British Telecom, a European provider of telecommunication services, serves 29 million business and residential customers in the United Kingdom alone. The past three years have represented a tumultuous time for British Telecom, as organizational governance, regulatory initiatives and technological innovation have completely driven the restructuring of the organization. Paul Reynolds, CEO of British Telecom Wholesale, presented “Growth Through Transformation” at the 21st Century Communications World Forum in London. He said, “We are facing the fourth major wave of innovation in our industry and it will require change on a massive scale. There are real opportunities—and threats. However, we at BT believe the risk of doing nothing as the economic and technical sands move beneath our feet is even greater. We’re aiming high. Our goal is moving BT from an incumbent telephone company to a networked IT services and solutions company fit for the 21st century. Embracing the IP future requires large scale investment and adoption of new skills, organizational challenges and new behaviors.”
To drive these changes, Virginia Rothwell, director of people and organizations at British Telecom Wholesale, used her group to learn what would work so they could provide leadership to the whole organization. Their objectives for leading this transformation were to:
- Consciously manage the change journey so to reduce the risk of failure.
- Release the organization’s potential for change.
- Reduce the need for top-down directive management.
- Create speed, energy, initiative and motivation to embrace change.
- Create freedom with a climate to deliver change.
- Create a sense of “license” and confidence to deliver the change.
To support these objectives they used a number of approaches: interactive real-time assessment, focus groups, stakeholder management mapping, communication calendars, change agent networks and town hall meetings.
In early 2004, progress was at a critical point. Some particularly sobering results of the 2004 Employee Attitude Survey indicated the need for a fresh approach to shift the internal culture of the organization. Rothwell knew she needed to provide the leaders with the knowledge and skill to make transformative efforts work.
The challenge of building this capability for quick change was taken up by Andrea Wyatt-Budd, the HR department’s leader of engagement and internal communication. She focused on increasing engagement, defined as “creating an emotional connection with employees that releases discretionary effort.” One way to create that connection was to provide a way for managers to understand what was affecting their level of energy and performance and be able to do something about it. She identified core capabilities of the kinds of leaders she was working to build as “one who is relatively confident of their subject matter, but also sufficiently humble to be able to say, ‘I don’t have all the answers, I need your input.’”
To help leaders approach their organizations, she used an interactive technology leadership tool. This proprietary technology platform provided a sophisticated set of tools for managers to interact with employees. It was built on extensive research by Theresa M. Welbourne, Ph.D., that has identified specific questions that have been shown to predict employee and organizational performance.
The approach consists of asking three basic questions that have been shown to predict individual and organizational performance: What is your individual energy level? What worked well for you this week? What obstacles got in your way this week, and what could you do about them?
This feedback was returned to the managers within 24 hours so they could then hold sessions with their employees to identify what needed to change and make plans to do so. One of the unique things about this process is that there is no one set level of optimal energy. Every person indicates what their optimal level is, and different functions (R&D, sales, etc.) operate at different optimal levels. This provides the manager with a group-by-group measurement to guide their actions.
Early on, feedback consisted of familiar, unconstructive complaints about the organization, However, because the questions are asked again every week, employees are encouraged to become more reflective and provide deeper insights into barriers to performance. In addition, the feedback showed that the three factors at the bottom of the list of “what worked well this week” moved to the top of the list within three to four months. This data was used as the foundation for holding town hall meetings every six months, where people also participated in skill building workshops to increase their ability to lead interactively.
Cynthia Scott, Ph.D., is senior vice president of product development for Lee Hecht Harrison Leadership Consulting. She can be reached at email@example.com.