Change on the Run
Change on the Run

Episode 53 · 7 months ago

Identifying Your Lessons Learned with Kathy Repa


Phil is joined by HR and change management expert Kathy Repa to discuss how to identify your lessons learned during change.

Understanding how our experiences impact outcomes helps build change capacity and skill, and dramatically improves organizational knowledge on how projects work within our cultures. 

So, how do identify, record and learn from your experiences during a large change initiative? 

Kathy can be reached at:



PHIL: Hello everyone, welcome to the change on the run podcast, where we discuss common change challenges and ways to address them. When you're short of time, and I'm your host, Phil Buckley. Today's topic is identifying your lessons learned. Understanding how our experience impacts outcomes helps build change capacity and skill and dramatically improves organizational knowledge of how projects work within our cultures. Experience is the best teacher, which enables us to repeat success patterns and eliminate future roadblocks to achieve our goals in the quickest and most effective way. Learning occurs in the moment. Something worked or didn't work because of specific factors, and we often lose learnings we don't record quickly. This applies equally to organizations and individuals and is especially true in the middle of projects because we tend to remember only beginnings and endings, leaving the key middle ground foggy. So, how do you identify, record and learn from your experiences during a large change initiative? And my guest today is Kathy Repa. Kathy, welcome to the show.

KATHY: Thank you so much for having me, I am so excited to be a guest.

PHIL: Thank you, Kathy, and thanks so much for taking the time to be here. Kathy has over thirty years of global human resources and change management experience. She is currently the Vice President HR, Global Supply Chain at Mondelez International. Kathy holds a BA, Human Resources Development at DeSales University. So, Kathy, looking back at your thirty-plus year’s career and we've known each other for over ten years, what's been your experience with personal lessons learned. I look at you as the queen of lessons learned and I've learned so much about how you do so just generally. What's been your experience?

KATHY: You know, one of my biggest lessons, and I think your book Change on the run really triggers a lot for me, is that we run a lot when we're doing these changes. We run from one change to another. We're change junkies. It's sort of our drug of choice and we look forward to those things. What we don't take time often enough as change professionals, to take a pause and to think about what we have actually learned, what lessons we can pass on to others or what lessons we can take forward ourselves, and I think that by doing that you don't often get as much value as we possibly could from that pause for purpose, that time to refresh, that time to reflect, and I'm a huge journalizer, so I do often sit back at the end of the week and maybe as I've gotten into my twenty and thirty years of running change, I do it much more frequently to say, you know, what things went well about this and what am I most proud of and what do I want to learn from that to take forward and make sure that I incorporate in the next ones? You know what things didn't go so well, and sometimes we punish ourselves for what didn't go so well, and I like to sit back and say, well, was that in my control? Because if it's not in my control, then why would I punish myself for it not going well? Then? That's not to say I don't take that as a lesson to do something differently, but I don't sit there and beat myself up over and over again about something that wasn't in my control, but rather reflect on how I can manifest it into something that next time might be much more controllable. And then I do celebrate, even if I do a happy dance around my place by myself. You do have to pat yourself on the back, you know, because it's not that people don't recognize your value, it's just that it doesn't often come out as the thank yous that maybe you need to generate that spirit and energy to go forward.

PHIL: Thanks, Kathy, and it's great to see that you reward yourself and do the happy dance. But then also learn from, hey, this didn't work so well. And why do you think people focus more on what didn't work, or at least that's been my experience personally, but also observing other people? The one thing that didn't go well in the nine things that went very well to plan. We just focus on that thing that didn't go well and replay it off and as a tape in our heads. Why do you think that happens?

KATHY: Well, think about how we approach anything, in life and at work. Think about performance reviews. People focus on what didn't go well during the year and they might have a sixty-second tidbit on what went well. Our nature is to focus, unfortunately, on the downside. When business is good, you get a little bit of a rave, but when business is bad, you hear it forever and then it becomes the stories that people tell. So, it becomes a legacy of the company or the legacy of the business or the legacy of the person, and it's hard to break out of that. So, I think, as change leads, it's our job to let people know that it's okay to have things go not so well as long as we're learning from them. But what's not okay to do is to not celebrate equally the things that went well, very well, and even the things that went okay that you're able to, later on, come back to. So, make sure you don't lose those gold nuggets because future-forward, you might have an opportunity to take that to a diamond.

PHIL: No, that is great. What I find fascinating is if the project was deemed as a success, so we hit our targets, the lessons learned can be really glowing and it focuses on that. Hey, we’re the champions, my friend, but the ones that didn't work well, there are no good parts in it. It's all about we should have been better at this, we could have done that, we made a mistake here, and I think the impact is we're not going to learn from those good bits so we can replicate them. Have you ever seen that?

KATHY: Yeah, and you know, I often reflect back to when you and I were partnering. We knew our clientele. I mean you know very well the clientele at Cadbury. I knew very well the clientele at Kraft. We needed to really sit and say what would be best for our clientele. If you remember, we went from place to place to place, leadership team to leadership team to leadership team. Each one of them brought a unique flare to what it was we were trying to do from an acquisition integration perspective. Each time we took the time to first and foremost talk to the senior-most leader and find out what the business agenda was. And then, even though we came equipped with discussion points and activities and whatever, we spent time with the members collectively and individually, and then we decided how to shape them for future-forward and align them. And then know that if you go to the next part of your journey on this massive thing that you've been asked to run and task to do, it might not be the same experience. It might be a hybrid and you have to be flexible enough to adapt that high bread and feel okay, you know, feel comfortable with that and feel okay and not just say, oh well, gosh, I didn't do it exactly like I did it with this team. So what? Because this next group isn't the same organism, and that's what we're dealing with every day, an organism, and we have to make sure that we're addressing every part of that organism in the right way.

PHIL: Fascinating, and the point that you made was so important that it was co-created by going to the different teams and then sharing what the last team said to the next team and any comments on that lesson learned.

KATHY: I think we gave them good things to think about. I remember one team that we went to that it was old Kraft, new Kraft, Lu Biscuit, Cadbury, and now we had some brand-new members that were already hired to be this hybrid. I think what we did was gave them things to think about, not necessarily the entire cookbook, but you know what ingredients you should go shop for, but when you bring those ingredients back, it has to be your recipe, it has to be your product that someone's going to consume. And the someone that is going to consume that is the people that work for them. It's the business that benefits by them being top of their game, and I do believe we were significantly successful. It was that we could go from place to place and we could say, hey, this is what we learned from team Australia, but we're in team South Africa now, and so team South Africa isn't team Australia. You have different people that work for the company, you have different government challenges, you have all these things, but could you think about some of these things from team Australia, because this is what they wrestled with, this is what they talked through, and now let's talk through your things. So, it was taking the legacy of the stories that we got along our journey and sharing those and having them say, do I want to take that chapter out of that book and does that make sense for the story that I'm constructing, or is my chapter completely different?

PHIL: But the fact that somebody thought through it puts it in a context that I can decide how to go with it and I remember that at that time specifically where the leader said, so we get to choose. There was that ability to pick which parts will work as long as the principles are the same. Remember when we were starting we pulled together all the lessons learned from the two companies, from all the mergers, and it's some they're hard to find. They were archives somewhere, and then we distilled the learnings from both sides. But really, I think more importantly it was the list of learnings as one organization. This is it.

KATHY: We presented it to the leadership team at the end. We added to that, but it really did raise a challenge I think most organizations and individuals have is once it's archived, it can often be forgotten. People change and they move. How do you break that pattern where it's go, go, go and we don't have time to find our past lessons learned, we’re a new team? Let's just jump in and get busy. Yeah, I think that's an enormously important part and someone has to figure out where all those archives are when they go through this because what you get is what's the culture. Kraft was a series of acquisitions, whether it be Oscar Myer or the coffee business in Nabisco, they all came with a different culture and a different identity, and I think the most fun we had, in the beginning. It was a show storm, I brought you some chocolate, you brought me some peanut butter. We exchanged our own cultural likes and whatever it allowed us to say. You know, these companies have never fully been integrated culturally. They don't have one culture. They still have their own identities. In this, Nabisco still goes by Nabisco. We had a side. What's this new identity? What's this being of one? How do we create shared values? That then allowed us to start off as a new company. If you remember, we said A and B must equal C, and C has to have a little bit of A and a little bit of B, but it still has to be more of a future-forward where you know, A and kind of set it to the side. At some point, C becomes the being that exists. And that, I think, was a really satisfying and actually an astounding learning experience that took us several weeks to collect and then put in an order. It was worth every minute and ounce of time that we did.

PHIL: Such a great experience and taking the time to do so and understanding the culture that you're working in, and especially you're insight about there are many cultures within these organizations and I wondered are there any lessons learned for people that are going through a major change? Any lessons learned about culture and how you work within it to get the outcome that you're looking for?

KATHY: I think when you're going into the culture, you have to go in and make sure that you're digging into the observable and the non-observable elements. Initially and visually. You'll see, as we walked into buildings, if you remember, the personality of the entity could be what's up on the walls. It could be the way you're greeted when you walk in there. It could be the formality of the conference rooms. You know, it could be any of those things. What kills you are the invisible elements. Do we say we want to be risk-takers, but we are completely risk adverse? Do we say that we allow failure, but quite simply, if you fail, you're almost out the door? Are there cliques within the organization that have the power and run things, but they let people think and believe every now and then that they have the ability to make decisions? Those are the most dangerous elements to eventually allowing the change to take hold because if you just go in with what's on the wall, how nice the receptionist was to you, do they have a great canteen and we had wonderful lunches? The board room is absolutely stunning, you won't be able to sustain what it is that you're wanting to sustain, because as this new entity forms, it's going to trip over those land mines that were there and not discovered early enough. To create a road map around them or through them, because sometimes they'll still remain. Sometimes you won't be able to change and shift everything, but if you create a navigational map for somebody, it becomes a very powerful tool to be successful: here’s another obstacle that's in front of you. So that's why exploring culture is absolutely key and making sure you don't think you just got it because you've talked to a handful of people, or you've seen it visually or you get a document that shows their values. You need to go out and ask people in the organization. Do they really tell it like it is, or do they just tell those things that you want to make sure you're discovering to the degree of discovery that allows you to help shake the path forward?

PHIL: Great advice. I find it’s by making mistakes and then they say, well, we really don't do this here, and it's like, oh, you know, I just found part of your culture. We don't ask tough questions in leadership meetings or whatever it might be. When I used to hire people or interview people for leadership positions, and especially after our experiences with change leadership, I'd always ask what have you learned from running or being part of a change initiative versus what have you learned, because I found they're two different things. That I maintain mandate is very different than a change growth mandate, and what I found is a lot of them would give those textbook answers. Well, it's important to support the team and just something from the latest magazine. And I'd ask the question again and I'd probe specifically about change initiatives and often times people would repeat the same answer that they had before. One’s that had not learned and I think there are great leaders who have learned and sell in the answer. Why do you think leaders don't take the time to capture their lessons learned as you talked about earlier?

KATHY: I think it doesn't resonate to do it. Oftentimes they get caught up and get sent on the next change. So, you're just flowing from one thing to the other. You just like set that one aside and it's off to the new adventure. It's exciting to go on a new adventure. Our change was a year, but it was so intense that after that year we were waiting for what's the new adventure? But some changes can be like two-three years and by the time you get that through, that two three year journey, you just want to set it aside and unfortunately, you miss out on not taking that time to sit back and say, you know, what did I learn from that? I also think there are changes that go on and on and on and then they reshape, and they get a new name, but it's the same thing. It just has a different name because it failed along the way, it didn't go as planned and rather than even say did it fail, or could we have taken an alternative route, rather than just scrap everything and start from scratch? I still see today, unfortunately, a lot of start from scratch, scrap what you have and not even sit and look at that and say well, what can I take forward? But restart everything. I don't think organizations have the money or the time to keep doing that.

PHIL: No, certainly. And any thoughts about how you change the story where it's seen as a success behavior, it's expected by leaders. How do you build that mindset in so you don't lose those lessons learned?

PHIL: I think that you have to purposely put it as part of your strategy, and you and I remember we did a big debrief at the end, but we put it as part of our strategy. We basically said we're going to have a beginning and an end to this change approach. We're going to understand what the business case is and then we're going to know how we have to address it in each country, each part of the world, and each leadership team. In the end, probably the best thing that we did was say, how did this whole thing go? We captured that, we presented it to the senior leaders, including the CEO, and we said, well, this is what we see from a cultural perspective, this is what we learned from a systems and a work processes. This is what we learned about the leadership teams, hoping that they too would do something with it. You and I consciously put those steps in there and I think until you make it a norm or obtain the value out of it, naturally, you almost have to outline your entire approach. We do often change process, but we don't always put that last step in place.

PHIL: I agree, and good for the leadership team that once we got started everyone was engrossed in what we had heard, and I think it was the stories we told because we were constantly with the twenty top markets. It added color and texture to what the lessons were. But such a rare occurrence to have that happen.

Kathy, you've done so many huge integrations and changes and functional shifts and you name it, you've done it. How do you capture your lessons learned? What do you do now that you might not have done thirty years ago? How do you do it?

KATHY: I think I do more checkpoints in with others, in addition to my own self-reflection and reflecting with partners because I do have some wonderful partners. When I have gotten to do these things, what I have started to incorporate more is reaching out to various parts of the organization and say you know, now that we've gone through this, now that we've made this transformation, how do you feel about it? How did you feel about it when you first heard about it? How do you feel about it now? What could I have done differently, or the team of folks that were doing this? What could we have done differently that maybe would have had you on board sooner or made this a less painful process to go through? And then what, again, did we do very well that if you had to go through something else again, and we all do, you know nothing, stay stagnant, that we should make that top of mind when we go through it.?

PHIL: Thank you, Kathy. And I remember after the integration, often you'd say, well, this is what I've learned because you were equal. You said, hey, this didn't go well, and this went well. I thought was a great sort of cultural map to say it's okay to criticize something you didn't think was good because I've just done it myself. And then what did you appreciate? I'm so keen to get your lessons learned. We talked about how you do it and you journal, and you reflect and then play it back and resource it. But I'm really keen for you to share some of the lessons that you have learned with a couple of big change topics. The first one I would say is what have you learned from the sponsorship aspect? The leaders that take the charge. What makes them successful sponsors?

KATHY: They are so important and having the right sponsor is absolutely key. A sponsor is just not a title. So, it's not somebody who says, oh, you're going to sponsor this change initiative and you put their name on every presentation. You know when you're listening, who the folks are that are change leads. I know, by the way, Joe is our sponsor. Joe has to be significantly engaged in this process. They have to have the passion for what it is that you're trying to shift within the organization. They have to show up, they have to be there in good times and bad times. They have to help you remove the obstacles and the roadblocks. They have to really listen when you tell them what's happened and then they have to believe that because you’re closest to that fact. The other thing is sponsorship does not end when your sunset the team. Sponsorship continues for a while to maintain sustainability, because if ever anybody sunsets and goes off to something else, then it kind of looks like it was just an activity. And so, when the activity ends, then so do the ones that have been waiting for the activity and the sponsors are going away to go back to where they were before. And, as we all know who’s been in the change field a long time, if you don't reach that level of sustainability and operate in a new norm, you're back to where you were and the journey was for not. I think my lesson learned is who you choose as your sponsor and their engagement and then being there and in the presence of sustainability is critical for success.

PHIL: What do people need to be able to change?

KATHY: A couple of things, I think, one, the more that you get them to engage in changing their destiny, the more they will desire to go on the journey and adapt to change. But getting somebody to engage takes on so many different forms. So, what you would want, Phil, to look at what engagement will look like might not be the same as what I would want. So, it's understanding. How do you get this pocket of the organization engaged and what does engagement look like? But it's also not giving them false promises. So, it's not saying, hey, I want you to be engaged and so I want to listen to your point of view and get them all excited and have them think that everything they tell you is going to be part of where you go or adopted. But it is I'm selecting these ideas and I'm going to come back to you when it made sense to put something in place. But why some things didn't make sense based on the goal. So, it's that exchange with them so that they know what they had to say was valued. Even no, it wasn't used at that particular point in time, because then you validate what they said, and it's about validation, which is part of the adoption and engagement. You validated that they have something important to tell you and they're okay if you don't use it, as long as you let them know that you considered it. But if you never come back and tell them that you considered it, it's not going to happen again. It was a matter of how they could feel as if they were contributing to their own destiny absolutely and that they mattered, which is such a great point.

PHIL: This is so fascinating. I'm wondering, in the spirit of Change on the Run, if you only had time to do one action to capture your personal lessons learning, what would be, that one thing that you would always do that would give you eighty percent of the results in twenty percent of the time?

KATHY: What I would really do is spend the time understanding what the as-is is, make sure I know deeply what the current culture is, what the current work processes are, and what the current work environment is. Then that time they reflect. Don't short-change that step, because it is so, so important to do that before rushing into designing the to be stay because it's impossible to do something that is much more optimal if you don't know what's ineffective or not optimal today.

And then the other thing is, I think before rushing the structure, changing the structure because it's so easy for somebody to get out a box chart and start moving the boxes around and think that that is going to solve all the problem if I change this reporting line or that reporting line, and eventually you have to get to the box charts and the structure. But I do think again that the areas that you should explore when before understanding the to-be state is decisions. How are decisions made today? Are they made at the lowest level possible, or is there a decision committee or is there somebody that overrules it? But decisions are so important to how an entity operates. How do we inform our people? How do we let them know what information they need to do their jobs effectively? Or don't we and then we wonder why they're not doing what we want them to do. So, that discovery on how information is shared, what information is shared, how it gets to the sources, I think is sometimes another cultural element as well that you have to discover. I always look at how are we rewarding? How are we rewarding the behaviors that we want to be there, and then, basically, how are we tending to the undesired behaviors, because I think we've all discovered that sometimes we're rewarding because, a, we don't want to have the powerful conversations or be it's just easier to manage difficult persons. We've rewarded undesirable behaviors, we give people outstanding ratings or whatever, and then one day we say this is no longer acceptable and they're shocked. So, I do think we have to see how that's done. How are their rewards and recognition system? How are the consequences dealt with for the things that you don't want to exist anymore, and maybe even have to recommend that as they go forward?

The other one is do we understand, and does everybody understand, what they're being held accountable for? We go through the goal-setting process every year, but truly do they understand what it is that they do every day, what it contributes to in terms of what somebody else needs to do to be successful? What are those intersect points. I think testing that to make sure if it's just a list of goals not connected versus driving a business outcome is an important step.

And then one of the last things I look at is our workforce skilled and equipped to do what we want them to do? Have we provided the right training? And training does not always mean a class. Have we provided the right coaching mechanism so that they know precisely how to do their jobs very well, or have we failed them? And that's a key component that has to shift before I do things like move the boxes around, because if I move the boxes around and I still have people ill-equipped to do their jobs or the product job profile, that what I'm rescoping, I still get the outcome that I have today, as opposed to being to do the moving. So that's what I do in looking at the as-is clearly so that even designing to-be, those elements are addressed and then I hit the structure.

PHIL: Isn't it true that the to-be is the glamorous part and it's the easiest part? I would say all we have to do is move a couple of boxes and it sounds great, but, where were we starting from? And the point about decision-making, I think is such an important part, because you don't necessarily see that on paper. Thank you so much, and I'm just what are you as we close off the show today? Is there a headline comment or a watch out or a thought about capturing your personal lessons learn and how to do that well so that you can be your best during change?

KATHY: Yes, I think we have to remember that this is like a road trip. Every change that we take somebody on or go through ourselves, it's a road trip. When you go on a road trip when you're taking your family and vacation. We're going on a vacation yourself and you get in the car, and you have all these things planned. You have to stop along the way, you have to stop and fill your car up with petrol, you have to get a snack, you have to, you know, just get out, walk around, stretch your legs, turn your neck, crack out all the little creaks and whatever, before getting back in that car again, you know, and continuing on the road trip. I don't know that we take enough time for those rest stops or we take the adequate time to really refresh and reignite and reflect and then be able to get back in that car for the next hour or two, or whatever it is that we are, and I've learned that, especially for us that do this a lot, you can mentally become overly exhausted to the point where you just can't think straight anymore. And I know we hear that being said, but it happens. You can become so mentally exhausting that everything just blurs into the same thing and you're not at your best and you're not contributing at your best. You can become physically ill as well because you're not taking care, you're not taking care of your whole body and your whole mental well-being. So, for me, it is so important that you have fun, and you go on this road trip, and you pick your partners on this road trip, by the way, because you want to have lots of fun. And that's why, even picking your partner on the road trips is fun, you have to help each other take that time out to rest and balance each other out, because it can be exhausting, but it also can have you miss some key indicators that you should be picking up on when you're all present. That's my biggest reflection.

PHIL: Oh thanks, Kathy, and that's definitely how I felt with the two of us on the road for a solid year almost every week. So, thank you for that and thanks so much for taking the time to be on the Change on the Run podcast. I really appreciate your sharing your lessons learned and guidance, and this is going to be the first episode of the podcast where we’ll include the full transcript of our conversation so people can maximize their learning from you.

And how can people get in contact with you? Yes, I'm excited. I'm soon to be retiring. My email is I am a change junkie, so I will have to satisfy my needs when I'm not in the aggressive business environment through the stories of others. So, I look forward to connecting with people. Thanks so much for having me.

PHIL: Thanks Kathy, and thanks for being a great friend and a great partner and for the lessons that you've taught me, and thanks for your leadership, your guidance, and the humanity that you provided through change, and I know with HR as well. You set the bar really high for all of us. So, thank you and all the best for the next chapter.

And thanks to our listeners, and I hope Kathy has been as much of an inspiration as she is to me. And until the next time, I wish you all the best as you continue to lead change.

In-Stream Audio Search


Search across all episodes within this podcast

Episodes (61)