Change Maker

William Kane highlights the intricacies involved in overhauling organizational structures, with the first step being a clear mission

BKHeaadshot10.1.12Sometimes, organizations get sick. Like any good patient, the smart ones recognize the symptoms early and call their physician—a business consultant, an executive coach, or a turnaround specialist. The lucky ones call William Kane, who happens to be all three. Having earned his stripes at companies like FMC Corporation, Frigidaire, and International Flavors & Fragrances, today Kane flexes his change-management muscles as senior vice president and general manager of human resources and general affairs at Japanese trading and investment conglomerate Sumitomo Corporation of America.

What is “change management,” exactly?

I try to keep the definition very simple and pragmatic: It’s taking your organization from where it is today to a more desirable state. Period. It is something that is perpetual. If you’re not helping your organization continuously improve and move forward, you’re not doing your job.

And human resources plays an important role in achieving continuous improvement?

Yes. While the leader of the organization is charged with driving the business, it’s up to human resources to assist with related communication, to build the team around the required business competencies, and in doing so make the organization more effective and efficient. I like to carve my role out to be not only the guy who’s responsible for compensation, benefits, and all the traditional HR “sandbox” items—but also an internal business consultant who ultimately is helping the organization become more productive.

You’ve brought many struggling companies back from the brink of disaster. Sumitomo doesn’t need that kind of help. Can it still benefit from change management?

There’s nothing like a good fire drill to get the adrenalin running. If you walked in to work tomorrow and found out Bill Gates is your competitor and just opened a shop next door, would you do things differently? The answer, obviously, is yes, because now you have a burning platform to do things differently. Companies today are continuously challenged to do things better, faster, and cheaper. That is the mantra of change management. It’s up to us to be more creative, more innovative, and to bring in talent that will lead the way.

How can organizations attract that kind of talent?

There are two primary levers to attracting and retaining talent. First, you must have a mission statement that compels people to action and makes them want to be part of your team: a mission statement and a related brand that is unique, has a noble cause, and is inspirational. Second, the leadership of the organization must be credible. They must be results-driven, true to their word, and show they care.

What’s the first task organizations should do to stimulate change?

It all starts with the question: why are we here? I’m a very big believer in values-based leadership and values-based organizational behavior. You can go to just about any company’s website and see words like “respect,” “trust,” and “collegiality.” While those are wonderful and noteworthy terms, it’s companies that translate those words into actions that have success. Taking those terms, defining them as behaviors, making them the fundamental underpinning of your performance-management system, and then rewarding and recognizing employee behavior around those values is important. That’s the type of initiative I believe human resources should drive in the organization. And this cannot be done in a vacuum.

How are you stewarding organizational values at Sumitomo?

When I came to Sumitomo, I joined a company with a rich 400-year-old history, with impressive management principles. Drawing upon this heritage, we implemented a new performance-management system last year. For the first time, we have our managers evaluate their staff for not only how well each individual is hitting their functional objectives, but also, in essence, their professionalism in the workplace.

Speaking of performance management, do you have to hire change? Or can you teach it? 

Years ago you’d pick up the Wall Street Journal and see a new CEO named to ABC Company. The first thing that CEO would do is let go most of the existing management team. There was a certain ruthlessness, even viciousness, in the 1990s and early 2000s. I have seen that attitude soften over time, and I think appropriately so. Change is something that can be taught. As a new manager coming into a team, you have certain objectives you need to accomplish. Hopefully you can do it with the existing team, or perhaps with some select changes in staff if need be.