No Fear! Tales of a Change Agent: Why I Couldn’t Fix Nortel Networks

Nortel Networks Declares Bankruptcy! Oh, No!

In January of 2009, Nortel Networks, a hundred-year-old company with a market capitalization of over $200 Billion, that had peaked at $30 Billion in sales and employed over 100,000 people worldwide, declared bankruptcy!

Unable to restructure, it liquidated its assets, bringing an astounding $10 Billion into the estate, mostly from the value of its intellectual property, its patents and products. Unfortunately, this money languishes in escrow, hurting retirees and pensioners, while bondholders and other creditors vie for a larger share.

As recently as 2001, it had been a Fortune 50 sized company, one of the most prestigious companies in Canada, its capitalization comprising almost a third of the Toronto Stock Exchange.

It had been highly respected, innovative, generous to its employees and focused on its customers.  It was an exciting place to work and I stayed there for 17 years.  Like thousands of others, I was proud to do so.

Back in 1986, the future was so bright, we had to wear shades!
Back in 1986, the future was so bright, we had to wear shades!

How Could This Possibly Have Happened?

How could such an established, successful company, filled with so many smart, dedicated, loyal, hard working and driven employees have failed so completely?

I am attempting to explain a piece of the puzzle by gathering my personal experiences and observations into a business memoir.

Who Am I to Judge?

I had been the Business Librarian at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill when I saw the ad for a Technical Librarian, for a new R+D lab called BNR (Bell Northern Research) in Research Triangle Park, N.C.  I was about the 30th person hired, stayed for 7 years, having become the lab’s HR Manager, when I was enticed to “cross the street” to the parent company, then known as Northern Telecom.  The lab had grown to a thousand employees.

For the next 11 years, I worked continuously, relentlessly, to try to improve the company.  I held both line and staff roles, led over a thousand people at one point, and yet spent several years in an individual contributor role, as an internal organization development consultant, working with the most senior executive team.

I was well rewarded and appreciated, receiving promotions, bonuses and awards.  But I was also frustrated, worried that the fear based culture would eventually doom the company.  I tried to affect culture and leadership, the foundations needed to build large scale successful organizations in the Knowledge Age.

I often succeeded, but only locally, with individual leaders and business groups, never enabling enough change at the company wide level and never gaining access to the most senior governing body, the Board of Directors.

If You No Longer Feel Valued…

I negotiated a severance agreement in 2001, having realized that I was no longer being effective in my mission, and then watched the company’s death spiral from a distance.

During my journey, I had promised many employees and colleagues that I would never stop trying to leverage the learning that I was getting from all the painful transitions, be they failed projects or downsizings.

OD Lives On!

I will now try to capture the essence of that learning in this book. Several colleagues, including one of our most successful product presidents, have read early drafts and encouraged me to go forward.  I need to do some more research to strengthen the business and market context of my story.

I am seeking your help so that I can find a quality independent publisher that will enable wide distribution in multiple formats.  There are several quality on demand publishing houses that offer basic packages in the $1000 range.

The book should prove enlightening to ex-Nortel employees, customers and shareholders, but also to Organization Development and other Human Resource professionals.

Help Me If You Can… Check Out My Kickstarter