Time Change

Note: Podcasts on Leading Smart are produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, I strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. While the text is carefully transcribed, it may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

It’s right, until it isn’t. Until it is. 

Every year at this time, much handwringing ensues as clocks spring forward for daylight savings time. All forms of media remind everyone to change their clocks, and yet some still struggle to make the change. Our mantel clock is an automated version of this struggle.

It’s marked on its face as an “atomic clock”, that is always supposed to be right. It receives a radio signal from WWVB, the national time signal out of Fort Collins, Colorado. In operation since 1956 by NIST, the National Institute of Science and Technology, it broadcasts a time signal that people or devices can use to ensure accurate time.

“At the tone, 20 hours, 49 minutes, Coordinated Universal Time”

The signal is based on NIST’s atomic clock accurate to a tiny fraction of a second.

But we live 1200 miles away, with the Rocky and Cascade mountain ranges in between, and the clock sits on a side of our house furthest from that signal. All the walls, wood, and wiring do their best to insulate the clock from the beacon. The second hand, which indicates the last time it picked up a reliable signal, rarely moves.

As such, twice a year as daylight savings time ebbs and flows, our mantel clock struggles. Each Sunday morning of the change, it seems like success. I awake to find it has, indeed, adjusted on its own. Then sometime that afternoon, it receives some errant signal, and resets back an hour. The next morning, it has self-corrected. That afternoon, again, it resets. This dance proceeds for a day or three until it finally settles down.

Just like the many semiannual thought pieces that decry the time change, our clock struggles to accept the it. But eventually, it does.

Much of the same is true in organizations when they face change. How timely it is then that the example of organizational change we discussed in the last episode is a battle over time. And that’s what this is all about.

This is Leading Smart, the show about Managing in the Brainpower Age. It’s a field guide to the joys and challenges of leading and working in the modern workplace. I’m Chris Williams, your guide to the stories and ideas that I hope will inspire you to be a better leader in the world of knowledge work.

This episode concludes the series on organizational culture with a look at how leaders can effect change. This is Episode 239 – Time Change.

When we last left our medium-sized sensor manufacturer in southeast Michigan, the CEO had charged his HR Director with fixing what he called “their broken culture”. Everything in the office seemed late. People were late for meetings. Projects were always just a little bit late. Lateness seemed to be a creeping cancer in the organization, and he wanted the HR Director to cure it.

Like many cultural afflictions, the lateness epidemic edged its way in. At first this person was two or three minutes late, rushing in and apologizing profusely. That project due on Thursday was completed mid-morning on Friday. But as time went on, a few minutes became five minutes, then ten. Before long, everyone showed up ten minutes late since nothing really happened until then.

Now the problem seemed endemic. Meeting times felt like suggestions. Deadlines merely targets. The world of remote work brought on by the pandemic seemed to only amplify the problems. Empty Zoom screens seemed to draw the picture of the problem in stark relief.

The CEO was just done with it. Something had to be done. So, he had done what any good leader does, delegate the problem. To his new HR director. He felt good. He had recognized a problem, delegated it effectively, now on to the next one. If only…

As cultural problems go, the CEO realized that tardiness is way down on the list. He could have a deeply sexist or racist culture, for example. But the lateness epidemic gnawed at his engineering mindset. If people are willing to let standards lack here, he wondered, what else was slipping through the cracks. While he wasn’t trying to establish an organization with military precision, this seemed like a slippery slope. To say nothing of the disrespect it demonstrated for and among everyone’s coworkers.

In all honesty the HR director wasn’t really sure there wasn’t a sexism problem in the company. The shop floor was predominantly male and not exactly a paragon of a welcoming culture. But she had worked elsewhere and had seen worse. The racial diversity was pretty good, and in what she had seen, the hiring both in the plant and the office seemed to be done with an earnest effort toward fairness and equality. Was there room for improvement? Sure. She saw micro-aggressions happening every now and then that certainly flagged some issues. She hoped to be able to work on that in the future.

To the CEO the tardiness was something to be fixed. Not a huge issue, certainly not anything to disrupt the company over. But it did need to be addressed. To the HR Director, the issue seemed like an opportunity. She could help make progress and demonstrate her effectiveness to the CEO. She realized that it’s rare for HR to get the dedicated ear of the senior-most leaders, and to work on a challenge that they fully support. 

Too often HR brings up an issue and watches helplessly as it’s brushed aside by their business partners. HR flags issues and the leaders handwave them as insignificant, or worse, deny they even exist. We see this often with difficult cultural issues, like diversity or equality.

Even if the leadership acknowledges an issue, recognizing the problem is a long way from fixing it. Leaders present a myriad ways, reasons, or excuses to avoid tackling deep cultural problems. 

Often, they claim to be too busy actually getting things done. They argue that changing it will affect the overall performance of the organization. Or, they worry that the problem is gnarly and complex – perhaps beyond repair. Or a favorite deflection: let’s face it, this kind of behavior is deeply rooted in our industry. Even if we do fix it in our organization, it will still be endemic. So what’s the point?

All of these excuses to not address a problem, are indicative of a leader who doesn’t appreciate the importance of culture. As I stated in the beginning of this series, and as described in my conversations with several leaders, organizations ship their culture. The output of an organization is a direct reflection of that culture.

Failure to address cultural problems in an organization can be just as detrimental as delivering a faulty product. In fact, cultural issues may be the reason why they deliver a faulty product in the first place.

The HR Director knew she couldn’t fix the tardiness problem. She couldn’t make some silly rule “always be on time”. It would be inane and likely ignored. She couldn’t beseech people to be more on time, she’d simply sound like a whiner. She couldn’t lead by example, no one would notice, or expect otherwise from the HR person. And she certainly couldn’t do some silly promotion with posters and slogans. Everyone who’s ever seen a “Safety is Job One” sign knows that’s not how you build a safe culture.

She knew the change had to come from the top. But she also knew she couldn’t just throw it back at the CEO, he needed some kind of plan. Something that laid out how to get this culture change to happen. She drew up a list of things he and the other leaders could do to effect the cultural change.

First on her list was the most obvious: the leaders had to model the behavior. They had to be rigorously prompt, all the time. No excuses, and especially no flexing of position: I’m the CEO, my time is worth more than yours, I can be late. Nope, none of that. He had to be on time absolutely every time. Set the example, live the change he wanted to see.

Beyond that, she divided her recommendations into two categories, push the positive and flag the negative.

To push the positive, she wanted him to personally mention timeliness as a priority. Not make it some huge initiative, not a big new company objective, certainly not something to take priority over their work. But to talk about the need for people to be on time. For everyone to tighten things up. Don’t be late to meetings, don’t miss deadlines.

Second, she wanted him to enlist the help in this effort of those already on board, those who were already prompt and timely. Again, not as a big deal but just as a “hey, could you help me here, I’m trying to instill the need for everyone to be more respectful of everyone’s time. To just try to be more punctual.” The ideas was to get them to nudge their peers and employees in the right direction.

Third, she reminded him to recognize timeliness. When everyone’s on time for a meeting simply begin by saying “thanks everyone for being on time”. When a deadline is meant, notice that publicly. Again, don’t make a big deal out of it, just acknowledge it publicly.

Her point was that people will notice that he noticed. As a consequence, they’ll try to be on time.

As for flagging the negative, her guidance was equally as soft touch. When someone is late to a meeting, let them know. Not in public, at least not to begin with. Just pull the tardy person aside after the meeting and note it, “hey, Frank, I wish you could do better about being on time.” Don’t make a big deal, just note it. Don’t pull out the passive aggressive “nice of you to join us, Frank” in the meeting unless the private comments go unheeded. And definitely don’t make it some kind of big firing offense. Just note it enough to nudge the behavior. 

Here again, her advice was, if the CEO noticed enough to call it out, others would notice. And they’d do better. 

Finally, she emphasized that cultural change takes time and relentless effort. Instant culture changes rarely “take”. People often dismiss new cultural changes as passing fads. Behavior soon reverts. For cultural change to really stick, the effort and emphasis needs to go on for months. Even years. Yes, it can have a half-life, like decaying uranium, but efforts to emphasize the importance of timeliness need to persist for far longer than you wished or expected.

After outlining this plan to the CEO, she paused and took a deep breath. The silence was uncomfortably long. Then she watched him begin to nod. He saw that she had thought this out, had brought specific actions to make it happen, and it all seemed to make sense. Even better, she hadn’t brought some hokey slogan or HR buzzwords to this issue. She had actual definitive actions he and others could do. Subtle things, to be sure, but ones they could do. He liked that.

But he said, how will I remember to do this? How does this actually happen? The HR Director asked for one thing: his attention. If he’d listen, she promised to nudge him. To remind him to flag people when they were late. To send out a kind note to people who demonstrated good behavior. To add a sentence or two to the company meeting presentation. She also got his permission to enlist his assistant to do the same. And, lastly, she wanted to share this plan with his direct reports.

He agreed to everything, except that last point. No, he wanted to roll this out to his direct reports. So he made it part of his very next staff meeting. And though he invited the HR director to be there, he insisted on doing it personally. The better to have an impact. She beamed, she couldn’t have asked for anything more.

He was deft at rolling it out to his staff. The sales VP, the biggest and original offender, was clearly impacted, visibly realizing that they were being called out. But it was done in a way that didn’t name names, so the result was nearly immediate.

Over the next few months, the HR Director did nudge him. She reminded him when projects met their deadlines, and he followed up with thank you notes. She had his admin add timeliness to his pre-meeting notes. And after meetings where someone was late, both she and the admin encouraged him to pull someone aside and note it privately.

Thing got vastly better. Meetings started on time, and when they didn’t it seemed like everyone, jumped on the late person. All in fun, usually, but in a way that indicated it wasn’t appreciated, or acceptable. 

It wasn’t all smooth sailing. The HR Director got a little overzealous. Feeling great that she had been successful, she overused her access to the CEO. She nudged him just a few too many times about the issue, to the point where he got annoyed. But after he called her on it, she toned it down. She’s now working on how to address the issue of a more complete gender diversity in the company. She recognized that would be a much bigger lift, starting with getting the CEO to recognize the issue in the first place. But her success with the timeliness issue got her hopes up. Only time will tell.

This cultural change of not being late, is an admittedly minor issue in the grand scheme of an organization’s culture. Certainly, it’s not as deep or profound as issues of aggression, sexism, or racism can be. But it sets a clear example for all culture change. It was most effective when led from the top – with the behind the scenes support of HR. The leader demonstrated the change, led the effort to promote it, rewarded those who lived it, and called out those who did not. As the change process was modeled further and further down in the organization, it rippled with great effect. Eventually everyone got on board. The broken culture was repaired.

This model works and is the most indelible way to build a better culture. Leaders can lead, and times, it seems, can change.

Leading Smart is from me, Chris Williams. You can find out more about the show and discover other resources for leaders at my web site CLWill.com.

I’m sure you know someone else who’d like the show, please share it with them. Or spread the word on social media. I’d also love your feedback. I’m “theCLWill” on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook, or send email to pod@clwill.com.

That’s it for this episode. The next episode wraps up season two of Leading Smart. There are some big changes on the horizon and I’m excited to share my plans with you. I hope you’ll listen. Until then, please remember that each of the several dozen decisions you make today are part of Leading Smart.