Collaborative Leadership Blog

It’s the People Who Need to Own Organizational Change

“It’s the People!”

–Soylent Green, 1973–

The sausage line at Johnsonville Sausage ran right by CEO Ralph Stayer’s office on the second floor of the plant. Every day at noon, he would come out to taste the sausage, while all the workers below stopped to see if it passed Ralph’s quality test. It’s emblematic of Ralph’s command-and-control leadership style at the time, that he was standing above the workers in the power position, that it was his decision alone whether the sausage was of sufficient quality they could keep producing it. He had completely disempowered them.

Realizing his company could not grow if he had to make all the decisions, Ralph started a leadership journey intended to transform the culture, the first step of which was to transform himself. Why did he have this need for power and control? Why were his workers missing work and making mistakes. What could he do to change the culture of his company?

The result of Ralph’s high degree of self-awareness and empathy for his workers was a fundamental transformation of the leadership culture of Johnsonville Sausage. He stopped expecting his people to be incapable. He gave them ownership of their jobs, the company’s vision and mission, the making of sausage, and satisfying their customers. He flattened the pyramidal structure, got rid of the human resources department, and created coaching for all workers. He trusted his workforce, gave them responsibility, and let them hold each other accountable. Now, any worker on the sausage line could “pull the chain” and stop it if they believed the quality of the sausage was not up to standard. Even today, they own this company at every level. In fact, Ralph at one time mused: “For the last five years, my ambition has been to eliminate my job.”

Since the 1970s, over 70% of all change processes have failed. Johnsonville Sausage’s 10 year journey to a collaborative leadership culture was a phenomenal success for two main reasons: 1) Leadership was self-aware and willing to change, and 2) Workforce ownership of the change process.

In my 35 years of experience facilitating corporate change initiatives, and backed by research, the key to successful organizational change is giving the people who must live with its consequences ownership of the process. Not doing so results in fear, resistance, and even sabotage. Morale declines, people “run for cover”, and the effective work of the organization can come to a standstill until the dust settles.

In my work at companies like Marriott and DuPont, I found that even when people were going to lose their jobs, they still wanted to be involved in the process because they cared about the company. It’s counterintuitive, I know, but I witnessed this degree of ownership on many occasions. Collaborative change processes, grounded in a deep respect for the dreams, hopes, pride, and energy of the workforce can fundamentally transform a company’s culture and performance.

At the end of the day, leaders cannot control change. They just need to give ownership to the workforce to implement it. It’s all about the people!


*Dr. Edward Marshall is an Adjunct Professor in Management at the Fuqua School of Business, and the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University; ICF certified executive coach, Lifetime Top 15 Trust Thought Leader, and author of the forthcoming book: Leadership’s 4th Evolution: Collaboration for the 21st Century, August, 2020.