, Deputy County Executive/CIO, Oakland County, MI

How many conferences have you attended where the presenter asked the crowd, “How many of you like change?” You all have seen a few people raise their hands and the rest shrugging their shoulders with indifference. Those that raised their hands are the special few who consider themselves “Change Agents” and try to tell everyone that change is easy. I am one of those self classified change agents who would raise my hand but I understand all too well that change is anything but easy. Change is difficult even for someone who believes that change is essential if we are to survive in today’s exponentially shifting technological world. The personal experiences that are shared here helped create some important lessons learned that hopefully make some positive impact on all of you.

I have to admit that this topic is very close to my soul. Throughout my career, I have experimented with different forms of change and how to lead people through the process. Some of my early attempts were not very well thought out and poorly lead. One of the earliest examples is when I was leading a team of property tax assessors and I had the brilliant idea to rearrange their desks to help them assimilate to change. I strolled into their workspace and proclaimed that everyone needed to move with no reasons why. What followed could have been described as an insurrection with me never realizing how important their current workspace was to them. They had a sense of place and comradery that was detonated like a grenade with a few simple words. A valuable lesson was learned that day, that if you want people to accept change they must understand the “why” and not just the “what.” People need to believe in why they do something versus simply acting on orders with no explanation.

"Yes, change is hard and so is life, embrace it"

Later in my career, as I became a bit wiser, I was fortunate to be surrounded by some incredible thinkers who stretched my ability to provide a vision and the “why” before simply effectuating change. When the opportunity to lead the Information Technology Department for Oakland County government was provided by our County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, I had to leave my comfort zone of 12 years of experience and step into a new world where I could not do the work that must now be lead. It was actually a relief. It felt like an albatross had been lifted from my shoulders. The world of strategic planning and setting a clear vision was the new normal for our team. This new normal forced me to approach change differently. As an example, there was a need to reorganize the entire department which would upset the safe worlds of just about every team member, yet improve our ability to deliver services. Explaining the “why” became a daily experience with a healthy give and take of ideas. The team accepted the change and joined in the belief that the result would be better for everyone. Since this effort there were three more reorganizations that were easier and easier to accept due to the trust built by achieving a common belief between everyone involved. Another valuable lesson was learned that day, involving the entire team in the change effort builds trust and a common belief that everyone can rally around.

In the world of technology, we tend to learn from our failures more than we do from our successes. When a project fails we tear it apart to learn as much as possible. When a project is successful we pat each other on the back and move on. Our teams would learn so much more if the successes were scrutinized as much as or more than the failures. What could we as a team learn if we could change our culture to learn from our successes? We began this change by bringing our successes to the table to find out what made them tick. The vision was set and the “why” was communicated.

Then, I promptly screwed up again and almost submarined the entire effort. I will attempt to set the stage so my previous complete disregard for our successes can be better understood. Our leadership team has a weekly meeting where we discuss policy issues, project issues and anything that we need to move the organization forward. The team entered the meeting in a jovial mood due to the recent completion of a successful major program that had a wide reaching effect across the county workforce. Some were celebrating and there was even a high five or two. I then chimed in to congratulate the team and promptly asked, “OK what about this other project we are working on? What is the status?” You could have heard a pin drop. The entire team was deflated and began to harshly explain that my reaction to our success was less than appropriate. I believe the words were, “Can’t you give us this moment to celebrate? Do you always have to immediately move on to another issue or problem?”

A weird feeling came over me knowing that the fun was just sucked out of the room. I was mortified and a new reality became clear and needed to work on one of my most difficult traits, patience. My mind is always ready to move on to the next challenge without celebrating, to accelerate change. The exact opposite ensued, change was delayed by shifting the focus to my behavior instead of the much needed celebration. This faulty personality trait is not only exhibited at work, my behavior is the same at home and my family makes sure I know when I screw up. An incredible lesson was learned from this experience, if a leader is to lead a team that is constantly making change for the better, they must be patient and celebrate successes. If the team never gets to celebrate they will eventually lose their will to make meaningful change.

We have always been told that the best indicator of future performance is past performance. My career experiences have provided ample opportunities for successes and failures. I have learned equally from both. Past performances are meaningless if a leader does not learn from failures and successes. Leading change requires everyone involved to adapt, understand, believe, learn and persevere. Those that believe they are “Change Agents” must lead with their experiences well in tow, both the successes and the failures to ensure that those impacted believe in why the change is needed. Yes, change is hard and so is life, embrace it!

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