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The critical role of senior leaders in making change work

Jo Bracey

There was a time when leaders survived by being good at 'running the company.' In today's volatile, fast-paced and ever-increasingly competitive marketplace, few, if any, leaders will succeed unless they know how to change the company.

There was a time when leaders survived by being good at 'running the company.' In today's volatile, fast-paced and ever-increasingly competitive marketplace, few, if any, leaders will succeed unless they know how to change the company.

There is, however, a big difference between taking on a transformation initiative and making it succeed. What starts as a programme with bold aspirations often ends up delivering little.

  • According to a Boston Consulting Group study, 70 percent of transformations fall short of their objectives. (1)
  • When that happens, there are grave consequences related to time, money, and organisational effort. 
  • That's in addition to falling behind competitors in innovation and customer engagement.

So, what is the problem? 

It is well understood that many transformation efforts fail due to a lack of focus on the 'people and culture' aspects of the transformation programme.

Mind-sets matter. You've got to win the hearts and minds in an organisation to get it to change. 

You have to ensure that the people understand the rationale for change in the first place. It might be crystal clear in the boardroom or in the executive suite why the organisation needs to act differently. But that's seldom the case on the front line. (2)

In successful transformation, senior leaders have a critical role to play – many are finding this entails playing a more 'hands-on' function to make change successful.

At the start of the transformation programme, senior leaders and staff are in the same place – enthusiastic about the chance to succeed and keen to play their part. But there are several pitfalls that soon present themselves.

  • Senior leaders may not set sufficiently high aspirations for the transformation programme, or a change narrative that convinces people they need to make the transformation happen is not defined or communicated.
  • If there is poor communication of the programme's vision, objectives and desired outcomes, the team's conviction about the programme's importance will quickly diminish.
  • Staff become demotivated if day-to-day pressures get in the way of progress.
  • Things get worse if it is perceived that the same mistakes are being made as those in past programmes.
  • Communication may become less frequent and of a poorer quality – and staff begin to feel that their voice is not being heard.
  • As the transformation programme progresses, it becomes harder to address the lack of conviction. Motivation and momentum are lost. Even the senior leadership team loses focus and energy.

For transformational change to be successful, staff must behave and act differently in their day-to-day roles. They need to be clear on the benefits of changing the work practices often in place over the long term. To be successful in this evolving environment, senior leaders need to be highly skilled in leading people through change – as they play an increasingly important role in the communication process.

Here are some actions that Sysdoc consultants have seen work for senior leaders in successful transformation programmes.

Develop and communicate a clear change vision

There is a strong need for senior leaders to design and communicate a clear and ambitious change vision for staff in the organisation.

A lack of direction and straightforward vision increases the likelihood of a poor outcome.

Act as advocates for the change

Senior leaders must act as firm advocates for the change programme, delivering consistent messaging – being available and willing to resolve any issues arising within their area of responsibility quickly. They must maintain high energy and enthusiasm for the programme's success.

Understand and deal with organisational culture issues

There are many reasons to complete a cultural assessment at the start of the programme to identify cultural issues that may cause problems. If these issues are not dealt with up front, they will be more challenging to resolve as the programme progresses.

For example, in a recent programme, the cultural assessment highlighted friction between the finance and purchasing functions. Senior leaders became involved and prioritised the need for workshops to iron out difficulties.

Lead the emotional transformation

Leaders who are successful in transformation programmes make it their business to focus on getting inside the mindsets of their people - understanding how attitudes need to evolve to enable the sort of broad-scale, the fundamental change necessary to deliver a real improvement in performance. 

Transformation can be exciting and unsettling for staff all at the same time. They may feel excited about being part of a purposeful company but unsettled and anxious — for example, if they cannot see how their skills will be relevant. Recognising and addressing these emotions is vital. Senior leaders do this by playing an active role in the transformation and being available to staff.

Be visible and give staff a voice.

Research suggests that listening skills are just as essential as a project plan in a leader's toolkit of skills. Those successful leaders provide ample opportunities for staff to express their 'true' opinions and concerns. 

These opportunities may include attending town halls or change network meetings involving staff representing their teams' views. Additionally, attending programme meetings and making time for one-one meetings with programme staff – or those impacted.

Communicate improvements to operational performance as the transformation programme progresses

To keep motivation high and to drive forward, senior leaders who succeed make it an objective e to communicate more than the progress made on the transformation programme. In their communications, they demonstrate the impact of achievements on the programme on operational performance as they occur. For example, delivery times improve as software is introduced to identify and deal with trouble spots and blockages in the supply chain.

This drives motivation forward as staff see the positive, practical impacts of their work on the transformation programme.

Make transformation the new normal.

Many organisations have followed standard structures and defined ways of working. This model was good at delivering predictable performance but poor at coping with disruption. Many organisations live with this legacy approach. 

However, with the scale of change, senior leaders are well advised to put more effort into preparing their organisations for future change.

Actions here include communicating much more about the commercial environment and the need for change, developing the skills within the organisation to facilitate change and putting in place suitable structures. The latter may include developing trained change resources within teams. Encouraging initiatives that encourage cross-functional working is often a wise investment.

Leadership is an increasingly important part of the challenge to make the transformation work. The most successful transformation leaders create a compelling case for change, and they role model the kinds of behaviours that they want to see throughout the organisation. They are strong communicators and know that the more effort they put into the 'people and culture' aspects of the transformation programme, the more chance it will have of being successful. 

  1. Flipping the odds of Digital Transformation Success, Boston Consulting Group, 29 October 2020
  2. Mindset Matters, McKinsey,15 February 2019 

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