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Quick-Change Artists May Find Fast Route to Executive Positions

May 9, 1995

HERE’S A HOT career tip for the truly ambitious: Be a change agent.

Change agents, i.e. corporate alchemists who can reinvent a company’s culture and operations, are the Holy Grail of executive searches these days. Rare is the company that isn’t preaching change, and most seem to assume it must come from a force hired from the outside.

``People within a company develop a vested interest in the systems they create,″ says executive recruiter Stanley Herz. Someone from outside brings no such baggage.

Naturally, with so many companies looking for new brooms to sweep away their cobwebs, every manager or consultant on the prowl for bigger responsibilities wants to be one. But job seekers beware, because these positions _ which can range from unit heads to CEOs _ can be booby traps. CEOs love the idea of change, but the actual practice can be a blow to their egos.

Recruiter Dennis Krieger tells of the executive brought in to revamp the financial department of an industrial distributor. Four months later, the CEO wanted to fire him for being ``too aggressive and upsetting too many people,″ Mr. Krieger says. The CEO reconsidered after conceding the executive had met his goals.

``They say they want you to question everything, but they don’t really want that,″ says Terry Gallagher, executive vice president of Battalia Winston in New York.

In fact, a wise change agent often is more of a prod than a broom. ``A real change agent isn’t someone who’s going to make a lot of changes,″ Mr. Herz says. They’re diplomats and motivators who will ``change the mood″ so those around them can make changes.

There isn’t a consensus on what kind of breeding grounds produce the best change agents. Mr. Gallagher says many are management consultants who have designed change programs for corporate clients. But just because you can devise clever solutions doesn’t mean you can make them happen, says re-engineering guru James Champy, of CSC Index. He recommends organizational development consultants, ``people who really know how to change behavior.″ Obviously, anyone who has orchestrated a successful overhaul may also be qualified to tackle bigger challenges.

NO MATTER WHAT your background, investigate before accepting a job. A conservative approach, says executive recruiter Rex T. Olsen of Enterchange Executive Horizons, is to look for a company where change has already begun. ``Management may say it wants change, but if nothing is going on, how can you tell?″ he says.

But even if change hasn’t started you may deduce the time is right. If, for example, the chairman has just turned 70, the company may be ready for a real overhaul.

Roy King weighed all those pros and cons when troubled IBM came knocking on his door in 1993. As a management consultant for KPMG Peat Marwick and later, Booz Allen Hamilton, Mr. King, then 39 years old, saw a couple of colleagues leave their consulting jobs for corporate posts on the strength of one personal relationship or because the suitor was a client. But without several supporters in top management, he explains, ``you can always be viewed as an outsider.″ And if your sponsor leaves, ``you’re left hanging there.″

IBM asked Mr. King to play a major role in its restructuring as vice president of world-wide production industries consulting services. He was also asked to sell those services to outside customers. Was it right for him? IBM was obviously serious about change. The company had conceded it needed help and had turned to the ultimate outsider to become the new CEO: Louis Gerstner, former head of RJR Nabisco.

As a contented Booz partner with a roster of big clients, Mr. King said he had to be ``pulled″ by IBM. One tug came from a desire for management authority. As a consultant, ``you’re only an adviser, an influencer,″ he says. ``I think everyone would like to be part of the management team, making decisions.″

ANOTHER TUG was money. His salary, bonus and stock potential would be much greater at IBM.

Most important was the resolute support from top management. ``If you have to make radical changes, will they be supportive of those changes?″ he asks.

Fortunately, Mr. King felt instant camaraderie with Mr. Gerstner, a former consultant. More importantly, he knew the record of Bob Howell, IBM’s general manager of financial services and a Booz Allen alum. ``If it wasn’t for Bob and his track record, I probably wouldn’t have made the move,″ he says. Mr. Howell provided a candid appraisal of what had and hadn’t worked in IBM’s turnaround effort and what challenges remained.

Finally, he says, he got a handshake agreement assuring him of authority to hire and make investments as needed. ``You don’t want to have them say, `You have to make these changes and oh, by the way, your work force is being downsized 30 percent,‴ he says.

Executive recruiters say Mr. King should have gotten the assurances in writing. But so far, he says, the Gerstner team has ``exceeded my expectations″ for support.

Still, he has one more tip for those offered a change assignment in a volatile atmosphere: ``Don’t burn your bridges,″ he says. In some cases, the consultants found their new corporate jobs didn’t work out and they weren’t welcomed back by their former employers. ``Then you are hanging out on a limb.″