My experience with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and change

The recent death of Venezuelian President Hugo Chavez triggered memories of a team of us going to the country in 1999 to help the national oil company transition from being a “capitalist corporation” to being a government-owned entity. To their great credit the senior executives of PDVSA (the mega oil company Petroleum of Venezuela) understood that far more than structural change was afoot under Chavez. It was a whole new mindset, philosophy, and expectation of corporate culture and its attendant behavior.

PDVSA invited four Americans and one Canadian–senior executives who were part of the board of the  Issues Management Council based in Virginia, to spend a few days with hundreds of employees and senior managers. We held sessions on issues management, change, and organization development at the company’s in-house “university,” a magnificient setting in the city of Caracas. The insight I brought back was this:

First, even a giant corporation like PDVSA is capable of turning a tight corner fast when conditions so dictate. While some employees were clearly told either accept change or leave, many others felt change in Venezuela overall was badly needed and indeed had both an urgency and very clear purpose for such change.

Second, the employees at PDVSA were hungry for change because they very clearly saw the direct personal benefits. Chavez is criticized for many things but he clearly was seen as a “man of the people” especially in his early years, creating new structures and systems of employee involvement in decision-making, a new constitution, and participatory democratic councils. His expectation was that PDVSA would model this philosophy in all its employee relations. And the top executive of PDVSA clearly understood this and looked for ways of doing things differently.

Third, I was impressed and even a little surprised by how well models and processes of chiefly North American change management, OD, and issues management could be overlaid on a South American oil company that was suddenly a public corporation under a flamboyant socialist president. The language was different, the country culture was different, and the politics and attendant expectations of corporate behavior were vastly different from the U.S. Yet the core principles and proven practices of OD and change dovetailed perfectly into the needs of PDVSA.

What those common elements were fits into a few basic themes of practice that you and many of us use daily: 1) A very clear understanding of the purpose and urgency of the situation including the risks involved; 2) a deep appreciation of the situational context including what human emotions are strongly at play (especially fear); and 3) a network power analysis showing the how, where, when, why, who, and what behind the flow of information throughout the organization (an org chart shows just the surface).

While the above basic factors played a major role in our sessions, upon reflection what really helped create a successful few days was suspending any preconceived notions and stereotypes from all parties involved–including our team of senior corporate executives from the Issues Management Council, and the very open-minded and hospitable employees of PDVSA.