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Transformational Leadership: The Art of Shifting Cultures

What Does It Take To Be A Leader Of Culture Transformation?
Sylvain-Yves Longval, the manager of the Sheldon Division of Abitibi Consolidated Inc. in Houston, Texas found out over the past year. He’s been navigating mill employees through the landmines of a severe market downswing and their own attitudes.

In the 21st century paper industry, competition is ?erce and only low-cost mills survive. Sheldon has not been one of them. In fact, the mill has been bought, sold and restructured repeatedly in an effort to make it low cost. By Sylvain’s arrival in March 2001, its ranks had been reduced from almost one thousand to 459 over two years.

And by then, Sheldon Mill employees were at a crossroads; the mill was still not viable in the current economic environment.

“They had to choose between continuing on the same track, being blind to the world’s changes and going down the tube, or making bold changes in an attempt to build a long-term future for the people of Sheldon,” says Sylvain.

But the idea that they even had a choice was one that took some convincing. The people of Sheldon, like those in many organizations, did not see themselves as having sufficient knowledge or responsibility. They felt subject to the whims of the market and their parent company.

Sylvain, a former hourly front line paper worker who worked his way up through the industry, didn’t know how to affect change either. But a deeply held passion for learning gave him the impetus to try. After all, this is a man who learned three languages, earned a degree in forest engineering, and garnered experiences in human resources, organizational consulting and manufacturing performance management.

“Culture change,” Sylvain learned, “is not something you talk about. You implement it by who you are being, how you are acting. It is never planned and always organic.” He implemented the following trust–building actions:

  • Trusting each person 100% with the job they were doing, asking each for ideas about how to improve things
  • Asking for and listening to employee feedback about how the business was run and how he, as a leader, was running it. Sylvain identi?ed this kind of feedback as the “life support system” of a leader
  • Being himself – not trying to know everything, asking the people around him to bring him the information he needed to lead
  • Spending time with people out on the floor, ?nding out about their lives, not getting too comfortable with running the mill from his of?ce

The company also made hard decisions. By last September, Sheldon was looking at 12 weeks of downtime by year-end, which meant lost wages and lost pro?ts. Sylvain and his management team decided to shut down machine #6, one-third of the plant’s capacity, inde?nitely, as a measure to match production with sales in a dif?cult market. This involved laying off another 109 people.

On Oct. 2, as people returned to their shifts from the closure, they ?rst gathered under the blue and white tent erected in the parking lot to hear Sylvain personally announce to each group the decision to shut down machine #6. Unlike previous layoffs that dragged out for months, Sylvain promised the process would be complete in 60 days so that people could move on.

By now, many leaders would have reigned in employee training and involvement in decision making, not implement a culture change process. But not Sylvain. He turned the crisis into an opportunity to deepen the trust and partnership he had started to establish with employees.

In December, Sylvain scheduled a two-day training with Roundstone for the remaining 350 employees. This training marked a turning point for the mill, a time Sylvain describes as “wiping the slate clean”. During the training, employees learned about their place in the history of organizations, and Sylvain stood in the center of the room and ?elded questions about rumors, distinguishing between fact and story. This process of “cleaning the slate” was immensely important. By the end of the training, a shift had occurred.

“Enough energy, trust and momentum had been built that the employees of the organization moved from being ‘pulled’ toward culture change to beginning to push for it on their own. People were ready to take some risks and see what would happen,” says Sylvain.

The work is hardly complete. “These are amazingly change friendly people. But when you create a new future, you have to be ready to let go of the past. And there’s still a lot of letting go that needs to happen here,” says Sylvain. “The world is changing. If the outside world is not going to give us different answers to our questions, then the only ones that can do something about it are us.”

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