Leadership and culture change – securing quick-wins

Leadership and culture-change

Leadership and culture-change

In continuing with our series on leading by example, I’d like to relate a story on leadership and culture change.  This is the story of how an effective leader took charge and secured a quick win.  In his own style this person stamped his leadership qualities in implementing a culture change in an organization that was not used to such drastic changes.

In 1993, I worked for a bank’s Textile exports division where a number of customers’ payments were piled up.  These were exporters and their payment advices had been received at the bank from their overseas buyers.  But given the general culture at the bank, lack of staff and the cumbersome procedure of processing payments, the bank customers had to visit the bank multiple times to get their payment.  One of the bank’s large export customers who would visit the bank frequently had established very good rapport with the bank staff.  This customer knew bank procedures so well that he would sit down for a couple of hours and prepare payment vouchers and all other supporting documentation.  He even had access to the cupboard where all their documentation was stored.  All the bank staff had to do was sign and send out the vouchers.

During this time a very dynamic manager named K. Murthy (name changed, but initial is correct) took charge of the division.  When someone else introduced the manager as S. Murthy, the manager retorted with a hint of contempt, “I am K. Murthy, not S. Murthy.  I am not an “S”-man”.  He meant he was not a “yes-man”.    Determined to stamp his style on the department, it did not take very long for Murthy to hone in on the payments as the first change that he wanted to implement.

What followed was as methodical as it was effective.  Murthy involved all the clerks and even the messengers in explaining the importance of payment to customers.  Keep in mind that banking work was all manual and hand-written.  Vouchers and payment advices had to be delivered by a person to the cash-book writer, who was stationed on a different floor.  The cash-book had to close by 3 pm daily.  And foreign payments had to have exchange rates for converting into Indian rupees.  These rates had to be procured by way of phone call to the bank’s foreign department located in Calcutta (now Kolkata).  A higher payment would receive a more favorable rate.

The cash department and the cash-book writer could process about 50-60 payments a day.  They would get payment advices processed by various departments.  Textiles, Chemicals, Pharmaceuticals, Shipping & Aviation were some of the departments in the branch.

Once Murthy decided to do something about the payments, within a month he had communicated his thoughts to everyone including the Dy.General Manager (DGM) who led the branch.  The Cash-book writer and the cash department were also put on notice to expect a higher volume.

The evening before the big payment day, Murthy had the messenger-staff put up paper notices all around the department, saying “Payment Day”.  The big day arrived.  Anyone who could hold a pen was given a bunch of payments to process.  One had to see the activity to believe it.  There was even a prize for the person who processed the most payments.  Murthy himself wrote payment advices.  All other banking activity in the Textile exports division was suspended for the day.  It was all payments.  Folks working in the other divisions came around to see what was going on.  It was a strange sight to see a messenger in khaki uniform sitting and writing.  Their job was to walk around carrying and moving things like payment tokens, advices, vouchers, registers, and the like. 

Every now and then when someone needed a break, they would take the pile of processed payment advices and make a trip to the cash-book writer.

If my memory serves me right, more than 400 payments were processed on that single day.  The cash department cried foul.  They had to work over-time that evening managing the deluge that had descended on them.  It took them two days to register and make all payments.  Their bigger concern was that other divisions in the branch may follow suit and the 50-60 daily payment level of comfort would be gone.  Foreign Department refused to grant exchange rates and the DGM had to intervene.

Everyone in the division and some other service departments was stretched to the limit that day.

In less than a week the cupboard that held pending payments was bare.  Customers couldn’t believe it and were smiling ear to ear.   

Murthy then ensured that a different sticker was placed on the cupboard and declared that level of unpaid payments should not be big enough to even fill a table-drawer, leave alone a cupboard.

Murthy showed his team and the rest of the bank branch what could be achieved with determination, team buy-in, people engagement and steadfast execution.

He had circled around for a month or so, then spotted his prey (the pending payments) and attacked it systematically to secure a quick win and stamp his culture on the division.

Now as I remember this story, I can spot some systematic and effective steps that Murthy took to change the culture in the division:

1. Assess the situation.  Talk to your team and others and get their views on what is working and what needs to change.

2. Identify a few quick wins.  These should be tasks that can be accomplished successfully, in a short period of time and that would require team-work.  Additionally, the results should be measurable and have a positive impact on the team.  In Murthy’s case, the payments directly impacted the customer very positively, so in that sense Murthy picked the right task.

3. Engage the people.  Engage those within your team as well as others.  Let people know that you have a plan and how you would execute the plan.  Make it challenging and fun, like the prize awarded to the person processing the most payments that day.

4. Have a plan of action and communicate it widely and as often as possible.  I thought the paper notices put up all around the Division were a brilliant move.

5. Knuckle down and make sure you are also seen to be totally involved.  This is where the “leading by example” comes in.

I’d like to learn other examples or stories that you may have on this very interesting topic.    For additional reading, here are two related posts:

The following is a good interview about leadership quick wins:


The following is a very well-written and effective research paper on the role of leadership in an organizational change management process has been published in the Abasyn Journal of Social Sciences Vol.5 No.2, and a copy is available at:


Image: (c) www.commons.wikipedia.org;  Author: Secretary of Defense