Innovation, leadership

Transformation requires senior management behaviour change

Colin Ellis /

‘Transformation’ is currently one of the most overused terms in business. The intent is often well-meaning, however, what most senior leaders fail to realise is that in order to transform a business, they have to change the way they behave first, then redefine the ‘way we do things’. Simply re-badging a ‘project management office’ as a ‘transformation office’ or implementing the latest method just doesn’t work. If you want to transform you have to show everyone how to do it, not hope it happens because the word ‘transformation’ has been pinned onto the start of everything.

Our work and lives never stop moving and changing. In order to stay relevant, evolve our language and to be able to inspire and motivate a new generation of people, we all have to move with it regardless of where we live, where we work or what our job title is.

It’s not good enough to say ‘that’s how we used to do things’ or ‘in my day it was easier’. It’s also not good enough for organisations to accept this kind of behaviour — too many have tolerated it for far too long. The organisations that don’t deal with this behaviour quickly find that their attempts at change fail, while those who demand something different thrive. Those who demand something different are able to build cultures focused on better, smarter ways of doing things rather than just saying publicly ‘we’re going agile!’ and making no personal change to demonstrate the individual commitment to that.

High-profile cases such as Kodak and Nokia are consistently rolled out as examples of where intransigence in transformation and a lack of foresight led to failure. Even now there are thousands of retailers ready to be consumed by the continuing digital revolution because they are too afraid to look for alternate ways to combat the Amazon juggernaut.

But a business is just an ‘entity’. It has no mind or thoughts of its own. It can’t transform itself because it exists on paper only.

Therefore any business transformation or evolution starts with the people leading it. It starts with them understanding the landscape in which the business exists and then working collaboratively (that’s what they’re paid to do) to conceptualise what they need to become in order to continue to meet public or stakeholder expectations.

This transformation has to be taken seriously. It’s not something to enter into lightly. It’s not a communication plan of pithy buzzwords that staff are already sick and tired of. It’s a very public demonstration of the individual changes that they’re prepared to make in order to help the business do likewise.

It starts with what they know about themselves, how they behave and the things they do to build an environment where great work can happen.

The Transformation Triangle (below) is critical for success and should any one of these sides not be addressed the whole structure is weakened. Not only will transformation not be achieved, but the very business itself may be undermined.

Who you are

In their book, First Break All The Rules, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman found that self-aware individuals are the building blocks of great teams. These are the people that seek feedback on their performance and are consistently challenging themselves to learn new skills, knowledge and communication techniques. They never stand still and can talk about the current zeitgeist with ease. They share what they know and go out of their way to build relationships with others.

Everything from the way they dress to the way they speak is thought about in the context of today and they support political and moral issues that enrich the lives of others.

In his book Search Inside Yourself, Chade Meng-Tan said that “self-awareness is the key domain of emotional intelligence that enables all the others.” While a survey in the Huffington Post last year found that poorly performing organisations were more likely to have employees with low self-awareness. Mckinsey went one further in its Culture for a Digital Age survey earlier this year, stating: “The narrow, parochial mentality of workers who hesitate to share information or collaborate across functions and departments can be corrosive to organisational culture.”

Leaders need to find out what they don’t know in order to keep pace with the world and foster approaches that encourage collaboration, not fear.

How you behave

People who have used their power and influence to destroy the lives of others are being called out around the world. This is — and will continue to be — a difficult, painful but necessary process. These kinds of behaviours have never been acceptable and we need to create a safe space for courageous people to be able to come forward without judgement and share their stories. This also needs to happen in our businesses too.

A recent survey commissioned by Allianz found that only 38% of millennials believe their leader is skilled at responding to changing circumstances — the behaviour that they valued the most. While 65% of respondents in the New Rules for the Digital Age survey from Deloitte said that their organisation had no program in place to instil the different behaviours and skills required for digital transformation programs. And make no mistake, the behaviours demanded by today’s workforce are quite different than those that have come before.

For organisations to deliver transformation programs successfully, leaders must role model the behaviours they expect of others. Never has the mantra ‘you’re only as good as the behaviour you walk past’ been truer than in this age of continually evolving ways of working and communicating.

What you build

An organisation’s culture is the biggest determinant of any success or failure. Or as Mckinsey put it in Culture for a Digital Age, ‘shortcomings in organisational culture are one of the main barriers to success in the digital age’.

Culture is still the thing that companies spend the least amount of time, money and effort on, yet talk up the most.

Organisations whose leaders have the right mindset and behaviours are always going to be ahead of those who don’t. The latter often settle for the quick-fix actions of implementing the latest method, restructuring, changing the names of job titles or doing an office refurbishment (open plan anyone?).

While these are all important steps in a larger culture evolution program, they often fail because what they build doesn’t address mistakes that have been made before, the behaviours of leaders that are currently holding good people back or the fact that they’re just trying to do too much with the people they have.

As someone who works with organisations across the world to change their cultures, I continue to come up against senior managers who want to transform the way things get done, but expect it of others — not themselves — and then provide no budget or time to do so. Hence the lazy approach of stating they’re ‘going agile’ then wondering why nothing changes.

General Electric and Nordstrom are two examples of organisations who are trying to do it a different way, both of which are held in high esteem by Mckinsey. By providing their staff with regular continual improvement programs, giving regular feedback and treating culture as the most important tenet to success, they are reaping the rewards in terms of growth as well as staff engagement and retention.

It should come as no surprise that the businesses that are flourishing have leaders who understand who they are, how they behave and what they need to build to attain continual cultural evolution and, ultimately, success in their sector. These leaders are not just talking about transformation, they’re showing others how to do it.

NOW READ: Why you should worry if your boss says: ‘We’re going agile!’

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Colin Ellis

Colin Ellis is a people and culture expert from colindellis.com.

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