When Change is the Call of Duty

Six Minutes

The Department of Defense had feared, but not expected, President Barack Obama to announce in his 2010 State of peoplethe Union address that he would “work with the Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve” in the Armed Forces – the so-called Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. Defense Secretary Bob Gates writes in Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, that he himself was notified of that declaration only the day before. He was suddenly faced with a very public challenge with exceptionally high stakes.

“I had led three large institutions – CIA, Texas A&M University, and Defense – and I had managed change before. I had done it smart, and I had done it stupid,” he writes. The scale, the scope, and the very public position he was in, required he do this one smart.

DADT, a Clintonian compromise, had been controversial since its inception. It had the dubious distinction of being disliked by just about everyone. Gates suspected its rescindment would also prove controversial, so as he prepared, he applied change management principles to minimize damage.

Read: Bob Gates: Man of Action

At some point, many of us will have a boss who announces some sweeping change and drops implementation in our lap. Irrespective of the politics of this highly-charged presidential edict, Gates’ approach provides some valuable lessons.

Preparation for Success

There are plenty of Change models out there, but every paradigm includes some need to create desire, through “burning platforms” or some other sense of urgency. Gates feared that repealing DADT in 2010 – simultaneous with wrapping up the Iraq War and stabilizing activities in Afghanistan – would overload staff, troops, and leadership. Nevertheless, he had no choice: his urgency was provided by Congress’ demands, pending court decisions, and the president’s speech

Rare is the single actor that can effect change in any organization. The United States Defense Department is the world’s largest institution, and Gates needed to build a coalition. Previous efforts to repeal DADT had failed. Gates enlisted Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as an early partner and advocate for change.

Those earlier attempts – and side conversations with the Executive Office – indicated to Gates that change was a matter of “when”, not “if”. Though he was unprepared for the January 2010 announcement, he was not completely caught off-guard – as we’ll see below.

As managers, we can’t expect every new initiative, but we can have the mindset and tools ready to move forward when it happens.

Lessons Learned

Understand the Impact of Change

Leaders frequently minimize the effect of a change, presuming it’s “no big deal”; others freeze up, daunted by the enormity of tasks ahead. I’ve worked with clients that have spent years putting off implementations while conducting “readiness surveys”.

Nevertheless, it is nearly impossible to effectively execute (or even design) change without knowing the terrain first. An effective appraisal highlights the landscape and identifies where the organization can anticipate risks and opportunities. It is not an attempt to publicize or sell the benefits of change.

Gates and Mullen, even before the president’s announcement, began the process of understanding the potential impact – and recognized that there were distinct cohorts, each with their own agendas and concerns, with different needs to address (including military leadership, the troops, their families, the general population, and more).

To that end, Gates commissioned a task force to understand the issues that could interfere with the change. That group surveyed over a half million service members and spouses, conducted focus groups with 25,000 troops, and launched an anonymous (third-party) call center for others to share their perspective.

Let Others Speak (and Speak Personally)

Even though the president is commander-in-chief, if he was the only one advocating repeal, adoption would have been difficult. Even as Gates spoke in favor of investigating the ramifications of change, Admiral Mullen made a statement to Congress.

No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens. For me, it comes down to integrity, theirs as individuals and ours as an institution.

Military leaders had been universally opposed to any liberalizing of policy, so Mullen’s words landed with remarkable impact.

Every change effort needs a coalition, whose members are able to speak to the vision and what it means to them. This demonstrates commitment and consistency, and allows the populace to hear many messages that are distinct but aligned. The more that publicly support an effort, the broader and deeper the reach of those messages.

It Takes Time to Reach Critical Mass

Leaders can’t wait until everyone is comfortable and happy with the change, but, paradoxically, should be careful about moving faster than the institution will allow. Change is scary and can violate trust that’s been built up over years.

Picture coaxing a reluctant puppy (an inelegant metaphor, for sure): It takes time, serenity, and patience for the pooch to move forward. Once he realizes he’s safe, his trust is absolute – until it’s not! A sudden move (or a loud noise) destroys progress, and actually puts the whole process farther behind.

The president and Congress were pressing for immediate repeal. Gates, a Certified Man of Action, hesitated; the team was still learning the environment, identifying pockets of resistance and understanding potential areas of opposition. Eventually they compromised: they would pass the law, but leave designing its implementation until after the task force assessment was complete.

Look for Alternate Motivation

The leadership of the Marine Corps was, of all the services, the most vocally negative about repeal. But… Once it was clear that it was happening – laws passed, expectations set – Corps commandant James Amos became “hell-bent” on ensuring that the Marines were both the best trained and the first to comply. It takes more than an act of Congress to dampen inter-service rivalry!

Some models advocate a “top-down” approach – crafting a vision, empowering others to accomplish it, etc.; change, though, also happens on a molecular level. Where the C-Suite may be inspired to act based on abstract ideas – e.g., market share, capitalization – ground-level supervisors (and even the rank-and-file) may need a more compelling reason to work through their challenges. It is incumbent on all leaders to work with their direct reports to discover what drives their desires and abilities, link them to the greater cause, and provide reinforcement.

Acknowledge the Disruption

No change is a “small” one (ever switched brands of coffee in the break room?); people will not just “suck it up” and “work through it”. Recognizing this is key. Showing empathy for those struggling does not imply weakness or a lack of resolve; it shows compassion and underscores the idea that change is only finally implemented once people are succeeding in the new environment.

Train, Communicate to Close Gaps

The end result of a change effort is changed behaviors. Whether as simple as filing a different form, more traumatic like sitting someplace different, or as epic as fundamentally altering how individual civil liberties are recognized among the two million servicemen and -women. Regardless of complexity, people need to learn what those new expectations are.

A good change effort recognizes that different audiences need different levels of communication, and different learning needs predicate different types of training. Awareness, knowledge, and abilities are not the same across the board – why should the outreach efforts be identical?

Carefully segment the different constituencies and outline specifically what skills they need to apply unassisted, what ideas they need to understand and relate to other concepts, and what they just need to simply understand. This helps minimize the amount of time spent training people in details they don’t need.

Once the law was signed, policies and regulations were adapted – and training began. First, the training of commanders and leaders, on behavioral expectations and how to guide their troops through a controversial process. (The military is typically a paragon of training – but usually on more tactical issues like how to blow things up). Then, every single service member – two million strong – received training, involving lectures, Q-and-A’s, and the role-playing of difficult situations.

“The key to success, as with most things military,” Gates wrote, “is training, education, and above all, strong and principled leadership up and down the chain of command.”

The transition – long feared and debated – was implemented smoothly and drama-free. So much so that Gates wrote, “some might argue… that our fears and concerns had been greatly overdrawn and that implementation could have taken place much faster.”

After a successful effort, that is a common retort. A Man of Action gets shit done because he is on a solid foundation (there’s no points for being a Man of Random Activity). The grueling, detailed effort that Gates and his team put forth paved the way for success. You can never know what conflict might have happened without their advance work, but the minimal number of issues is testament to their preparation and planning.