He Still Looks Like Him

Last Sunday, I had breakfast at the Beachcomber, which is right on the beach at Crystal Cove, just south of Newport Beach, California.  The waitress mentioned that many celebrities eat there often.  She talked about a particular performer, her favorite, and said, “He still looks like him.” I asked what she meant by such an odd choice of words, and she said that many celebrities have had so much plastic surgery that they no longer look like their former selves.

Plastic surgery is pursued in hopes of avoiding the changes typically associated with aging.  The goal is to avoid the appearance of aging.  Of course, this does not do much for actual aging.  Thus, the transformation is only on the surface – literally.  This is not the only form of transformation that only deals with the surface.

I have worked with many enterprises in business, government, and academia that undertook initiatives to envision a new future, formulate a strategy for pursuing that future, and develop a plan to transform their enterprise in the process.  On the surface — of PowerPoint slides and Word documents — these enterprises were transformation ready.

Over time, however, business as usual recaptured people’s attention.  The vision of a new future faded in all but the promotional brochures.  The strategy became more of a slogan than a path to the future.  The enterprise still looked like itself, only more so. The energy with which these initiatives began never got below the surface to enable real change.

Plastic surgery represents easy change, just as PowerPoint slides and Word documents represent easy change.  Change below the surface requires a much greater investment.  First and foremost, it requires committed transformational leadership that can articulate the vision that will compel people to act, in part because they have contributed to shaping this vision.  Leaders who were recruited to be stewards of the status quo will be unable to provide this type of leadership.

Second, change below the surface requires substantial human and financial resources.  In a time of scarcity, which may be one of the drivers of change, these resources are likely to have to be repurposed from other functions and activities.  This means that some elements of the status quo will have to be eliminated.  A leading indicator of successful transformation is the number of functions and activities that are completely eliminated.

Third, incentives and rewards have to be aligned with successful pursuit of the new future.  People will not march to a new drummer if their pay and promotions are still tied to the old marching tune.  Realignment of incentives and rewards usually results in outcries from the stewards of the status quo. Strong transformational leadership is needed to stay the course of change and allocate resources to the new future while also realigning incentives and rewards.

Change on the surface is so much easier than deeper change.  Beyond the plastic smile or glossy brochure, the stewards of the status quo tend to keep business as usual rolling along, with all functions and activities budgeted as usual, and everyone incented and rewarded as usual.  Nothing has really changed, because fundamental change below the surface is very difficult.


  1. Darren says:

    Hey, I really enjoyed this post I couldn’t agree more. Surface change will never ensure lasting success in any area of life. (specifically as you listed, business, government, and academia.)Do you have any examples of companies who really excelled in this way?

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