Don't Fire Zelekha

The American guru of management, John P. Kotter, laid down eight steps to make radical change in big organizations.

Kotter's first step is to drum up a sense of urgency. Organizations, mainly big ones, often suffer from a feeling that they're better than they are. Full of themselves, they detach from the reality. Unless the people at the organization get a grip, the leader has little chance of instituting change.

It isn't difficult to instill a sense of urgency. All it takes is common sense and access to information. Usually organization leaders do have such access.

The danger in creating a sense of urgency is that you will simultaneously create a sense of panic, leading workers to jump ship, and harm to the enterprise's image. Kotter's third step is therefore to generate vision, preferably exciting vision. In other words, the situation is terrible but we have a vision.

However, between the first and third steps lies a crucial stage, perhaps the trickiest of the lot: creating a coalition for change.

Few organizations and few leaders, if any, can institute change and create a brand new vision unaided. They need a coalition, a strong one.

There are plenty of strategies for forging a coalition: base it on insiders or outsiders, colleagues, bosses, their subjects, or all the above. But without a strong leader at its center, the coalition can't spur change.

Dr Yaron Zelekha, the accountant-general at the Finance Ministry, was appointed three years ago. He set himself a very precise purpose: to revolutionize the civil service. He declared his purpose on his first day in office, in public speeches and private conversation. He not only wanted to clean up the public sector: he wanted businessmen to feel secure when entering into contracts with the state.

His vision was an ambitious one, to be sure: all he was, was the accountant-general at the Finance Ministry. But the accountant-general has enormous influence, far more than anybody ever thought, until Zelekha took the job.

Zelekha took the job by storm, and in no time at all, the officials around him understood three things. One is that he was a thorough and widely read professional. Two, that he had a very clear idea of what the accountant-general should be doing. Three, he had  tendency to megalomania, and possibly a touch of paranoia, too.

He has a problem admitting when he's wrong, and retreating when he runs into a brick wall. His plan to give the state's shares in Bank Leumi to the public through stock options had not been a good one, but he dug in and tried to push it through to the last second, when he was overrode and the controlling interest in the bank was sold.

The problem with Zelekha

But the more time passes, the main problem with Zelekha came into sharp focus: he had not built a broad coalition for change. He was shooting at some of the people above him, and was busier being right than being wise.

Yes, Zelekha had an inherent problem in building a coalition: some of the high-ranking elements in the public service that were supposed to help him, saw themselves as being hurt by the changes he proposed.

Strong elements in the business sector too, who had been hurt by Zelekha directly or indirectly, also did their utmost to trip and hinder him, and to tar his good name.

But most leaders encounter problems like these when instituting change. The agent of change must deal with it, or founder.

Reading Zelekha's melodramatic speech the other day - "The many changes we have made in the work of the Accountant-general have shaken up the government's financial work, in a manner that startled terrific prehistoric beasts who for years had furtively sucked the lifeblood of the nation from their lairs" - one senses that he feels absolutely positive that the reason he's being hounded is his habit of uncovering corruption.

But one has to suspect that his conduct had what to do with it.

Part of the public sector is corrupt, but not all of it. Not every unwise decision or conflict of interest is indicative of criminal intent. Zelekha massively burned his contacts and bridges in the last couple of years, which was the mistake of a person who fails to grasp that without a broad coalition, he will fail to make the sweeping changes to which he aspires.

And now the cries arise from far and wide to fire Zelekha, or at least shove him out of the accountant-general's office. They claim he's a megalomaniac, ungovernable, what not.

Crawling with them

The claims are a tad hypocritical. The civil service is crawling with megalomaniacs, yet nobody's baying for their blood. Moreover, reformers like Zelekha often prove to be rough-mannered. Obviously, the people calling for Zelekha's head have other motives than megalomania and his manners.

One could argue for his ouster based on administrative grounds: he set up a state within a state at the Finance Ministry.

But the results of ousting Zelekha could be much more serious. Never mind the stability of the administration: firing him would send the message that the government stamps out people of his caliber, who fight ceaselessly to improve the administration.

The public is growing sicker and sicker of corruption in the public sphere. A message like that, that reformers are fair game, would cause tremendous damage.

Zelekha has a window of opportunity. Next month a new director-general joins the treasury, Yarom Ariav. Zelekha can't work with the present director-general, Joseph Bachar, any more; but he could begin a new leaf with the new one.

Zelekha must jump down from the tree he climbed ("Everybody is corrupt. I am fighting them") and remember that he's part of a team, some of which is better, some of which is worse.

Unless he does so, and fast, he will lose his image as the first such intrepid, audacious reformer at the treasury. If he really aspires to fight the good fight on behalf of the public another day, instead of fight over his image, he will have to recognize the limits and boundaries inside which all managers and leaders must operate, and fast.