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A “political nose” à la John Baird is useful in change management

The unexpected resignation of Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has been front page news here in Canada since yesterday. Baird, who is one of the country’s most recognized (and controversial) public figures, is leaving politics all at once. A quote in this morning’s newspapers got me to think about change management. A friend of Baird said:

I’m sure the [Prime Minister] is going to miss him. He relied on him for his political nose – his ability to divine the political implications of decisions.

A “political nose” can also be very useful in change management. Take the example of Darren (not his real name), a former colleague of mine during my earlier career as a corporate executive. Darren had been working at that company for several years; he was a senior operations director. I had just been hired from another industry to take over a corporate function and lead a major transformation.

One of my first moves was to ask my colleagues in senior management for help in assembling a top-notch cross-functional team to lead the change initiative. More specifically, I asked each executive to assign their best people to the project. Given the strategic importance of the change, they gave me truly amazing people – talented folks who knew the business inside-out and who were respected across the organization.

I was pretty happy… until I started interacting with Darren. An odd physical signal triggered my worries: when speaking with him, I had a twitchy feeling between my 7th and 8th vertebrae. Apparently it is the best spot to target when knifing someone in the back! Over the years I had learnt to listen to this weird feeling as a warning signal. It was my evolutionary sixth sense saying:

Beware: you are dealing with a Political Animal who would have no problems stabbing you in the back.

As the overall leader of the change, the last thing I wanted was this kind of people on my core team.

KillerMy sixth sense was correct: Darren was a true political animal. Initially he didn’t put his weight behind the initiative. The reason was that he didn’t know what was best for him politically. However the rest of the team worked hard to create positive momentum. Soon, powerful executives like the SVP of Operations (Darren’s boss) were saying good things about the project. Darren’s attitude changed overnight. He found clever ways to be seen at the forefront of the initiative, for maximal political credit. That is the way he was…

Nevertheless Darren became over time a very important player in the core change team. What we valued the most was his amazingly accurate political nose. Like Canada’s resigning Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, Darren had the ability to divine the political implications of decisions. So we started leveraging his political nose while making decisions. We could run an idea through him and he would instantly sense how key players would react throughout the organization.

For example he would say:

Karen, the GM of the west-cost division, will love it because abc. But you will have serious pushbacks from Peter, the head of the international operations, because xyz.

Most often than not, Darren was dead on. Thanks to his brilliant political nose, we were making better decisions or devising more effective ways to get them accepted. In essence, it enabled us to embed change management deeper into our decision making process. The bottom line was a far easier time executing change.

Morale of the story for change leaders: although political animals can be very frustrating, their political nose can also be a huge asset when driving a campaign for change. Don’t let it go to waste.

Copyright © 2015 by ORCHANGO. All rights reserved. | Photo credits: Baird-Kerry: US Department of States; Knife: ©

Headshot Of Edmond Mellina, ORCHANGO's President & Co-Founder

Edmond is ORCHANGO's president & co-founder.

He is internationally respected for his expertise in nimble change leadership and culture change. For the past 30 years, he has been executing strategic transformations, building agile capabilities, and advising clients across sectors in Europe, North America and the Middle East.

He is a former corporate transformation executive in drastically changing industries: CIO at Delta Hotels when Expedia disrupted the hotel business; and VP Corporate Development & General Manager USA for the technology business of Envoy Communication Group when design and marketing agencies started to become digital.

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