November 2019

Leaders’ role in transformation

An article by Christelle Thompson, Managing Director, Alixio Change Management

Transformation cannot be managed without support provided to leaders in the transformation.

In today’s constantly shifting environment, leaders know that they must have the ability and the skills to lead change if they want to avoid change leading them.

But they are less clear about the role they need to play in a transformation project, as individual leaders but also as members of a joint management team.

So what exactly is transformation?

Before considering the different components of the role, we need to agree on what we mean by a transformation project. I remember meeting the transformation director of a major international group, founded in France, who was having trouble orchestrating 158 projects underway. A quick check showed that half of them weren’t being monitored (no implementation and performance indicators), some of them weren’t staffed (no project leaders or teams appointed), and the executive committee was unaware of many of them. The projects covered a wide variety of initiatives with very different targets in terms of effectiveness, rationalisation and so on. Although all of them involved change to an extent, their natures and degrees of criticality varied very widely.

What we mean by transformation in this context is programmes that aim to deliver a substantial overhaul of company models. They are systemic, impacting all or some of the business, organisational, cultural and managerial models, as well as operating methods, business activities, information systems, interactions between head office and subsidiaries, between regions and lines of business. Most importantly, their breadth and depth mean that they bring about change for a large majority of employees, which in turn entails extra efforts and additional workload, shifting roles and skills, individual and collective choices.

The multiple roles of transformational Leaders
Obviously, deciding on a project of this kind is a major commitment not to be taken lightly.

In most cases, an external catalyst will make change inexorable. It’s important to understand the environment, analyse it correctly, have a clear vision of the implications and find the time to focus on it despite the need to deliver short-term results.

In the best-case scenarios the decision to change is made early, in other words before change is forced on you, which is closer to a crisis-based process.

That is where leaders’ primary role lies. In observing, analysing, deciding.

Let’s not delude ourselves. Large companies with very sophisticated governance and armies of analysists can take the time to build a vision, to plan ahead. For some of our clients, French subsidiaries of international businesses, or SMEs, their leaders’ focus is primarily on the medium and short term, on results to deliver and quarterly reports.

But then comes the feeling that things need shaking up, that the status quo has become untenable, that a major change is needed. The decision is made.

This is where it all begins.

What is the direction of change? To which model? Does it need to be disruptive? Can company, staff and clients cope? How much effort can we ask people to make? How long will it take?

Blue Ocean Strategy (1) is almost mandatory for businesses whose activities and model are taking a hit from technological progress, very rapid changes in consumer habits, the arrival of an unabashed competitor without the burden of a legacy, and of having to convince employees that change is necessary.

There is no model for what comes after. It has to be invented, and that’s staggering. You have to emerge and survive, make the right choices. You have to launch into an adventure without knowing what the ending might be, because the rules of the game are shifting, and accept living with ambiguity and being unable to proudly announce a vision and a three-year action plan because you might be proved wrong in six months’ time.

An exaggeration?

Over the last few months, we have worked with leaders who knew that change was needed but didn’t know exactly which direction to go in, which model for the future to choose. Other leaders knew what they were aiming for, but their goal was so new, so far from their existing model, that the transformation trajectory was hard to map out. (How do we get there? What needs changing? Where do we start?). Then there were those management committee members who fought each other over a transformation roadmap, due to he fact that they had not aligned on the strategic goals in the first place. And finally those whose instructions to change came from European regional management and involved delivering results that were unattainable as things stood.

What are the common points?

The fundamental need to prepare for change thoroughly. The success of a transformation process depends largely on how well prepared the management team is. A feeling has to become a target. An in-depth analysis is needed to identify the impacts — all of them, because any blind spots can sometimes lead to a whole slew of them being overlooked — and deliver a firm understanding of what truly needs changing to achieve a goal with the support of all, even in the slightest details.

A transformation trajectory has to be prepared, along with a support plan so that everyone understands the change, what is expected, what they will need to do or become. Resources need to be allocated to avoid being left high and dry six months after the launch if there’s a market turnaround which will bring the change project to a standstill (triggering the well-known change fatigue phenomenon). You need to be sure the organisation has the capacity to change, can deliver the efforts that will need to be supported, that it has the key people needed to implement the change.

Imagine. Create. Prepare. Align. Convince. Create the conditions for success.

It’s not surprising when wonderfully well-prepared management teams are pretty much worn out by the time the change is announced. For us, these teams have an absolute duty to manage their work, their time, their energy.

For this is where it all begins.

Project governance is in place, the announcement has been made, stream leaders have the necessary skills. But the leaders’ role has just taken a new and unusual direction.

They are about to become promoters of change, explaining it a hundred times, a thousand times. Bit by bit, at different moments, to different groups of people. If the transformation is truly crucial, they will take on the project. Refusing to tackle stumbling blocks is not an option. Skipping ahead to something else far in the future is not an option either.

They will need to keep challenging the people implementing the project and provide them with meaningful support.

They will need to constantly ensure the fragile balance between business continuity and transformation is maintained.

They will need to constantly monitor execution, roll-out and morale.

And then they will have to keep going back to the drawing board, because a new trajectory always needs tweaking.

Guide, enlist, support, stipulate, monitor.

You could well say that, up to this point, leaders are just playing their usual role.

But we haven’t yet talked about the Pygmalion effect, mentioned, among other publications, in the excellent Neurosciences et Management: le Pouvoir de Changer (2) [Neurosciences and Management: the power to change].

Leaders are not credible if they ask an organisation to change completely while they themselves continue just as before. And it may be the case that a pre-transformation leader isn’t equipped to imagine the post-transformation world, alternatives and differences. Imagining a disruptive break is no easy thing when you have spent many years with a company, true to its culture, practices and established model. Employees will sometimes be more willing to accept wholesale change from a new leader than from a leader who has always embraced a strategy of continuity.

The leader, the leadership team, has to change. Either by changing the people, which happens, or by changing the way they work. How they exercise authority. How they think. Leaders have to embody the thing they are asking for. People will not follow leaders who continue unchanged when they are asking an entire organization to undergo far-reaching changes.

Referring to setting an example can provoke eye-rolling, or can be taken as a given. What we are actually talking about here is role modelling, walking the talk:

“I do what I say and I say what I do.”

And now it can begin.

(1) Blue Ocean Strategy, W. Chan Kim, Renée Mauborgne, Pearson, 2015

(2) Bernadette Lecerf-Thomas, Eyrolles, 2014