Change and transformation are in the air as we enter the New Year. It’s all around us – loads of information related to personal improvement (e.g. better fitness, improved finances or more satisfying career) and business renewal (e.g. improved quality, higher revenues, improved brand, stronger employee engagement).
Both locally and globally, we see companies and organizations of all types undergoing key transformations in response to changing shareholder expectations, new strategy, evolving markets, increased competitive pressures, resource constraints and emerging technologies. In reality, most organizations are in some sort of transition, many with agendas bigger than the typical business cycles we’ve commonly seen in the past.
Never has it been more important to get change and transition ‘right’ since the cost of failure is so high and so visible. Well-known thought leaders, however, consistently estimate that roughly 70% of major organizational change efforts fail to realize their desired outcomes.
Many of the missing ingredients, as we know, are about getting people to engage in, act on and sustain the proposed change effort. Change can be both messy and challenging – especially since human nature, being as it is, tends to resist change. Even more so for those most impacted by these changes, since they may not have the final say in the journey they’re about to embark on.
Guiding change and leading transformation may be the ultimate test of a leader — no business survives over the long term if it can’t reinvent itself. For leaders in organizations undergoing transition, the consequences of poor guidance on transformation or change can be significant, both personally and professionally.
While everyone has a part to play in transformation efforts, the role of the top leadership team is particularly important. A senior team that is aligned and acts in concert around the change effort is a ‘must-have’ for long term success.
Based on my experience with top teams, key questions that are worth exploring include:
- How strong is our mandate for change? Ensure the team has an ‘active license’ for change from key stakeholders including board members, key investors and major partners. This means more than acquiescence but a deep commitment by those same stakeholders to the proposed journey, required resources and expected outcomes. Each member of the leadership team must understand, in depth, both the level of support and types of reservations held by these key constituents.
- How clear and aligned are we on our vision for the transformation? Explore, debate and clarify the actual scope and proposed objectives of the change. Open and honest dialogue about the planned strategy, and its validity given the current context, must be part of an ongoing conversation. This enables team members to express their own concerns and expectations without undue reservation or hesitation. Challenging existing assumptions and expectations about the proposed change is essential to realize eventual alignment within the team.
- Have we created both a business case and truly compelling supporting story? Develop the complete picture including the reasons for the proposed change along with associated benefits, challenges and risks. Team members must be active participants in this effort so that they clearly understand, buy into and articulate any additional challenges and risks that they believe may come into play. This is an activity that shouldn’t be ‘outsourced’ since energy and passion is so important in the creation of a compelling story about the journey ahead.
- Are we taking ownership for both the good and the bad? Team members must demonstrate personal accountability for the successes and failures of the transformation, not just for what occurs within their own portfolio. Team members also need to honestly evaluate the effort required of themselves to ensure a successful journey. This includes the admission that new knowledge, skills and abilities may be required, within their own team, to successfully lead the transition.
- Are we ‘walking our talk’? Define the new culture by articulating and demonstrating expected key behaviours and leading by example. This involves getting insightful feedback on how senior team members are currently showing up through narrative 360 feedback augmented by peer mentoring and external coaching. Aligning the behaviour or senior team members with stated expectations builds credibility and is a powerful motivator for others in the organization.
- Have we got the right players at the table? Change the mix of the top team, if necessary, to include people with critical perspectives, expertise and/or specific skills that will enhance success of the change agenda. This might also include the exit of certain team members who can’t support the future vision or lack the ability to contribute fully to the transformation. While a tough call, having reluctant or hesitant players at the top is a recipe for failure.
- Are we working tirelessly to engage others? Actively partner with other leaders in the organization, at all levels, to build awareness, generate interest, secure involvement and ensure engagement. This creates the foundation for success in subsequent engagement efforts with people throughout the business. Delegation of the change agenda must be a primary and ongoing priority for the senior team while, at the same time, team members must provide the necessary guidance to ensure mid-stream ‘wins’ and sustain momentum.
While everyone has a role to play in advancing change, the senior leadership team has a particularly vital role. Much of the ‘work’ within the team involves looking inward and adjusting established mindsets and behaviour to better align with the way ahead.
As the 13th century poet Rumi articulated so long ago…
“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”