Why I Partner With Kotter

Ahead of the squall - Eric Sloane

Ahead of the squall - Eric Sloane

A few years back, as I was prepping for a public speaking event about my work, I stumbled upon Kotter’s Eight Steps of Change.

Wow! I was astounded. This was genius!

There, the maelstrom of levers and dynamics I had encountered across two change movements was laid crystal clear, elegantly articulated, as a process that sounded comprehensive and applicable.

Why hadn’t I read Kotter before?!? Bear with me – I came to the “Change” discipline through field practice (from the trenches really), not through formal education; I walked a sinuous path from diversity to digital engagement, from movement building to leadership transformation.

I eagerly started reading from John Kotter.

Soon after, I took on the responsibility of Innovation & Engagement at Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccine division of Sanofi, reporting in to the Global Head of Quality – himself reporting to the CEO. He too had read John’s books and had been equally impressed. But, faced with the daunting task of urgently turning around the work culture of a global manufacturing organization, he decided to go one step beyond. He called John Kotter’s firm. This marked the beginning of a several year collaboration over a massive cultural transformation project which I lead from Boston, USA. More on it in previous posts (“Quality as a Movement for Change”, “Volunteer Power”, “People Innovation in the Industry”, “How to Measure Culture Change without Killing It”).

Fast forward to today: back in Europe, I run my own company to help organizations with engagement leadership. And I am very, very proud to be now a Kotter Affiliate.

A Kotter Affiliate?! Many of you saw and applauded the announcement on social media – thank you, I feel very touched. I feel like giving a bit more context. Why partner with Kotter? It’s not just about the brand – known across the world. It’s not just about Pr Kotter – the thought leader, legendary youngest professor at Harvard, prolific author of best-selling books translated into 200 foreign-language editions, top leadership “guru”. It’s much more than that.


Because Kotter is current

John started to publish when I was just learning to read (i.e. quite a while ago!). Some of the companies he studied back then are now gone. Organizational analysis has flourished, tech and social evolutions evolve the way organizations work. Does it make Kotter obsolete? Outpaced by more modern approaches to leadership and change?

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Remember my amazement at reading the 8 Steps just a few years ago. It has actually increased as I put them in practice on the quality transformation project. These 8 steps are incredibly in sync with the realities of engagement today. They create a more human experience of work, to make it more effective. Now that I’ve gone deeper into Kotter’s approach, I believe this 45 year of research is precisely what makes the model so solid.

In many ways, Kotter has figured out the essence of true leadership (not unlike Deming for quality), in a very pragmatic manner, which keeps it current and applicable; one that fits the requirements of organizations, employees and clients in our fast-moving, uncertain world. To see Kotter, very recently, labelled (again) #1 among the “World's Top 30 Organizational Culture Professionals for 2018” is actually not a surprise.

From my own experience, fueled by my passion for social networks and digital communities, Kotter’s approach of networks within organizations feels right. It fits extremely well with the type of culture that many try to achieve today through the use of social media in the workplace. The dual organization system is more mainstream, less risky than holacracy or the like, and yet extremely powerful in unleashing engagement and performance. And since we’re talking about networks, do check out Jon Husband’s Wirearchy, which has just made its entry into Wikipedia!

Besides, more research comes out on a regular basis from the Kotter team. See the latest unpublished reports here (Survive and Thrive, The Problem with Data) and the Kotter columns on Forbes and HuffPo. Were I not related to them, I would still quote widely materials such as “Looking Beyond The Usual Suspects” by Justin Wasserman or “How Networks And Hierarchies Can Coexist” by Rick Western.

Finally, what makes Kotter current in my opinion is that is can very nicely be combined with other, complementary approaches. Setting an organization in movement through the Kotter model is a great way to unlock its human potential. From there, anything is possible. One can humanize Six Sigma or inject energy into Lean projects – we did that. They become so much more powerful. For more out-of-the-box thinking, I have introduced the Living Systems approach into our cultural transformation. I am forever grateful to Myron Rogers and John Atkinson for all that we have learnt and done with them, that once again, tied in well with the movement we had started with Kotter.


Because Kotter is relevant

Remember our business case? This was not easy work! How do you solve a cyclical quality problem that had been recurrent for years across a manufacturing population of 10,000 worldwide, when you’ve already tried everything that could be? What else besides investment, reorganization, recruitment, consultants, methodologies, work and more work? We had done all that. Yet, things were still not looking good enough – from a pure performance standpoint as well as from a public health standpoint, given the uncertainty it caused to vaccine supply.

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What else? Kotter. That’s when things started to really change. I saw the transformation take place gradually, I witnessed people starting to work differently together across functions and hierarchies and continents, I got the unique chance to be at the forefront of a large-scale, complex and successful change. Listen to this Continuum podcast or check some of the articles written about this for more info.

Performance improvement followed. In just two years, unprecedented progress took place. Negative indicators went down; positive indicators went up. Errors, accidents, risks and write offs decreased while timeliness, continuous improvement, savings and supply increased. Thousands of “wins” – or improvement activities – came up from a much better skilled, aligned and engaged workforce. This fueled pride internally, and praise externally (“You are restoring my faith in the industry”, one regulation authority even said). Believe me, the money spent on Kotter was money well spent. I had no idea they could make such a difference. Now, I want to help more organizations in this line of work.

(More about other clients’ stories on the Kotter website)


Because Kotter is different

Way too many organizations use over and over again the same old recipes of unilateral top-down communication, project-manage everything, and rely on reorganization, policy and procedures to execute their strategy. Yet what happens at this (superficial) level is mostly negative unintended consequences (see Myron Rogers here, p. 6 “Shifting identity from role to whole”)… certainly not what leaders have in mind originally. Employee disengagement is abysmal (how could it be otherwise when work kills!), more and more resources are needed to create value, and companies’ lifespan shrinks.

Organizations need a new leadership strategy to really maximize the opportunity provided by their people and deliver strong business performance. This is what I saw happen thanks to Kotter – my 1st time in 17 years. The Big Opportunity is a change and innovation system that empowers everyone in the organization to act for improvement across sites, functions, ranks, languages and cultures. At its core is activist leadership. Forget positional leadership, let alone the “leader and followers” leadership model. Here, it’s about inspiring action, no matter where one stands in the organization, because they all support a cause that is dear to their heart. Together.

Community of volunteers have flourished, mobilizing people around a common purpose, trying to change self before changing others, spreading energy through creative actions and community building. Action can take place anywhere, but is driven at a global scale by a volunteer governance selected along a very original process and skillfully coached. Unique and rich cross-hierarchical teams emerged from this process, propelling the whole organization forward. Kotter helped build a movement, which they are expert in. We made very good use of their 8-Steps process for leading change, leadership principles, dual organization model… I wish we had more time to experience the Result Accelerator, which I heard delivers tremendous value too.  

Beside the wonderful co-workers I have been lucky to collaborate with along these years, I will remember most fondly from this leadership journey that co-ownership is key to change. It takes the courage to involve everyone, in a different way. To do so, we need to engage around a co-created purpose and talk “head and heart”.


…Because I just love the team!

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See, that’s important to me. After John, I first met Pat (Managing Director) and Holger (Affiliate, co-author of two best-sellers with John Kotter) and Russell (President of Kotter Consulting). Their professional mastery is awesome, but what else can you expect at this level. What really blew me away (and still does) is their art of leadership coaching within a complex power landscape; their ability to put people in motion, to speak the truth with empathy, to genuinely connect with both senior executives and shop floor employees; their patience in transferring their skills; among else.

Then, I met more of the team. Nancy, Cameron, Natasha, Vanessa, Rick, Rachel, David, Maria… And further more recently at the 2018 All-Hands meeting. All super good. The team keeps growing because it is successful… It is successful because it is competent, it practices what it preaches (good leadership), and it is driven by purpose.

I feel lucky to be a partner.

PS: Why did I chose Eric Sloane's painting at the top of this article? Because it's beautiful (more heroic clouds and colorful barns here) AND because his grandson Justin Wasserman works at Kotter!

PS2: Download e-books, leader's guide and listen to podcasts here. You're welcome!

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