Five Lessons Learned from Leading Transformational Change

Tracy Benson

Five Lessons Learned from Leading Transformational Change

We’ve heard the quote: “When eating an elephant take one bite at a time.” This simple, yet profound, idea is credited to U.S. Army General Creighton Williams Abrams, Jr., who commanded military operations in the Vietnam War and later served as Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army. Now that was a man who understood what it takes to execute with focus in a complex, ambiguous environment.

That is exactly what organizational transformation is: complex and ambiguous

How do we mitigate these challenges at a time when high-expectation investors, escalating global competition and disruptive technologies all demand rapid, seamless and effective change? By starting small and staying focused.

This is certainly counter-intuitive. However, as one CEO of a global manufacturing concern said at the start of his company’s transformation: “We are focused on going a mile deep and doing this deployment process right so it is sustainable, rather than pursuing a broad implementation that is merely an inch deep.” This leader understood that creating sustainable change means starting small and targeted, and getting it right, and then scaling it across the enterprise.

Here are five more lessons learned from supporting organizations across multiple industries and global regions in driving transformational change:

  1. 20 / 20 Vision: All eyes on the customer
    Every big change initiative requires a central point of focus. It’s how employees know what is expected of them and determines whether they choose to fall in line (or not), as well as the extent to which they will stretch outside of their comfort zone to support the change effort. Many companies trip up by framing the change around short-term, internally-driven performance metrics, such as controlling costs and increasing profitability. In these ill-fated cases, employees perceive the focus of the change to be about lining executives’ pockets. That’s certainly interesting, but not quite motivating.  
  2. All (functional) roads lead to the company’s vision
    These days, functional transformation is rampant. The promise of greater efficiencies, synergies and cost savings is fueling the popular shift to shared services or “Centers of Excellence” models that pull together strategic, value-added activities of functions from Finance to Human Resources. And while all of that is well and good, it doesn’t exactly stoke the emotional fires of those whose lives – and livelihoods, potentially – are affected by such changes. Functional leaders must tie the changes they are driving to the overall business strategy to give them meaning, and to the outcomes that the broader business is striving to achieve.
  3. Execution: A dedicated team committed to swift and incremental change
    “Put your money where your mouth is” comes to mind when comparing transformations that have been successful with those that have dragged on, seemingly forever, or simply died out altogether. Organizations in the latter category discover that change is not something that happens organically just because it is propelled by a compelling vision. To the contrary, the gravitational pull of the status quo is massive, and leaders are wise to free up capable individuals to drive the effort – and to support them with constant and visible sponsorship.
  4. Managers are the lynchpin: The way forward is rooted in clear, candid and constant communication
    Managers and supervisors may be the single most powerful influencers of change. Employees take their cues not from what comes down from on high, but rather from the multiple, daily interactions that take place during the regular course of business. It does not take much – an eye roll, a dismissive word – to let employees know that a manager is not in support of the change. On the other hand, organizations that target managers with candid communication that is clear about their roles and accountabilities are fueling a built-in catalyst for change and engagement that is powerful and lasting.
  5. Feedback, dialogue and stories keep it real
    Part of what makes change so challenging is that by definition, the future is abstract – until we can see it. The most vibrant organizations, in which change is naturally constant and constructive, create communication environments that are dynamic and engaging. They also make change real by pointing out concrete examples and telling stories about how change was accomplished. Inviting and sharing feedback from employees directly involved dials up the volume for the vision and celebrates those taking risks and driving outcomes.

Next time, join me for “Spotlight on execution: What it really takes to get transformation done”.