Success depends on leadership engagement, culture and structures – not just initiatives and programmes

Saturday December 15, 2012


In 2005, the Government embarked on a National Clean Toilet campaign to ensure clean public toilets everywhere. The Housing and Local Government deputy minister then outlined his strategy on how this was to be achieved: introduce toilet education, implement good toilet design, and instil good maintenance with mandatory inspection and rating.

Seven years on, we can hardly say the campaign was a “flushing” success. Why did that campaign fail? In fact, a few years earlier, the state of Johor tried to fine people RM1,000 for failure to flush public toilets in a drive for cleaner toilets. That didn’t work either.

We have witnessed leaders introducing new initiatives ever so often. After the initial sizzle and spark, they usually never materialise into anything remotely successful. Yet companies ritually set up yearly initiatives or campaigns much to the dismay of their employees. Much effort is spent in coming up with great slogans – Bersih, Cekap, Amanah, Cinta IT, Sayang IT – and the list goes on. Yet, they do not have much effect in achieving the goals of the initiative.

For example, investment in customer relationship management (CRM) initiatives is US$1.5bil per quarter. Yet most CEOs claim there is no improvement in customer service. Gartner’s research found that 42% of the companies that purchased CRM technology were not even using the applications. Huge efforts and investments are thrown into information technology initiatives, change programmes and productivity campaigns. Yet we see relatively low success. A Concours Group study had the failure rate of business initiatives at 85%. Why is this so?

Campaign slogans and programme investments are not enough. From my research, the key to driving successful initiatives is to build a supporting eco-system by focusing on four key areas equally: programmes, systems and structures, leadership engagement and culture.

Each element is to be addressed if you are serious about sustainable initiative success. Much of my time is spent on helping multinationals drive talent management initiatives. Most talent programmes fail due to leadership focus being only on talent initiatives, and foregoing the other three important areas. Equal focus is needed.

Leadership engagement

Steve Job’s personal commitment ensured the success of various campaigns at Apple. Sir Richard Branson gets involved in all Virgin’s key initiatives from day one. While he was CEO of MAS, Datuk Seri Idris Jala spent a significant amount of time with his talents, teaching and developing them – bahaviour that became contagious and role-modeled by others. Jack Welch spent at least 20 days a year teaching initiatives he was championing. The best leaders don’t only set-up programmes and initiatives, they lead by being role-models of these initiatives.

If you ask many business leaders in Asia if they could dedicate time to communicate and role-model key initiatives they are championing, the most likely response would be a friendly stare. How could a busy CEO spend time on initiatives? – there are deals to close and operations to run.

But without your leaders championing the cause, you are just wasting your time. Many leaders mouth words of change, but are never committed to the change themselves. Lip service from your leaders, when they call for behaviour change but don’t walk the talk, is a sure way to fail.

Systems and structure

Even with leaders rallying behind your cause, without proper systems and structures, these initiatives won’t fly. I remember Welch yelling and commanding everyone to drive Six Sigma into every part of GE at every opportunity.

At that point, I was working at NBC, its media arm, and Six Sigma had no relevance to these media folks who looked at it as a manufacturing process. But to calm Welch down, the NBC team launched a big grand all-employee Six Sigma party with Jay Leno and other stars cracking jokes and with T-shirts and caps given out. After the party, there was limited mention of Six Sigma at NBC for the rest of the year. Six Sigma failed to initially take off at NBC even with an enraged Welch championing it.

Welch quickly learnt and announced a new process change in GE where no one could be promoted unless they had green Belt certification. Immediately, lots of people signed up for Six Sigma. Welch cleverly leveraged the new policy to support Six Sigma. When you drive an initiative, you need to revise processes and structures to be consistently aligned with your initiative and to measure and monitor progress and effectiveness.


The hardest part in ensuring your initiative does not become a fad or a “flavour of the month” is to ensure that it becomes part of the organisational DNA. It requires cultural alignment.

According to Schwartz and Davis: “Organisational culture is capable of blunting or significantly altering the intended impact of even well-thought-out initiatives in an organisation.” People and organisations are creatures of habit, and changing habits is harder than changing structures or systems.

Organisations, like people, have personalities, and to ignore it will be fatal to your efforts. You need to be aware of your cultural impediments and address them. They may include:

• Lack of trust or accountability between groups, including turf issues or internal competitiveness;

• An “observer-critic” culture that kills new ideas or a culture reluctant to accept new ideas; and

• Groups formed under the protection of a politically connected individual which distance themselves from your initiative.

A few years ago, I was leading a global initiative to drive e-learning usage. We built programmes, got leaders championing the cause and built processes to support e-learning.

Yet, the take-up rate of e-learning was abysmal. Until we realised that culturally e-learning was not the accepted norm. People preferred to go for actual training classes where they got away from their offices, had coffee breaks and lunches provided and even got a certificate which they could showcase on their desk. When on e-learning programmes, participants were often disturbed mid-session by operational issues and never got about completing the learning.

To address these cultural issues, we issued Starbucks Coffee vouchers for e-learning classes (in lieu of coffee breaks), we built big signboards which hung by the participants’ desks reading “Student on e-learning – do not disturb me”, and we even started issuing e-learning certificates and special gifts for those with high e-learning usage. Within months, e-learning took off in a big way. A corporation’s culture can be its greatest strength or its greatest enemy. Harness the power of culture for your initiative.


Finally, programmes. This is the easy stuff as there are thousands of programmes for any given initiative. “Copy and paste” works fine for programmes. But not with culture, systems and leadership. Having the best programmes in the world do not necessarily mean you will have the best results. Instead of just focusing on programmes, spend equal time on all elements, and your chances of seeing your initiative being successful goes up significantly. Who knows, we may just have clean toilets in Malaysia one day.

Source: The Star

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