Pacing the Change

My wife, Anne, has almost never been out of action. Through 37 years (as of July 10th) of marriage, through five kids, multiple homes and travels, birthdays and weddings, my business successes and (one) failure, she’s been constantly on the go. Until a month ago, when she stopped.

She had major surgery on her foot. The doctor said, “You’re not going to be going anywhere for at least six weeks.”

“Huh!” thought I. “He doesn’t know my wife. There’s no way she’s going to spend half the summer at home, cooped up inside.”

We’re now four weeks into the recovery period. It’s going well. The doctor sees her every week and tells her she’s a model patient. It’s a model that I don’t recognize. Her defining characteristic these days is, in fact, patience. She’s quite content sitting in her easy chair in the living room with her Ace-bandaged right foot elevated on the ottoman, surrounded by her “office” – her laptop, her Wall Street Journal, her books and letters.

Annie has finally convinced me that Type A doesn’t carry the day, at least not when it comes to bodily recovery. I, who have been urging her to exercise, to take long walks on her crutches, to start stretching the ligaments in her toes, to embalm her leg in Saran Wrap in order to go in the pool. If it were me, I’d be shooting to beat the six-week estimate by at least a third.

But – fortunately – it’s not me. If it were, the doctor would probably have me in a cast to my hip, if not a strait-jacket. And I probably still would have found a way to mess up the recovery. I have to admit it, Annie’s approach is working. We see the doctor every week, he unveils her foot and tells her what a great job she (and, by extension, he) is doing (after all, he’s the surgeon), and she goes back to her office for another week of curing.

There are some things that you simply can’t rush.

Another one is creating change in a new management position.

I’ve been involved during the past month in hiring a permanent senior controller (see Monster) for a client who is responding to the short-notice departure of the long-term director of finance. The company continues to be successful, there are no suspected red flags in the accounting area, and the four-person staff is keeping things going reasonably well in the absence of a full-time supervisor. But underlying issues exist: the monthly close is always late, the budget is a top-down exercise that gets shelved as soon as it’s approved, “that’s the way we’ve always done it” defines the approach to procedural improvement, the information system is four revisions behind and training is lax, and so on.

The temptation is to hire a high-urgency manager who’ll come aboard as an agent of change and whip the finance department into shape, immediately silencing other department heads who have been complaining about the absence of useful metrics. In fact, the CEO sees this as a chance to establish a new performance standard throughout the company.

But… one of the first and best lessons I learned as an incoming manager was summarized in a pearl of wisdom from the American poet Robert Frost (1874-1963): “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up.” Unless your company is totally lost in the forest and your new finance/accounting manager has been brought aboard to lead you out of it, he or she is most likely to succeed if you provide him/her with the time to take stock before determining priorities for action. Otherwise, within a few weeks you’re likely to hear some painful backtracking: “I didn’t realize why – X – was done that way.”

Here are the kinds of answers that I like to hear to the interview question, “What will be your priorities in your first few months in the job?”

  • Staffing Resources: “I’ll need to determine the capabilities of my staff, drawn from their own self-assessments, from the perspectives of their colleagues, and from my evaluation of the work performance in their daily routine and in special projects. What’s their motivation, how close are they to their performance ceiling, how efficient are they, what more do they have to offer us – what can I build on? Also, what are their frustrations? What could they do better, given the right support?”
  • Integrity of the numbers: “The financial statements have to make sense. Until I can personally audit a fully-reconciled balance sheet and actually test assets like inventory and equipment, I’m not going to be comfortable.”
  • Procedures: “Most people like to work in a comfortable groove. Before I decide to shake up their routine, I want to understand why they do what they do. Whom do they depend on, besides themselves, to accomplish their tasks? “
  • Employee input: “There are plenty of good ideas among the staff. I need time to listen to people one-on-one and in some cases provide an amplifier for their best recommendations.”
  • Leadership: “A new manager is perceived as a threat to the status quo. I’ll need to establish communication with my staff and other colleagues in the company that is honest, frequent, informed, and credible. People have to be prepared for change, to understand the need for it, and to buy into it. That doesn’t happen overnight.”

This process takes patience, for the CEO as well as for the manager. The problems that you uncover probably didn’t develop overnight, and they’re usually not going to be resolved overnight. Type A urgency has to be put on ice, or it may well make the pain worse. Just ask Annie.