Leading change during difficult times

Pambudi Sunarsihanto, Vice President of HR at Danone Aqua, shares a practical and effective six-step guide towards initiating change.

It was a rainy day in Jakarta and I had lunch in an Indonesian restaurant with Tiara (not her real name), the Head of HR at a local pharmaceutical company.

Tiara shared her exciting adventures when she led a significant change in her company.

This is how her story goes…

Tiara used to work in multinational companies. And she was not well-prepared for the shock involved with working in a local, family-owned company for the first time. She had to quickly face the reality that a lot of HR processes had not been implemented, even the basic one like an effective performance management system.

Employees were also getting bonuses and incentives that were not calculated according to business performance.

If the basic processes had not been implemented, let’s not even imagine other sophisticated processes such as succession planning or talent management.

Tiara quickly started to imagine how tough her job would be.

She pauses, then drank her ice tea and went on…

"You can’t call me Tiara if I would give up so easily when faced with such problems,” she declared.

Tiara then analysed what should be done to improve the company and provide a strong business impact in her recommendation.

With her team, Tiara made a list of projects to be implemented over the next two years.

But the most urgent process to be implemented first was the Performance Management System where Tiara and her team must:

  • Ensure that all managers have discussions with their subordinates about the objectives to be achieved over the coming 12 months
  • Ensure that all employees document their objectives on the internal tool
  • Ensure that managers give feedback to employees about their performance
  • Determine bonuses and incentives in accordance with the achievement of employees' objectives.

It is all part of a basic concept – but it will have a strong impact on the business.

Getting full support

With the concept of implementation proposed, Tiara's first task was to meet the CEO to get full support.

The CEO nodded nobly. "You go ahead Tiara, I will fully support you"

But Tiara was not satisfied, "I just want to make sure that you will be fully supportive,” she told her boss. “Many people will protest because there will be bonuses and incentives calculated only on the impact of performance. Some people might get zero. And this has never happened here ..."

"Yes, I understand Tiara it's going to be challenging, but I will support you."

Tiara went back to her office, and smiled. She just finished her first task.

The lesson here is to do things right from the first step: Get the support from the top leader! You can never lead a change without that.

Expecting resistance

The second lesson came after Tiara began to implement the change.

The lesson is to expect resistance.

As good as any changes you will make might be, there will always be resistance.

You must be ready to identify and manage that pushback.

And it turns out that the first challenge came from within Tiara’s own team.

Some of her team members had gotten used to the old way. And they felt reluctant to change considering their challenge would be much bigger. Some even tendered their resignations.

Tiara did not try to hold them back – she let them go.

That is because there are only two choices for professionals: Stay inside and be fully committed, or leave the organisation.

Focus on your followers

The next lesson from Tiara is to focus on your followers.

She knew there was no point spending time with people who do not want to change. Tiara still had internal followers who supported her in this change, plus the new recruits who replaced the outgoing staff. They still had to be taught about internal processes and ways of working, but with their high motivation, change became possible.

The next challenge came from the peer-level (another director of the same level as Tiara). They predicted the new performance management system would decrease employee motivation, because business was in a difficult stage and performances would be difficult to maintain at a given level. They feared that many employee would face a reduced income, and may resign.

Tiara argued otherwise. Employees would actually be driven by the new system to strive to achieve maximum performance, and would generate their bonuses and maximum incentives.

Still, the disagreeing director sought to influence the other directors.

Some even went to the CEO complaining about what Tiara planned to implement. Fortunately the CEO had been very supportive from the beginning.

She just said, "You need to talk to Tiara”. (Tiara smiles sweetly while re-telling the story).

Tiara understood (well, it is not the first time she has leads this type of change), that he had concerns, but she knew there were also many people who supported her plans.

So she engaged these supporters within the organisation. She spent a lot of time with them, working together, experiment, exploring, and trying different things.

Engage the change agents

This is the next lesson engage the change agents.

Explain to them, get their buy-in, and use them as a positive “virus” that will spread the aura of change to others.

Very quickly, some of these change agents started to produce something very positive and promising.

Tiara documented it and spread it throughout the organisation.

Make the change stick

That is the next lesson she imparted on me; which is to share the quick wins and tell the whole world.

By doing this Tiara hoped ...

1. That the number of people supporting would increase

2. That the neutral and doubtful would realise that the change could work (“hey ... it can work somewhere else, maybe we can try it also”)

3. That the resistance would be silent and hopefully change direction.

In the end, Tiara’s strategy was successful and, despite many obstacles, achieved its goals. The last thing Tiara (and her team) now have to do is to make the change stick.

They have to maintain this positive momentum, and continually monitor and follow up on the progress, while also certifying and managing the challenges that arise.

CEOs, Board of Directors, HR and all employees have finally accepted and acknowledged that this performance management system is rightly implemented.

Tiara smiles with relief at the end of her story, while continuing her lunch. But we repeat the lessons learned that could apply to all of us when leading change in difficult times:

  1. Get support from the top leader
  2. Expect resistance
  3. Take care of your followers, and don’t waste time on the resisters.
  4. Engage the change agents
  5. Share the quick wins
  6. Make the change stick

Special thanks to Tiara for sharing her story and being my lunch buddy!

About the author

Pambudi Sunarsihanto is Vice President of HR at Danone Aqua and Chairman of the Indonesian Society of Human Resources Management.


The legal face of the contingent workforce
Yamini Chinnuswamy - 14 May 2018
As project-based, freelance, and gig work become increasingly de rigueur, the laws surrounding such arrangements have come under increasing scrutiny.
Serviced stays in the heart of Asian business
HRM Asia - 30 Apr 2018
Business in Asia-Pacific has become a regional exercise, with plenty of mobility for key staff between each market. Serviced apartments are an important enabling tool for all of that travel.
United Airlines' employee bonus debacle
HRM Asia - 26 Apr 2018
There are a few HR lessons from a recent United Airlines staff bonus lottery scheme that was subsequently rescinded.
Ninja Van CEO Lai Chang Wen's surprising take on the gig economy
Kelvin Ong - 18 Apr 2018
The founder of one of Southeast Asia's most widely-used delivery service is certainly not one to bite his tongue.
Workplace wellness worries
HRM Asia - 18 Apr 2018
A new study finds that wellness programmes in the US may not actually yield any company savings or produce healthier employees.
The vacation-deprived: Who these people are, and why they matter
HRM Asia - 22 Mar 2018
Asia-Pacific is the most vacation-deprived region in the world. Are companies here ensuring that their people are taking some much-needed time off?