Ken Tumblison was excited about Buckeye Shapeform’s proud legacy in Columbus. But history was also one of his biggest concerns upon joining the manufacturer in 1995.
“I had people who worked in certain areas of the plant that had been here for 10 or 15 years,” says Tumblison, the 50-employee company’s president. “They had never seen other departments. They really didn’t understand globally the impact of what they were doing on the company. These people were working very hard, but they had blinders on.”
Tumblison needed to convince employees that changes can be a good thing for a business and that working together more closely would pay dividends.
Smart Business spoke with Tumblison about how to earn the trust of your people when pursuing change.
Q. What should your initial approach to change be?
Talk to your people. Talk to the folks and understand what their concerns, issues and problems are. Change happens slowly.
Rarely are there going to be the home runs when it comes to the effect of a change. Show folks that there are small successes that we can achieve without a lot of disruption, just minor things that we can do to be better tomorrow than we were today. That gets people engaged. It shows them that their efforts aren’t for nothing. That quickly becomes contagious. Everybody sees that.
Q. How do you figure out your best role?
I recall wanting to do a good job early in my leadership role here at Buckeye. I felt that doing a good job meant making everyone happy. That’s impossible. No matter what I do, there is no way for me to make everyone happy with whatever decisions we are making here. Don’t worry about that. I don’t know what other CEOs will tell you, but I have found that to be impossible.
As long as you’re doing what is best as a whole, don’t let the little things wear you down. Every decision is going to have its negative aspects to it. What you try to do is make the decision that has the least negative impact. Whether it affects the employee or the business as a whole, you just try to minimize the negative impacts.
Because my personality is someone who likes to fix things, sometimes people will bring problems to me and I want to fix them quickly because I think that’s what I’m supposed to do. I have to make a conscious effort to not be so reactive.
Go gather facts; go find out other sides of stories. Early on in my leadership role, I think people used that to their advantage. They knew I was going to fix something for them. I’ve had to learn to step back and gather information.
I don’t mind bringing other people into the decision process. I tell my management team, ‘You can get anybody to sit in my chair if you guys are doing your jobs.’ I encourage my managers to be involved in decisions. I don’t want to make every decision here.
Q. What is your approach to those who resist change?
My approach has been to try to position things such that it almost becomes their idea.
It takes a lot of effort and time to do that. It’s working with someone in almost a scenario where they are not even aware they are being worked on. Eventually, if you make them feel they are ultimately making that contribution to change, they are totally on board. Now that doesn’t always work.
There are people who are dead set against change. I’ve been fortunate not to have too many of those. In the case where you do, it may come down to quite simply expressing to someone that it’s a democracy up to a certain point. I had the mindset that every change was going to have to be dealt with in a collaborative effort.
It wasn’t going to be me coming in and telling them, ‘This is the way it’s going to be,’ because that was never going to work. My approach early on was to try to convince people not only what we needed to do, but why we needed to do that. I felt that people were more receptive if they knew why we were doing things, not just that we were going to do it that way.
At first, it’s a dialogue. ‘Why do we need this? I don’t understand. I don’t get it.’ We just keep chipping away at all the defenses until we get to the point where they hopefully understand that it’s for the betterment of the company as a whole.
Q. How can your image help you get buy-in to change?
Leaders are very intimidating figures. I’m also intimidating because I’m fairly tall. I intimidate people just being around them. So I try to make people feel comfortable very early in a conversation.
If they want to close the door, we close the door. If they want to leave the door open, we leave the door open. I ask them, ‘What makes you comfortable?’
I like for people to know why we do things not just what we’re going to do but why. I think it’s the right thing to do, to explain the reasons why. I’m not a very complicated guy, so my team knows that I’m not going to spend a lot of time explaining reasons. But I will try to put it in context of why we’re doing things.
At the end of the day, we’re all adults, at least we should be.