Change Management Interview: Robert Brasser

At Q7 Consulting, we are aware that we live in times of uncertainty, and now more than ever Change Management and Leadership within organizations are essential concepts for success.

The people we interview are from all around the world, have outstanding professional trajectories, have attained success within their roles, have essential leadership traits, are influential within their organizations and have experience implementing and managing Change.

In this fifth episode of our new series, we interview Robert Brasser, a Vice President of IT and Digital who has 30 years profound knowledge and experience in structuring, executing and enforcing Change in different corporate settings, cultures and countries around the world. Robert Brasser provides his insight and personal experience throughout the interview with examples from his professional life, giving us clear ideas on how to Manage and Lead Change in different situations.

Please find below the main questions addressed in our interview with Robert Brasser with some examples embedded in the answers.

What have been your takeaways from managing Change?

My biggest takeaway on changing organizations is that you have to balance between NOT following all the rules and cultural best practices and in other situations being accommodating by adapting yourself. What do I mean by that?  Early this century I travelled a lot in Latin America where my company had tried everything by the rules to make big Changes and it didn’t work. Every manager got caught up by the local culture. So upon arrival I normally took 3 months to learn and then started to hard-change things without listening too much to the people around me. Not very politically correct but it was the only way to get things moving when previous efforts had failed.

In other situations I had to be much more patient, adapt myself, compromise on the Changes and the time it would take to get to my goal. So basically, you have to be very much a situational manager that works with top management to see what approach works best.

What is your advice to people who start managing major Changes in organizations for the first time?

The most important thing is to make sure you have a sponsor. Then, it is very important to make a strong pact with your business leader or sponsor for the Change. You have to have the full support of this person. In this pact you have to be explicit on the approach to implement Change, quick and disruptive or more accommodating, making clear the possible consequences of both options. You don’t want to end up making disruptive Changes and then being victimized by your business sponsor for not being patient or playing by all the hierarchies and rules.

What was your role in making Changes in the organization and were the Changes clearly linked to the mission and vision of the company?

I was always doing things that linked with the mission and vision of the HQ, which sometimes generated resistance in country branches. I have been a Change agent, or fixer as I sometimes call it, in very different projects. Happy Face projects when opening new subsidiaries in different countries or parts of the world, closing factories which of course is emotionally more difficult, reorganizing companies, integrating acquisitions, IT projects to move subsidiaries to best practice systems and procedures or more recently digital acceleration and efforts to Change a big subsidiary to a 100% omni channel approach.  So, I always made sure that I had very clear who was my sponsor and that what he or she wanted fitted (or not) the group vision.

When you do a best practice project you are pretty sure to be in the group vision but if you are in a big organization with an entrepreneurial country manager in a “far away” country you have to make sure that you balance your risks and keep an eye on what the group roadmap is. Again, as I said before, balancing your risks and your approach.

How did your company support you in getting ready to lead / manage Change?

My company or companies did not really prepare me for that. I started since University working at Exact Industry in the Netherlands implementing production and supply systems in smaller and medium companies. So that was per definition always big Change. Normally small production companies did not really have these systems in the 80s and the know-how around production cost control and bookkeeping was very limited. So I learned on the job every day.

In the next phase I grew into doing the same for smaller subsidiaries of large multinationals and I learned to work with HQ instructions and politics. Then I started as an external at the company where I work now setting up supply and financial systems in Eastern European startups, South Africa, New Zealand, Caribe and South America. So I grew into a rhythm of visiting smaller subsidiaries and set them up with the best practices of the group. This involved bookkeeping and reporting, local taxes, sales and supply best practices and inventory management. 

My first support from the company side was in 2005 in Finland. The local country manager insisted for me to have a week of cultural training to adjust to the local culture, which indeed is a bit different than what I was used to. Also, later on in the US I was asked to take a half year of weekly training sessions and peer to peer meetings with my management committee colleagues. Sometimes in Europe we think that Americans are very direct and I had to make some corrections in that, being more patient and listen much better to the people around me before making decisions.

What strategies worked and did not work to communicate the Changes and what strategy did you use to generate a sense of urgency with people?

Any strategy can work or fail, but it depends on the amount of interruption, the time needed and the importance.

If you have to support the close of a factory you have a tough but straightforward job. The timing is normally clear, sponsoring from top management is guaranteed as they took the decision in the first place. So you have to manage the steps and communication as gentle as possible but that will not stop the project. 

If you have to move over a country from a bespoke system to a group system, let’s say in the 90s SAP, you have a whole different project. This group system is not per definition better or totally adapted for the country but for the group it is better to standardize. So HQ is your sponsor but not all people in the country will be happy and think you are crazy to implement something that doesn’t work for them. Top management will support you but if you push too hard they will support the country manager. You have to make sure to create a strong pact with the local country manager who would be the only person directly exposed to the advantages on a group level. He or she would be the person to help me defend and explain the decision and support me with the local team.

Honestly, I have seen very different approaches… In the 90s I went to Chile to put SAP (R2 at the time) and after a week the Chilean team realized the system was in German only, but the culture of the company made them accept that. Also, I have done a project where a company told the president of a recent acquisition in Argentina that I would come to help them integrate in January. The President told the HQ that in January there would be nobody in the offices (peak of the summer).  HQ made me travel business class (still in those days) and I found the offices totally empty and had a week vacation in Buenos Aires.

How did you approach planning Changes? How well were the Change plans followed and how did you approach Changes to the plans?

First, I learned for 3 months about what needs to be happening. Then, I make a plan on how things should look like longer term (vision), and then when I know where it needs to go and have an agreement with the sponsor and stakeholders, I make a step-by-step plan on how to get there.

Normally the objective is clear and doesn’t Change, but the plan on how to get there can adjust itself. In the end it is very important to know how to recognize issues in time but also to manage expectations of what you can run into. Specially nowadays with projects of digitalization of a company you can allow yourself to slow down or speed up as needed.

At the moment we are putting an Omni Channel platform in place where B2B clients can order online, shop or pick up in store but also we have a sales channel with 600 sales reps visiting the businesses. So when you implement such a platform you run into new, sometimes basic challenges that you have to solve before you can go to the next phase. If you want to move orders around from E-Com to a store or a sales rep (called a success consultant nowadays) you need to have pricing that is based on the client and not on the sales channel, so when you discover that this is the issue you can be delayed a year with a project to Change the pricing structure of the company. Also, you need a consistent omni channel payment orchestration to be able to move orders and the settlement of the payment around the different channels and systems in the ecosystem. If you use one token solution in system A and another in system B you will be forced to make a stop and address that in a sub project. For bigger companies these are quite impactful Changes so quickly, you again lose half a year or even a full year on something like that.

What strategies did you use to attain milestones and make achievements visible?

We developed a project report card in which we put very clearly the objectives and a number of KPI’s that can then be measured in the year(s) after. I must say that this is relatively new. A lot of organizations put KPI’s and ROI to explain the investment but afterwards it is still relatively rare that organizations follow up measuring to see if the project really lived up to the promise.

What did you do to keep people committed? What did you do to keep people from going back to old ways?

I strongly believe in socially engaging with people, organize little parties (nothing crazy), Friday afternoon celebration, to have people talk and allow them to approach you. I never had a lot of problems with people going back to old ways because normally what we do is with systems and often it’s almost impossible to go back. If they don’t want to go with the Change they usually leave by themselves in the early stages.

Training, training and training. Part of the training is teaching the new ways, but often an important part is also explaining the value added of the “new way”. For example, if we want a sales rep to fill out customer 360 information in Sales Force we have to overcome resistance. Some sales reps still prefer to keep the info about their customer for themselves to make sure nobody can replace them. So main training has to focus to make it clear that nobody is taking their place, but with CRM efforts based on precise information the sales rep can put in the 360 system, we can grow the customer and animate products or services that are tailor-made for this client. You could call this soft training or context training.

Did you underestimate or overestimate what was needed to be done to achieve Change?

The amount of Change needed and the risk to underestimate depends totally on the kind of project. Of course, we all know that a very high percentage of projects and specifically IT projects fail to bring the promised results, and training and Change Management can improve that. So most important I think is to anticipate the risk that users are not going to pick up the desired behavior in advance. A kind of brainstorming and building worst case scenarios around behavior so to speak. Based on that, actions can be triggered to diminish that risk, either Changes in the software to lock the user up into the desired procedures or again training and explanation. Let’s not forget that often organizational Changes that are necessary are also based upon the organizational structure and compensation schemes.

To follow the example of the sales rep, if we only compensate on a sales order we cannot really expect that they charge the system with 360 info to trigger CRM, so a Change in the compensation model might also be necessary to accompany the desired outcome.

What worked and what did not work in planning and executing Changes?

I strongly believe in situational management, what is the situation, what does your sponsor want, and how do you want to do it. Explaining and lobbying also work in planning and executing Changes.

Personally, I am quite enthusiastic about the trend of rapid or agile projects. I started my career many years ago in Exact Software and used to visit our Industry leads and customers during the day, taking their needs, we used to design during the evening and our developers would create the solution the next day. So basically, for me the new wave of agile is a little bit going back to the entrepreneurial way of working I was raised with in those days. Users can be directly involved in the testing of the waves that are made available in a very short time, which really raises motivation of the team. At the same time, especially in bigger agile projects, the planning and preparation becomes even more important to make sure the environment is ready and we know in each wave what to work on. But it is really working.