LPGA – Dissecting a Botched Change Project

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The Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) announced a program on August 26, 2008 that would impose severe penalties on players who did not learn to speak English. The change was a PR disaster and the tour commissioner at the time, Carolyn Bivens, rescinded the policy 10 days later on September 5. This disaster – a botched change project – could have been avoided with proper change leadership.

The irony is that the LPGA called the program “Our Effective Communication Policy.”

Strategy

For the LPGA Tour the main customer is the sponsor of their events. Marketing partnerships abound, relating LPGA sponsors and players. The success of the tour is based on the marketing attractiveness of the players and their compatibility with the sponsors. The demands on the player include playing in charity pro-am tournaments, public speaking, and schmoozing with the clients of sponsors.

An increasing number of foreign-born players have joined the LPGA Tour, and they are winning. Helping players better interact with sponsors is in everyone’s best interest.

Communication is critical. This poses a problem since a number of tour players don’t speak English well and require interpreters for conversation. Strategically, having all tour players speak English makes sense. Because of the strategic benefits, it seems logical to embark on a project with a goal to have 100% of tour players speaking passable English in order to better fulfill their sponsor and other obligations.

A Change Initiative

The LPGA’s project is very typical – An idea is developed in the boardroom. It fits the organizations strategic goals. Management says: “Get it done.” A change leader is assigned and you’re off and running. Does this sound familiar to you as a change leader?

Notice I said “Change Leader.” See our related article Are you a Project Manager OR a Change Leader?

Every negative aspect of this change initiative could have been easily avoided by executing the steps to lead change from Change Project Management – The Next Step. And a much more workable solution would be the result.

Briefly here are the recommended steps; along with a bit of 20/20 hindsight:

Stakeholder Analysis

Many times assumptions are made about who the stakeholders are, and shortcuts are taken in how they are analyzed and treated. Many change initiatives involve the press. It’s necessary to anticipate the press reaction and what their first steps will be when the change is announced. For instance, the LPGA could have anticipated that the press would immediately interview all of the foreign-born male players on the PGA Tour – some of whom speak English poorly at best – like top echelon players KJ Choi from South Korea and Angel Cabrera from Argentina. Also, what about top level players on the LPGA Tour like World #1 Lorena Ochoa from Mexico and former #1 Annika Sorenstam from Sweden? How will these important stakeholders think and feel about the change and how it is implemented? Of course, the sponsors are the biggest stakeholder along with the foreign players affected. Nearly half of LPGA Tour members are from abroad. Involving those that will feel the brunt of the change in the solution and its implementation would have been the ideal approach.

Change Planning and Monitoring Workshop

In this step of our system, we evaluate all of the key components of the change effort. The Organizational Change Complexity Rating for this initiative would be off the charts. This tells the change leader to use every tool at their disposal. The skill of the change team and executive sponsorship are reviewed, and organizational impacts are identified. Organizational impacts are the things that need to change before the change can be implemented. These tend to be related to personnel, compensation, and other structural issues that take time to implement. Understanding, and articulating, the reality of the change environment and its complexity is key to taking the appropriate steps to address all of the components that will make the change successful.

For example, there has been an influx of Korean players on tour recently. One major argument against the policy of requiring English is that it was unfairly pointed at the Koreans. This easily allows the opposition to paint tour leadership as racist. Likely, they aren’t but understanding this dynamic may have clued in the change leaders that announcing the change just after the commissioner met with Korean players only was a bone-headed idea.

The Foundation for Change

Everyone should completely understand the foundation for the change – the why of the change effort. More importantly, the foundation for change serves as a test for the viability of an approach. Can you make sense of it for all the stakeholders? If not, back to the drawing board.

Communication Campaign

Announcing we’re going to implement a change is not good change communication. Treating the introduction of the change as a communication campaign with the goal of adoption and moving forward is necessary. This process also allows for testing of the idea and being able to prepare for reactions along the way rather than being caught flat-footed.

Change Breakthrough Analysis

This technique is part of the communication process and allows for “thinking through” the problem and solution. It also enables constituents to reconcile the changes to their own situation. This process helps the change leader get away from the “Do it because I said so” syndrome.

Change Readiness

Was everyone ready to do their jobs in the new environment. In our LPGA example clearly not, as evidenced by the need to reverse the decision.

Implementation

When the announcement was made on August 26, there was a divisive firestorm of reaction. The announcement basically said that international players can face suspension from the tour in 2010 if they can’t show a grasp of basic English skills needed to communicate with tournament sponsors, pro-am playing partners, and the media. Players on tour for two years must pass an oral test of their English skills.

This change has a number of facets that are lightening rods: women’s rights, immigration, racism, civil rights, employment discrimination, and elitism.

The press went to work talking to all the stakeholders (or doing the job of the change team). The controversy played out on the airwaves and in print. It became a story. Civil rights attorneys began to threaten lawsuits. The tour tried to spin.

Sophie Gustafson, four-time LPGA winner from Sweden who stutters severely said, “I hope I’ll be allowed to do my oral English test in the written form. If not, I’ll have to start looking for a job.”

Even sponsors were baffled. One of the tour’s title sponsors, State Farm, said it was perplexed by the original policy. State Farm spokesperson Phil Supple said the company asked the tour to review its decision.

The politicians joined in. “I can only conclude this is borderline racist,” said Ted Lieu, a southern California democratic state senator who is chairman of California’s 10-member Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus. “It’d be like France requiring Lance Armstrong to pass a French test.”

Back-Peddling

On September 5, the tour backed down and rescinded the policy. “The LPGA has received valuable feedback from a variety of constituents regarding the recently announced penalties attached to our effective communications policy. We have decided to rescind those penalty provisions.” Commissioner Bivens said in a statement, “After hearing the concerns, we believe there are other ways to achieve our shared objective of supporting and enhancing the business opportunities for every tour player.”

This valuable feedback should have come before implementation as input, not after as criticism. This is what a change project is designed to accomplish. Implementing the best solution is how to make valuable change. Implementing any solution is easy but it won’t get the job done.

After announcing the policy, commissioner Bivens sent a 1,200-word memo to the LPGA membership attempting to outline the goal behind the new policy. Constituents need to see the foundation for change before the implementation, not after.

The need to improve English speaking skills of tour players is a straightforward positive goal that meets a strategic need for the tour. The commissioner was right on target when seeking to improve the tour in this area. But clearly, she sent the wrong message in the implementation. She has been criticized for being a bit too abrasive in her short tenure trying to grow the tour. This gaffe has done nothing to offset these criticisms and could easily cost her job.

Brian Hewitt from the Golf Channel when asked if this failed change effort shakes the faith in the leadership of the LPGA Tour said, “She’s not being helped by the people at the top. A strong chief of staff may have headed off this problem.”

Integrating solid change leadership principles throughout the organization is a much-needed first step in avoiding this type of disaster in the future.

What was possible?

The commissioner could have been saved from this possibly career ending debacle by a professional change leader. The person leading this change effort, following proper change leadership techniques, could have identified a workable solution and saved the pain now being felt by this organization. Yes, the leadership team chose to take a negative approach rather than a positive approach to implementing this change. A skilled change leader could have challenged this approach and provided data indicating the fallout of the proposed solution.

We’ve all been there. Executives with little experience trying to prove themselves and erroneously thinking they can implement change by edict. Experienced professional change leaders can save the organization from naïve executives.

Think about how a partnership between the tour, sponsors, and players providing support and incentives to increase the percentage of players who can converse in English might have played differently. The tour could be viewed as groundbreaking innovators in sports management rather than bigoted elitist buffoons. A qualified change leader could have made all the difference.

This case study motivates me in my work. How about you?

Jim Canterucci

I don't know everything. But I want to. The focus of our firm, Transition Management Advisors, is to develop leadership capabilities to create a championship culture, generate innovation, and successfully lead the resulting changes.

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