NOTING that few change projects record real success, international talent and leadership expert Dr Javier Bajer says that the answer lies in changing the very way businesses try to execute them. It’s about “changing change”, he says.

The theory comes with a successful example. Dr Bajer, the founding CEO of The Talent Foundation, a network of multinational companies and universities conducting business research, has already seen his unique concepts help turn around a major banking operation in South America. HSBC in Argentina went from a struggling organisation to a market leader in less than a year.

A new way

Dr Bajer, who spent much of his consulting career with Accenture, leading change projects for big-name clients from Shell to the United Kingdom government, says the formula was always similar, with much attention paid to the senior leaders in the first instance. Change, it was said, should come from the “top, down”.

Dr Bajer instead looks more closely at the tangible results of corporate change. “Why can’t we create lasting, powerful, business results through the transformation of entire cultures,” he asks.

He took time out to study ethnography (a mix of sociology and anthropology) before heading back to Accenture with a very different change management strategy. Instead of heading straight to the leadership group, Dr Bajer worked with the rank and file members of staff. More to the point, he worked as part of the rank and file.

Dr Bajer would take on jobs with each of his clients, spending two months as a typical worker to get a better understanding of the existing culture. Over the next year, he worked as a call centre operator and even as a royal servant. From that experience, he developed a whole new model for change — and that formed the basis of a new stand-alone research and consulting business.

Different approach

Instead of the traditional “top-down” approach, Dr Bajer now calls for organisations to implement changes “from the inside out”. He notes that it is the general staff population that will inevitably make or break a change project.

“The (traditional) model was completely upside down,” he says. “Leaders would paint a picture of where they were, and where they wanted to go, and then try to make it happen.

“But change only happens when enough individuals decide to change,” he says.

In this way, Dr Bajer targets everyone in an organisation, from the board to the rank and file. He says if you can give these people the space, passion and inspiration to find new ways of doing things, organisational change becomes both possible and very real.

Pilot success

It all sounds fair in theory, but what about the reality? Dr Bajer’s pilot programme with HSBC Bank’s underperforming Argentina subsidiary showed how “inside-out” change could end in real improvements to the bottom line.

In early 2008, the division was ranked sixth in Argentina on customer service tables of the banking sector. Employee engagement was measured at a low 40 per cent.

Dr Bajer and his colleagues then instituted the “100-Day Journey” for all 12,000 staff. This self-awareness and leadership course was made available to everyone, from cashiers to security guards to the board of directors. He says over 98 per cent of staff chose to voluntarily participate.

Each was trained to look at his own role as a leadership position. They were taught to think not just about that single job, but its role in the context of the entire organisation. “It’s about thinking like a business owner,” Dr Bajer says.

While such courses are not earth-shattering on the individual scale, having the entire organisation learn these skills en masse created a unique phenomenon. “Everyone was changing at the same time,” he says. “They then reached a tipping point where (organisation-wide) change could be enabled.”

The results, he says, were very positive. In less than a year, HSBC enjoyed a complete turnaround of its position in Argentina. It rose to be number one in the country’s customer service rankings for banks; and staff engagement levels jumped to 78 per cent.

Dr Bajer says he is looking forward to relating all of this and much more during the HR Summit here in May. “I’m hoping to share my experience with cultures,” he says. “We’ll answer the question: how do you truly connect people with profits?”

Dr Javier Bajer, international talent and leadership expert, will speak at the HR Summit 2010 on May 6 and 7. In People, Performance, Profit, he will share some of the methods used during a recent culture transformation programme involving thousands of HSBC employees.