Magazine article Talent Development

Quick to Change; Organizations Adapt to a Fast Environment by Undergoing Transformations

Magazine article Talent Development

Quick to Change; Organizations Adapt to a Fast Environment by Undergoing Transformations

Article excerpt

In the past, the overarching corporate environment was marked by stability. Things moved slowly enough that if a large company needed to put change in place, it would have the time to do so. But no longer. During the past few decades, rapid changes in all sorts of areas, from technology to the economy, have forced these large companies to do something they're not prepared for: move quickly.

"Organizations simply have to be much more agile and quick to change," says Ed Lawler, distinguished professor of business at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, and the founder of the university's Center for Effective Organizations. "And that requires an ability to continuously ask what they're doing, and, in many cases, change what they're doing."

In the past, "there was enough stability in the environment that you weren't hit with a rapid succession of changes and alterations," he says. "That model-that way of thinking about change-is outdated because of the very rapid change in the business environment that's taking place and the need to constantly adjust."

As Harvard professor and former Medtronic CEO Bill George has said, it's a VUCA world-that is, it's volatile, uncertain, chaotic, and ambiguous. Some companies that noticed this maelstrom of change have taken concrete steps to remain in lockstep with the shifting environment.

The changes

Campbell's Soup was a quintessential old-economy company, headquartered in Camden, New Jersey, and focusing almost entirely on its canned soup business. When Doug Conant joined as CEO in 2001, he was tasked with honoring and leveraging the company's past while meeting the expectations of the present-and creating the opportunity for a better future.

During the next 10 years, the company innovated while sticking to five tenets: taste, nutrition, convenience, variety, and value. It expanded beyond just canned soup, working to build brands such as V8, the juice. Shortly after Conant left the company in 2011, it made several acquisitions that could improve future growth.

"We had to maintain and innovate around the core," he explains. "We had to build new growth avenues and we had to look for yet another growth avenue that would promise to grow [in time]"

To accomplish such an audacious goal, Conant started at the top. When he started, he says, Campbell's was one of the worst-performing food companies. In his first few years, the company turned over approximately 300 out of its 350 top leaders, or 85 percent. Of the 300 leaders who took the place of the departing ones, half were promoted from within. The other 150 were hired from outside.

It was an enormous undertaking, Conant admits, but when it comes to making quick change, "it's all about the people."

"If we hadn't done that, we couldn't have done anything else," he says.

When Conant joined Campbell's, it was in a crisis-already falling behind the market at large. Conversely, General Electric is now finding itself at a "turning point," according to Janice Semper, the leader of GE Culture, which is part of the organization's HR function. Due to its surrounding environment-exacerbated by the fact that the environment is so big, considering GE works in 180 countries and has 330,000 employees-the company determined it needed to undergo a transformation.

To accomplish such a large change, GE created three imperatives, what Semper called "the major levers of change." They are:

* embracing a new way of thinking about the company's work and how it gets the work done

* introducing "GE Beliefs," a set of new values, or statements that articulate the way the company wants to act and behave with each other and customers

* a redesign of its performance management system, so that the system would support a new type of working. …

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