Everyone thinks differently, every project team develops its own unique dynamics – this poses many challenges for effective change management. Nobody at T.A. Cook knows this better than Bernd Zanger. For over 20 years, he has been shaping change at and with clients and colleagues worldwide. The ability to adapt and the right instincts are the secret to his success.
In fact, Bernd Zanger rarely jogs. He simply doesn’t have the time for regular athletic activities, and when in doubt, he prefers to strap on his hiking boots or hop on his bike. Nevertheless, for one of his projects he laced up his running shoes every Tuesday at exactly 5 pm – purely for professional reasons. “Employees at one of my clients formed this jogging group, and some of my colleagues and I joined it.” The 53-year-old found this form of exercise a welcome change and viewed it as an opportunity to get to know his coworkers better. It was an advantage, because an employee on the client-side had difficulties integrating into the project team long after the change project had started. Bernd Zanger viewed time outside the workplace as an opportunity to get to know the employee on a more personal level. And he was successful: a few weeks later, the employee’s initial skepticism had disappeared. “In the end, the man became a passionate supporter of the project. He even presented it at a conference and reported on his own positive experience.” Apart from the level of physical exertion, these situations are nothing new for Bernd Zanger. After more than 20 years in the consulting business and almost 100 projects in German, English, and French-speaking countries, the man with a degree in engineering has met many types of people while working with his clients – from the committed, to the pragmatic, and the stubborn. Although each project has its own dynamics, they all have one thing in common: a fear of the unknown. “Even though this client was an extreme example, the underlying principles are often the same. As external consultants, we first have to earn our stripes, especially since the workforce is usually reluctant to accept terms like change or optimization at first.”
The project teams managed by Bernd Zanger usually struggle with stereotypes at first. “Especially at the production sites themselves, we consultants are often regarded as academics and stuffed shirts who make theoretical decisions from the top down, but have little practical experience.” But most skeptics relax when they become more familiar with T.A. Cook’s project philosophy. “We don’t just do the conceptual work, we actually get down to business with the clients. When the employees see us roll up our sleeves and get actively involved, it often breaks the ice.”
In his job, Bernd Zanger, who celebrated his tenth anniversary with T.A. Cook in 2019, regularly meets people with unique personalities and very different egos. Just like during a multinational change project, when his counterpart on the client side disregarded the previously discussed procedure in a meeting with senior management. “I’m still convinced that as the new guy he wanted to prove himself to his boss.” In such situations, it takes more than rolling up your sleeves – it takes tact and a healthy dose of self-composure. Qualities that Bernd Zanger possesses, in addition to a great deal of experience. “I don’t like tooting my own horn. And I don’t have a secret recipe either. But what I can say is that in these kinds of stressful situations, I rely on the input and my feelings. And I never lose sight of the project’s goal, even when I notice that trouble is brewing inside me. This usually works pretty well.”
This was also the case in the aforementioned situation. Instead of starting a discussion in front of the entire team, the change management expert swallowed his emotions. With a few hours’ sleep and a little of bit of distance, he went and spoke to the client the next day: “I took a colleague with me and politely but firmly and directly confronted the client about his behavior. Taking this direct and authentic approach earned me respect, and our communication was much better after that.” In these situations, Bernd Zanger relies on his gut feeling and repeatedly assesses which method of communication is necessary and useful.
“If I tried to pigeonhole customers in advance, I’d be doomed to failure. The direct approach worked in this case, but with a different colleague I might have made the situation worse. That’s why I always make decisions based on the situation and adapt my own behavior and language. The important thing is that I achieve the defined objectives, and the customer reaps the benefits.”
This is an attitude that often makes Bernd Zanger’s job even more time-consuming than it already is. “When I lead a project, I don’t accept half measures. And I stick to this very strictly and go the extra mile.” It is also why, every now and then, even the 53-year-old’s family becomes part of a project – in a sense. “When I had to go to Australia for a four-month project, I took my family with me. I didn’t consider any other option with a project over such a long period of time.” While his oldest son, now an adult, stayed in Germany to look after their home in Kehl am Rhein, his younger son and wife accompanied him on the long journey. “My son went to school there for two months. For me, it was quite a luxury. Instead of coming home to an empty hotel room every night, I got to spend time with my family there after work.” In the meantime, Bernd Zanger and his family once again live at their home near the French border. But the family man is still busy as ever. Not only because he wants to achieve the best possible results together with his clients. But also because his area of expertise, change management, is constantly evolving.
“As a result of digitalization, projects are becoming increasingly fragmented and complex, and new management structures have made leading a project and communicating with clients more challenging.” So it’s nice to know that Bernd Zanger can rely on his experience and his intuition in this web of complex tasks and opinionated colleagues. And if all else fails, he simply pulls his running shoes out of the closet.