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Blog Bernard Letendre

Corporate culture, Leadership

Make it a big tent

I’ve been involved in many transformations, reorganizations, integrations, etc. over the years. I remember one, very early in my career, where our vice-president pulled a number of us into a boardroom early one morning and closed the doors behind us. Senior leaders and members of the HR team, she explained to our group of twenty-somethings, were currently going through the building to inform managers at various levels that their jobs had been eliminated and that today was their last day of employment. Some of us in the boardroom, we were told, would be taking on new roles as of today. I do not believe I ever saw my manager again.

I remember feeling that our boardroom was a little heaven of safety, as some terrible pox was making its way through headquarters, leaving victims in its wake. I was very new to the corporate world, and this was my first ever experience with a reorganization. It is barely worth mentioning that it would not be my last.

Over the course of nearly three decades working for large corporations, I got to experience transformations of all kinds from the vantage point of various levels of seniority. I also got to experience transformations against many types of backdrops: the great financial crisis of 2007-2008, changes in strategy, acquisitions, cost-reduction exercises, technological transformations, and more. I have seen them done well and I have seen them done very poorly.

I once saw a very senior executive step on stage to tell a large group of corporate officers that we were embarking on a major transformation that had nothing to do with cost-cutting, only to learn in a later meeting that we were expected to deliver on a huge cost reduction target, and that this target was in fact the only non-negotiable metric for this initiative. I had heard another senior executive, some years before, tell me cheerfully that I should go hard at the staff reductions because there would soon be armies of people desperate for jobs, and that this would offer a great opportunity to upgrade my team on the cheap.

Both those people discredited themselves completely in my eyes and never recovered my trust and respect. But I have also known leaders who approached changes and transformations of all kinds in a thoughtful, caring way that inspired trust and commitment. I learned a great deal over the years from the good as well as from the not so good approaches.

Whatever the imperative and the context, one thing can be said for sure about any kind of transformation exercise: unless you are completely disbanding the organization (companies of all sizes go under all the time), some people will be left after the exercise, that you need to be willing and able to carry on with their jobs. Failing to acknowledge this risks triggering what Gianpiero Petriglieri refers to as social defenses:

“A social defense is a collective, and hardly conscious, effort to preserve traditional features of an organization – legacy structures, strategies, or cultures that make leaders feel proud and their followers feel safe. People invest in those traditions because they give them a familiar if not always comfortable place, a sense or order and predictability, and even identity.” (Petriglieri, 2023)

If you don’t care about any of that; if you feel that people will just have to suck it up or you’ll simply find someone else who’s happy to have a job, then you should probably stop reading here because it is unlikely that what follows will matter to you. But if you do care, then you might be interested in some of the lessons I’ve learned through hard-won experience.

The first lesson is that the bigger the change being contemplated, the clearer the case for it had better be. Some situations, like imposing a round of cost-cutting after reporting strong (or even record) profits, create an inherently bad look and are just plain difficult for people to comprehend and accept, both inside and outside of your organization. People need to understand why change is required. More than that, they need to believe that the reasons justify the means. As Bryan Walker and Sarah A. Soule explain, “simply explaining the need for change won’t cut it. Creating a sense of urgency is helpful, but can be short-lived. To harness people’s full, lasting commitment, they must feel a deep desire, and even responsibility, to change.” (Walker and Soule, 2017)

This is not, in my experience, something that you should socialize after the fact. It is, to the contrary, something that must take place early and involve stakeholders at all levels. It takes the form of an ongoing conversation about who we are, why we do what we do, what we care deeply about, and what it takes to bring it all to life. It speaks to the mind, but it also speaks to the heart. And to be clear, it’s not a conversation if only one party is speaking, and the other is expected to just listen and comply.

A second lesson is that you should involve people in co-creating the solution. I can hear people from here saying “Bernard, that’s just not realistic!”, so let me reframe that for the sake of clarity: You should involve people in creating the solution, to the very fullest extent possible (permissible under applicable laws and regulations, etc.). What I advocate for, simply, is that organizations treat people as fully grown adults and broaden the tent to allow more of them to contribute to decisions that have an impact on them.

This kind of inclusion is predicated on transparency and as Brower et al. point out in an article titled Want Employees to Trust You? Show You Trust Them, “Being transparent signals that you trust your employees with the truth, even in difficult circumstances.” It is also predicated on trust and empowerment. This puts the approach somewhere into the Masterful Change (trust our people to solve things with us) or the Emergent Change quadrant (create conditions for change to happen organically) of Rowland and Higgs’ Change-Approaches Framework. (Rowland, Thorley, and Brauckmann, 2023)

A third lesson is that you have to give it some time. As William Bridges points out, change and transition, while sometime used interchangeably, are very different things:

“Transition is different. The starting point for dealing with transition is not the outcome but the ending that you’ll have to make to leave the old situation behind. Situational change hinges on the new thing, but psychological transition depends on letting go of the old reality and the old identity you had before the change took place. Organizations overlook that letting-go process completely, however, and do nothing about the feelings of loss that it generates. And in overlooking those effects, they nearly guarantee that the transition will be mismanaged and that, as a result, the change will go badly. Unmanaged transition makes change unmanageable.” (Bridges, 2009, p. 7)

All of this takes time, so you need to give it some time and help people through it, with kindness and respect. The time that you spend upstream will save everyone – including you – a lot of time and grief downstream.

Change will happen, for all sorts of reasons. How you approach it and how you handle it is what will determine how it goes, how it sticks, and what long-term outcomes you achieve. What I advocated and practiced when I had to lead change during my corporate career – and what I advocate now to my clients – is a “Big Tent” philosophy of change grounded in the maximum allowable transparency and participation. A philosophy grounded in respect for people and their ability to contribute to the solution – whatever it is you are trying to accomplish.

It boils down to this: Don’t let a good change initiative go to waste! Rather, use it as an opportunity to develop, across your organization, the cultural attributes – trust, empowerment, initiative, collaboration, open communication, etc. – that are the real competitive advantage and will ultimately drive truly sustainable success. You may have thought at the beginning of it all that what mattered was the specific change you had in mind, but you may find out in the end that the real benefits lie in the cultural improvements you fostered as part of the journey.


Bridges, William. Managing transitions: Making the most of change (3rd ed). Perseus Books Group, Cambridge, MA, 2009, 192 pages.

Brower Henderson, Holly, Scott Wayne Lester, and Audrey Korsgaard.Want Employees to Trust You? Show You Trust Them. Harvard Business Review. July 5, 2017.

Petriglieri, Gianpiero.Driving Organizational Change – Without Abandoning Tradition. Harvard Business Review. April 24, 2023.

Rowland, Deborah, Michael Thorley, and Nicole Brauckmann.The Most Successful Approaches to Leading Organizational Change. Harvard Business Review. April 20, 2023.

Walker, Bryan, and Sarah A. Soule.Changing Company Culture Requires a Movement, Not a Mandate. Harvard Business Review. June 20, 2017.