A conversation about change and culture with Jeremy Kaufman
VL: The word we’ve chosen to talk about today is change.
Jeremy: Yes, we’re focusing on change, but in some ways you can’t ignore the culture aspect. You have to be able to change the culture to change the practice.
VL: Say more.
Jeremy: I’ve been here for about 14 years. When I started, our organization was more of an authoritarian culture, and many people had the mindset of “just tell us what we have to do.” It was a generational difference.
I always found, though, that if you didn’t make the decision they wanted, that’s when you ran into problems. So my style was to get input and interest early on, to gain support and knockout resistance.
VL: Whose input, exactly?
Jeremy: As much as I’d love to have everybody in the room, it’s unrealistic and probably not very productive. We’ve tried on certain things to ask what’s a good representation, and there’s not necessarily a specific number.
I try to go to the people who are going to be most directly involved. Sometimes organizationally you look to the manager or the supervisor. Those are important people, but they aren’t necessarily the ones directly touching the people we are providing a service to. It needs to go down to the individuals who are directly going to do the work, who are going to carry out that change.
VL: And you start gaining input, as you said before, very early on.
Jeremy: I’m an idea person by nature, I often see things differently, so I need to be able to get other people’s perspectives before I get too far down the path.
The other piece that I find with that change is—and we’re not perfect with this by any stretch—but to some level you have to get people to understand what you’re trying to accomplish.
VL: Does that process of creating understanding differ depending if the change is invited or mandated?
Jeremy: We are a highly regulated environment. If we have a federal change or a state mandate, there may be some mumbling or grumbling, but at the end of the day there’s an easier acceptance of that change. It’s not Jeremy saying that we have to do this, it’s the big bad government. People accept it a bit better, even if they don’t like it.
I think invited changes are a little harder to jump onto. Why would we make these changes if no one is forcing us to?
VL: How do you help your employees or peers get past that mentality?
Jeremy: Many people are visual. They know what their task is, and now all of a sudden we are switching that process up. That’s the most difficult part. So part of the process is painting a picture: Why do we want to do this? Why is it important? What will it look like down the road?
VL: Can you describe some key things you’ve learned in doing this?
Jeremy: Communication is key, and so is staying with people through the entire process.
From a personal standpoint, I’ve tended to work through a process, get the thing going, and then assume that everything is going to be good. We talked about this, we’ve done our homework upfront, there can’t be any problems. Part of the process of change, though, is that there’s no definitive end. It takes continual effort and energy to walk along people and communicate why and what we’re doing.
VL: How do you try to walk alongside your employees in times of change?
Jeremy: We have to recognize that they’re experiencing a loss. You have to honor people. A lot of times all they want is someone to validate their feelings.
VL: Any last tips for someone who is leading change right now?
Jeremy: Celebrate. If you have a really good day doing something different, walk alongside those people and praise them for the things that they are doing.