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How C. James Prieur pushed an important change through at CNO Financial Group Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2010

It all made perfect sense to C. James Prieur. Back in 2006, he wanted to move about 400 employees from Chicago to Carmel, where CNO Financial Group Inc. maintained its corporate headquarters.

They all worked in the same department of the $4.3 billion insurance company (which at the time was known as Conseco Inc.) So why, Prieur reasoned, did these people need to work in two different cities 180 miles apart?

“It was to get more efficiency in the office and get more expertise in one place and get focused on improving more of the back-office operations in the company,” says Prieur, the company’s CEO. “In many respects, it’s the biggest part of the company, because it’s a lot of people. It made more sense to do it one place.”

There was one problem.

“There was this funny Carmel versus Chicago thing going on,” Prieur says. “There was some concern among the people in Chicago that what we were signaling was that we were going to exit Chicago. That was not something we were considering.”

But the rumor persisted and left Prieur with a tough task. He had to convince everyone that this move was good for the 3,500-employee company. He also had to reassure those who feared this move was a precursor to an even bigger exodus from Chicago.

“There are always going to be people who don’t want a change,” Prieur says. “If you’re making something more efficient, that means jobs are going to disappear or change. People like to keep their jobs.”

Prieur knew deep down that the consolidation was the right thing for the business. He also knew that he didn’t want to engage in a contentious debate about something he had no intention of doing anyway. So he focused on the move he did want to make and his strong resolve to get it done.

Build your case

Prieur saw the Carmel consolidation as the first step to resolving the inefficiency that he found throughout the company upon his arrival at CNO in early 2006. But he had to sell his leadership team on the idea before he could bring it to everyone else.

“You have to get people to wrap their minds around what you are trying to do,” Prieur says. “I thought it made sense. I shared it with the board and the management committee, the guys who report directly to me. We talked about it quite a bit.”

Prieur needed to show them the products that were losing money for the company. He needed to illustrate the lack of focus the company had about what it did best.

“We were selling products in markets where we weren’t very competitive and we really couldn’t be very competitive,” Prieur says. “It wasn’t playing to our strengths.”

He thought the consolidation would be a good starting point to streamlining the entire business. But he wanted his team’s input in order to be sure it was the right move to make.

“It’s like carpentry,” Prieur says. “They say, ‘Measure twice, cut once.’ Be very careful with what you’re planning ahead of time. Make sure you’ve identified who is going to be running the project and what the project benefits are going to be. Once you launch it, you’re going to finish it. You’re going to do it. Nothing is going to stop you once you launch it. Make sure all the questions that may have come up are asked and answered before you make the announcement to the staff.”

There were concerns about the change initially. And there were concerns about the fact that Prieur was the latest in a revolving door of CEOs in recent years. So he took a measured approach to make sure his team knew this wasn’t a rash move.

“People have to understand you’re committed to the company and that the company’s best interests are what’s driving you,” Prieur says. “That has to become clear. So when you do a change and you explain why it’s going to benefit the policyholder, the shareholder and the company in the long run, that’s really important.”

Prieur had a pretty good feeling that this move of employees from Chicago to Carmel was a good one. But he didn’t want to come across as heavy-handed with his leadership team. And he wanted to be able to present a united front when it came time to announce the move to the masses.

“The way I approached it was, ‘Here’s a notion,’” Prieur says. “I would send out notes that I would call, ‘Thoughts about …’ If I send out a memo saying, ‘Thoughts about …,’ my direct reports know this is what I’m thinking. I’m not locked into these positions yet. Here’s what I’m thinking. That’s the first stage. I’m thinking about it. I’m sharing it with them. I’m getting input from them.”

Your approach goes a long way toward your success in earning support for your idea.

“If you approach it as if the people you are working with are your colleagues, you’re just the most senior colleague, and you actually use their input, they get it that you’re not determining everything yourself,” Prieur says. “They understand you’re actually taking their ideas, modifying your own ideas and sometimes abandoning your own ideas. You’ve got the people who are directly under you who feel like they own whatever you’re doing, because they are part of the decision to do it. Right off the bat, you don’t look like Attila the Hun.”

Prieur explained to his team what he saw in terms of the redundancy of operation in the business.

“You realize someone is doing something in Carmel and someone in Chicago is doing the same thing,” Prieur says. “Why can’t it be done by one person?”

He started broaching the subject of other concerns, such as products that weren’t selling and a focus that seemed to be drifting, that could be addressed later. But this would be his first move. He wanted the team to understand that once the decision was made, there could be no turning back. He would need their full support.

“Once you start a project, there’s (no way) you’re going to stop the project,” Prieur says.

Seek out supporters

You will never convince everyone that what you are proposing is a good idea. It’s just not going to happen, and Prieur’s idea to move 400 people to Carmel would be no different when he told everyone what he wanted to do.

“It’s been my experience that for any change, one-third of the people will be solidly behind it,” Prieur says. “They will be actively supportive. One-third of the people will be solidly opposed to it. And one-third of the people want to know which way to jump. It’s that middle third that you have to worry about. … That’s who you have to communicate to.”

The best approach to reaching this group on the fence is to bring in your company’s opinion leaders and enlist their help in getting your message out. They are the ones that always come up in conversation when you’re talking about anything company-related.

“You’ll hear people keep talking about Tim,” Prieur says. “You hear Tim’s name over and over and over again, not just from Tim’s department but from other departments. In the back of your mind, you should be thinking, ‘Opinion leader. Someone to watch. Someone who has great potential and natural leadership ability.’ It’s important to reach those people.”

If you don’t know who those people are in your company, go to your human resources department and get a list.

“Certainly the head of HR will have his or her own views on that,” Prieur says. “When you talk to the business leaders, it should naturally come up. You’re talking about who is good, who is bad. Whenever you talk about business, it’s hard not to talk about people. If you’re a manager or CEO and someone starts talking about people, you’ve got to listen.”

When you meet with these people in small groups of six to eight, you’re not seeking their approval for what you want to do. You’re seeking their support to help you earn the support of those who are unsure about the move you want to make.

“They have to understand that you’ve made the decision and you’re going to go ahead with it, regardless of opposition,” Prieur says. “You have to explain what the benefits are going to be to the organization as a whole. It’s very important for them to understand the benefit to the company and that you’re going to improve processes and make the consumer experience better.”

Prieur wanted people to see this as a first step toward strengthening the company and building a stronger sense of team.

“Leading to some extent is building momentum,” Prieur says. “You finally get to the point where people start to make up stories about you and they are good stories. When you start off and they are cynical, the only way to get it done is to reiterate the benefits and why you’re doing it and then make sure it gets done. Drive through to the finish.”

Push on through

So what do you do when faced with a staunch group of opponents who refuse to accept the change or changes you want to make for your business?

“If there is active opposition, you fire the person,” Prieur says. “If someone is actively trying to stop progress, you’ve got to get rid of them. Otherwise, you’re not in control. You’re not leading the change.”

Fortunately for Prieur, there was no such dramatic resistance to the move of employees from Chicago to Carmel. But if there had been, Prieur says he wouldn’t have flinched once the decision was made that the move was right for the company.

“Don’t worry about the opposition,” Prieur says. “They’re going to fall by the wayside as you drive relentlessly through to the completion of the project.”

Your employees need to see that you have resolve and that you believe in your decision if they’re going to support you. If you demonstrate that you’re not sure about it, why should they feel good about it?

“I remember in some meetings when we were talking about some of the big things we did, someone said, ‘Well, the regulator won’t let you do that,’” Prieur says. “And somebody else said, ‘We’ve never done anything like that before.’ I said, ‘Look, we’re going to bloody well do this. We’re going to do this regardless of opposition, because it makes sense. It’s good for the company and good for the consumer. We’re going to do it.’”

Prieur did do it, and the success of the change laid the groundwork for more changes he wanted to make to create better efficiency and a more streamlined company.

“I got everyone to think about the company in a different way,” Prieur says.

So how do you avoid coming off like Attila the Hun in trying to push your change through? Well, in the rare instance you got it wrong, don’t hesitate to own up to it.

“You’re bound to make mistakes,” Prieur says. “When people see that you back off something if you think it’s illogical or it isn’t working out like you thought it was working out, then they start to think, ‘OK, I’m not working for Attila the Hun.’”

How to reach: CNO Financial Group Inc., (800) 426-6732 or www.cnoinc.com