Ron Johnson, Paulette Corbin, and the Three Levels of Change Leadership

Part One

I’ve followed the sad decline of JC Penney over the past few years – it’s a classic story of how NOT to lead change. Ron Johnson, fresh from overwhelming success in creating Apple’s retail stores, came in on a white horse in 2011 eager to remake Penney’s in Apple’s image. That didn’t work out so well, and he was gone by 2013, almost taking the century old brand with him. What went wrong? The idea? Or the fact that wasn’t up to leading at the third level of change?

Last Friday I heard Paulette Corbin tell the story of her career at Delta. She started as a flight attendant in the early 70’s, and became known as a change leader who could take a struggling department and turn it around. Her crowning achievement was successfully starting a new airline, Delta Express.  She led with a balance of humility and confidence that speaks to a pretty high level of adult development – something I think goes along with a high level of change leadership.

Paulette was mature beyond her years when she started as a flight attendant at Delta Airlines in the early 1970’s. She was quickly promoted to lead flight attendant. She took the job very seriously, and filled out flight reports carefully after each flight leg, documenting any problems with suggestions for improvement. She was ready for kudos when her supervisor called her in to talk about her reports. Instead he told her to use fewer staples in her reports – they were getting in his way. If that had happened to me as a young adult, I would likely have quit – or at least made sure to grumble about it to all my coworkers. What did Paulette do? She asked to be a supervisor so that she could act on all her suggestions.

Perhaps it was her memory of her own enthusiasm that kept her remembering that people doing the work know best how to change and improve it. Paulette was repeatedly asked to go into struggling operations and turn them around. When she arrived at Reservation Sales, she found a militaristic operation where everyone was tethered to a phone and every second monitored. She immediately formed a team to help her reorganize. At the first meeting one participant said, “I don’t think I should be here.” When Paulette asked why, she answered, “Because I’m just a reservations agent.” Paulette, of course, told her she was the person who knew most about what to do.

She had eight promotions in ten years and finally was named Managing Director of the new “airline within an airline,” Delta Express. She continued to invite folks to things that made a difference to the customer or that promoted growth as long as they didn’t jeopardize safety. Wherever she went, her modus operandi not only created a cadre of people ready to support the change, she also got the information needed to make change successful.

At the First Level of Change Leadership, leaders come in with a fully formed plan, brook no debate, and think that if the execution and the communication are perfect enough, all will go smoothly. It rarely works.

At the Second Level of Change Leadership, leaders recognize that if they really want to get people behind them, they have to listen to folks involved in the change. Leaders who listen to ideas and involve employees in the change get buy in and support. People don’t resist change, they resist being changed, and Second Level leaders lessen resistance.

At the Third Level of Change Leadership, though, where Paulette led, leaders don’t just listen to create buy-in – they listen because they know they will learn something. They know that the change will be more successful because they are using the knowledge of people intimately familiar with the problem.

More in the next post contrasting Ron Johnson’s change leadership level to Paulette’s. In the meantime, see the excellent of Fortune story on the debacle at Penney’s.

Read more about Paulette Corbin’s Women In Leadership seminar here.

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