Evan Smith is a senior partner at Schaffer Consulting, a leader in the development and practice of organizational and cultural change for 50 years. He has 30 years of experience helping senior leaders to define, initiate and carry out transformative change efforts in organizations around the world, including at GE, Zurich Financial Services, Rockwell Automation, BMW of North America and Abbott Laboratories.
Ongoing sluggishness of the economy is testing many organizations’ mettle. Demand for products and services is “soft”; rising healthcare and energy costs, and persistent levels of debt mean that achieving stable economic performance is a real challenge. Headcount and cost reductions are fatiguing and stressing remaining staff members. So, how do leaders make progress — and help their organizations make significant shifts, mobilize and engage staff in energizing ways, and create the foundation for important next steps?
What they need is a structured, comprehensive and intentional way to call forward a new future for their organization — an act of transformation. To transform means to create disruptive shifts within a company, its people, and leaders in a compressed time period — shifts that create a better, stronger future.
Leaders don’t need to know the exact sequence of how this will happen — but they must focus on four key leadership tasks: Defining leadership and vision, shaping culture, executing rapidly, and building change capability.
Defining leadership and vision means senior leaders are willing to:
- Name a new vision and set a new direction, reflective of organizational strengths, that places bets on compelling strategic positions and helps people recognize and associate with the organization’s “core identity.”
- Lead through the personal discomfort, uncertainty and professional disruption created as others operationalize and test the new direction.
- Reflect in an open and emotionally mature way on their own behavior, leadership and personal change journey.
Transformation means leading from new places and “finding footing” along the way. This creates opportunities for senior leaders to lead by example while modeling public learning and personal change.
Shaping culture connects directly to transformational leadership and is the job of all leaders, who must ask, “How have we always done things?” and “What do we need to do differently?” — and listen for the full answers. In fact, leaders face exciting choices in helping staff to design new aspects of culture into the transformation effort.
Executing rapidly means moving squarely in the direction of the new vision in a structured and fast-paced way, and to pilot work that defines, operationalizes and tests. Pilots illuminate assumptions about how the organization needs to work to create successful outcomes. To initiate transformative change, leaders should define clear, compelling and meaningful business results. Finally, leaders should quickly engage people in the work — and hold them accountable for demonstrating identified results.
Building change capability means developing infrastructure and capabilities to reinforce key messages, scaling up initial pilot efforts and developing skills to carry forward. Here, the organization is “internalizing” and confirming new performance, behavior and culture patterns as new ways of working and standards are discovered. It might initially point to the first teams who took the first steps in the effort– and can evolve over time to identifying and developing people who understand the changes needed and are prepared to define and lead next iterations. Finally, it will also include detailing the critical knowledge base and training content.
Leading a transformation effort is like directing an action movie. Transformation’s ebb and flow requires iterative planning and responses. As the director, you need to create beginnings full of promise and hope for people, name challenges worthy of their greatness, and envision endings recognized as positive. Conditions must be created that lead to people wanting to be part of the sequel.
A transformational leader who uses these four leadership tasks to engage people closest to the work will help create solutions that bring the vision to life, move people through significant discomforts and release previously untapped creativity and energy while delivering new results. In the face of severe and persistent business and global challenges, this capability to transform makes for a true competitive business advantage.