Opinions And Ramblings By Adam Kmiec On All Things Media

The Complicated Shelf Life Of Change Agents

When I interview for roles, one of the first observations about my background is that I generally leave organizations every 2 years. This leads to a whole line of questioning that’s clearly probing to see if:

  1. I’ll stay longer than 2 years with their organization
  2. I’ve left those roles on bad terms

It’s a fair critique. The idea of “job hopping” 30 years ago was simply unheard of. But, look at the resumes from the people who’ve been working for the last 15 years and you’ll see a different story.

My standard answer is simple and honest. Most organizations bring people like me in to drive change…quickly. When enough change is in place, those organizations don’t know what to do with me. If you take an interest in my career and have a plan for me that allows me to keep growing while providing you/your org value, I’ll be here longer than 2 to 3 years

I think that’s a fair answer to their very fair critique.

Change Course

Let me provide a little bit of context. In most traditional organizations promoting someone like me to a VP title, would be heresy, because I lack an MBA. Look across the landscape, there are very few VP and above ,heads of digital. Their org charts haven’t evolved much in the past 10 years and they don’t know where a “head” of digital/social should sit, elevate to or ultimately become. What they do know, however, is they need strategic leadership iand growth quickly, in digital. They’re hiring based on an immediate need, without a long term plan. I’ve seen it happen up close and from afar.

Why 2 – 3 years you might be asking? Good question. Here’s my simple and basic 5 year plan for building an organization while trying to change the organization

Year 1: Asses, Triage, Stabilize, Test
In the first year you want to understand the organization, its pain points and where it wants to go. You can triage any immediate issues. I usually try to triage areas the create immediate costs savings and avoidance. Then you can turn your attention to focusing on a variety of initiatives designed at stabilizing your organization. Stabilize doesn’t mean tread water. It means focus on the initiatives that will enable you to put your attention on growth. Lastly, test out a variety of ideas, concepts and models. You’ll learn fast.

Year 2: Put More Wood Behind Less Arrows
Building on your stable foundation and your accumulated knowledge you can double and triple down on a few key things will drive the organization forward. At Campbell this was things like getting our arms around content, loyalty and how to turn data into actionable insights.

Year 3: Accelerate And Expand
With 2 solid years under your belt it’s time to start moving even quicker. Speed wins. Speed is life. Now is not the time to slow down. Expansion can come in a variety of flavors. It could mean expand your influence, your scope or the markets and teams your enabling. It shouldn’t, however, mean expanding your focus. You need to have relentless focus and keep focusing on what matters most.

Year 4: Blow It Up
80% into the growth cycle, it’s time to shake things up. Why? As Rishad Tobaccowala often says, the future can not be held by the containers of the past. In digital, things move quick…far quicker than the traditional analog world. Your models, team structures, processes, partners, etc. will need some tweaking. It’ll feel like a 1/2 a step back. That’s ok, because you’re setting yourself up to be relevant in another 4 years.

Year 5: Optimize
After that 1/2 step back it’s time to take 2 steps forward by smoothing things out. There will be chaos created in Year 4. Just as people were getting accustomed to how things were working, you’re changing it on them…again. Year 5 is all about getting rid of the friction points so you can be wired for even more speed and growth.

The really hard work is in the first 2 years. Once that’s done an organization can approach Year 3 differently or choose not to do Year 4. I think, most organizations feel good about the work done in the first 2 years. It looks epic, especially if you were starting from scratch. But, getting that far is painful. It’s painful for the “change agent” and it’s painful for the organization.

The problem that generally arrises as you’re approaching year 3 is that both parties, the organization and the “change agent” start to wonder if they need each other anymore and if the juice is worth the squeeze. There’s no right or wrong answer to this dilemma. Ultimately, the organization needs to decide if they want to keep evolving. Many don’t. Many organizations see change as something that has a start date and an end date. Personally, I think that’s an easy path to purse, but the wrong one. Change is iterative; it’s not a project. On the other side of the coin, the change agents must ask themselves, do I still believe in our mission and do I still believe the organization is investing in me and the mission.

This is a cross roads.

I often reference an email exchange I had with Seth Godin about his book, Tribes. When I asked Seth about why transformation leaders leave organizations he wrote:

often, tribe leaders leave because they won’t sacrifice the tribe to please management

cost of changing the world…

I can sympathize with that concept all to well. This happens far too often. My favorite example of this playing out was Ray Ozzie’s departure from Microsoft. After Ray’s company was acquired by Microsoft he was placed into a role in 2006 that lasted only 3 years. Microsoft, though, rather than lose Ozzie, put him in a new role as a change agent focused on Future Social Experiences. That lasted only a year, before Ozzie left the organization entirely.

The price of being a change agent, especially one focused on organizational enterprise transformation is that the self life for those roles is very short. But, remember, just because the shelf life is short, it doesn’t mean significant impact isn’t created that lasts for years. As Jack Black asked in the great movie High Fidelity, “is it better to burn out or fade awaaay?”

Me…I’ll take the burn out.