Orchestrating a turnaround culture change

SBI-2In an earlier post on the topic of orchestrating a turnaround culture change, I described the situation at a bank where I worked in 1995.  The story continues in this second part.

During the first few weeks I spent considerable time after office hours, trying to catch up on balancing the ledgers.  Since the branch was not computerized, there was a lot of number-crunching, checking, re-checking and reconciliation.  This was quite detailed work filled with a lot of monotony.  Ironically, this was also one of my strengths.  I took up the balancing task with an earnestness not seen at the branch before.

I also paid visits to defaulting borrowers who lived locally and coaxed them to honor their repayments.  Some staff members took an interest in helping me with the balancing (they either felt pity on me, or realized that ledgers could be balanced, based on the results). 

Slowly I started building a favorable rapport with the staff.  Through my actions they realized that I wanted to be a part of the branch and was doing my best to make it better.  Since I was number three in the pecking order to be transferred out of the branch, I took the position of a parent, not a baby-sitter.  My ownership and interest in my work was clearly visible.

I urged the staff to use their personal, local influence to encourage repayments into loan accounts.  They started to talk more with customers and sell the bank’s services.  There were more smiles around the workplace. Their attitude towards customers became more co-operative and friendly.  The cash-book started getting balanced on a daily basis.

The relationships amongst staff members became more and more cordial.  We actually started to have fun, in spite of the heavy workload.

I recall one afternoon when a staff member brought a big box of grapes.  Being the season for grapes, that bunch was very delicious.  One of us tossed a grape high up and caught it with an open mouth.  Soon everyone started practicing.  All seventeen of us were eating grapes by catching the fruit with an open mouth.  Needless to say, not every toss was perfectly caught.  Grapes were hitting noses, foreheads and cheeks and falling all over the floor.  Not one fruit on the floor was spared a squashing.  For a full thirty minutes we forgot work and the cash-book balancing and simply had fun.  That one afternoon brought the team much closer than any other incident had.

I looked around and really thought that this was a friendly bunch of people that I loved working with.

A month later we planned a community donation exercise on the Hindu festival of Diwali. I had donated some old clothes and my staff chipped in wholeheartedly.  We collected and distributed amongst the poor folk a number of footwear, books, clothes and other miscellaneous items.   

We organized a picnic to the local waterfalls and even held a baby shower for a staff member. 

In about nine to ten months since I took charge, the branch was slowly getting transformed.  I felt we were ready for the next inspection, which duly arrived. 

The staff was very supportive of the inspection, closed ranks, and did their best to portray the branch books in a very positive light.

Inspection passed off smoothly, the branch rating went up and we met our goals. 

My reward came in the form of an immediate transfer to a branch much closer to Mumbai, which coincidentally was next due for inspection.

The staff hurriedly put together a farewell function for me.  One of them had even composed a poem, in which she referred to me as an agent of positive change.  She composed all our activities in verse and credited me with completely turning around the branch.

I was totally overcome and almost in tears.

Now when I recall my stint at the branch, I can list out some of the steps that I may have (unconsciously) followed at the time.  Even though I was just being instinctive and natural with no planned objectives, the results instilled great confidence in me.  Several times since then, I have drawn on that experience while taking on challenging assignments.

Here are those steps:

1. Consider the broad strategy within which your department functions.

2. Structure follows strategy, so review your team structure and look for major gaps or misfits.  It is important to pick out the best players for the crucial roles.

3. Look at past history and initiatives.  Consider what worked well, and what did not work well.  Talk to people and get their viewpoints.  At the same time, assess their personalities to decide on the right roles to assign to each person.

4. Make a list of all the issues and decide on the “low-hanging, but prime” fruit to pluck.  Pick something that needs everyone’s involvement, is challenging but not too complex and is short-term.  Ensure that your strength (decisive advantage) would be useful in delivering the result.  Publicize the activity and get everyone engaged (payment day story).

5. Draw up a 100-day plan.  Set up milestones and work on execution.

6. Spread positive vibes, bring the team together.  Foster loyalty.  When required, knuckle down, get your hands dirty and lead by example.

7. Take bold decisions if you have to.  Face up to the situation.  As a leader, your team is watching you.  Don’t shirk the responsibility. 

*I have intentionally concealed the name of the branch and my colleagues. 

Please share your stories and experiences on culture change, using the comments section below.

Image: (c) Wikimedia Commons.  Author: Ingsoc