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Time to transform: Part 1

Fellow leaders – we’re in a new era post-pandemic, and transformation has never been more urgent. Whether you’ve been tasked with leading transformation, or realise it’s necessary but don’t know where to start, time is running out. The world has changed and the challenges we’re experiencing call for radical new tactics. Traditional approaches to leadership are also outdated and no longer suitable to set leaders and their leadership teams up for transformation success.

We can no longer kick the can down the road

The modern organisation has a lot to contend with. There has been constant change and increasing complexity in the external environment for years now. The dynamics at play vary from year to year, but the imperative to evolve and transform organisations remains and the stakes are now higher than ever. We need to take action.

We’re not adding the ‘transformation’ label to incremental organisational upgrades here, such as the implementation of a new technology platform. We’re talking transformation with a capital ‘T’ - large-scale and organisation-wide transformation that impacts everyone in the organisation and brings about genuine transformational intent and outcomes. It’s as much a human endeavour as it is tactical.

Despite increasing market volatility and uncertainty, and seismic shifts in the expectations of our people, customers and society, we are often inclined to shy away from the transformation agenda and the very changes needed, in favour of operating within the known realms of business as usual. It’s easier doing what we know and what has worked in the past, but the days of kicking the metaphorical can down the road may be numbered. We’ve seeing the consequences of this. Health and social care struggled for years, long before the pandemic hit; it simply hit crisis point when Covid-19 brought long-standing issues to the floor. And was the current energy crisis not entirely predictable when we’ve failed to adequately address the need for change in this sector over the decades? Consumer brands have disappeared from high streets because they’ve been too slow to adapt to changes in technology and customer behaviour. The time for short-term solutions has passed; we need to get to the root of the issue.

Despite the obvious case for real change, transformation is complex, unpredictable, and difficult, and there’s no blueprint that neatly fits a specific context. It’s not surprising many of us are reluctant to fully commit, especially given the ever-increasing workload and competing pressures we’re already dealing with. Understandably we have concerns: What happens if we don’t succeed? What if others don’t back us, or we lose people along the way? Do we have the resources, the capabilities, and the energy to see transformation through to the end? All good questions. One other to consider: What if we don’t transform?

Reshaping an entire organisation is no small feat, but adopting a defensive mindset to protect our position rather than explore new frontiers is not the answer for long-term sustainability. We need to embrace a genuine change mindset and build transformation muscle across our teams.

With this in mind it’s also important to recognise that our individual talents and experience will not be enough. Again and again, relationships (or lack of) and environmental factors undermine the leadership of transformation, blocking progress and performance.

Performance is in relationships

Simply put, performance and transformation can only be achieved through people and teams, underpinned by strong relationships. Despite this, traditional approaches to the development of leadership have overestimated the influence of single individuals at the top of the organisation. In practice, this plays out through personal agendas, siloed working and dysfunctional relationships that hold organisations back. A collaborative approach is needed, when the capabilities of single individuals can only take us so far. We need to focus on the development of leadership: exploring and addressing team dynamics, ways of working, and the team’s ability to achieve goals as a collective.

Harnessing the power of the group in general is key to achieving transformation. By empowering people throughout our organisations to act as leaders, and to take decisions and actions that align with our transformation goals, even when they don’t have the formal title, will improve engagement and ensure the organisation is moving towards its desired future state.

Transformation in today’s world is increasingly complex; there is no clear path, no right or wrong answers, just different opinions and possibilities to be explored and experimented with. We need to involve diverse ideas and perspectives, even from those we find difficult to engage with, in order to navigate a successful path. We need to shift our view of stakeholders as a challenge to be managed to one where they are seen as collaborators to be engaged and harnessed in pursuit of progress.

This model of shared leadership also calls for a different type of leader that does not resonate with alfa behaviours, and instead favours collaboration, humility and empathy – traits traditionally associated with a more ‘feminine’ leadership style. We aren’t talking about man versus woman here; both genders can equally adopt either style. As highlighted in our recent article with King’s College, London, we are now operating in a truly hybrid world, faced with a whole host of unique challenges. As leaders we need to invest more time proactively managing employee wellbeing, building relationships (that would have developed naturally in the past), bridging siloes, and creating connection and shared identity for teams feeling increasingly disconnected. We must adopt a more human-centred approach to protect performance and ensure people are happy and engaged in this ‘new world’.

Creating the right conditions

Unfortunately, even if we get our leadership and relationships right, success may still be limited by other factors that undermine collective leadership performance. Traditional approaches to leadership have failed to properly consider the environment that leaders operate in, instead celebrating, or more often blaming, individual leaders for results. Why then, can a highly successful leader from one environment fail so badly in another? The answer lies in the leadership ‘system’, which is more influential than the capabilities and actions of individuals or teams.

It’s imperative that we assess the environment that we inhabit, and ask:

  • Do our organisational processes and practices support or hinder the leadership of long-term transformation goals?
  • Do governance and reporting structures support effective meetings and timely decision-making?
  • Does reward and remuneration incentivise transformational goals and behaviours?
  • Are the right talent practices in place to build a pipeline of leadership talent to take transformation forward?
  • Are the right practices in place to protect and nourish the well-being and resilience of leaders as they navigate the harsh realities of transformation?

The list goes on…

If our leadership system is not conducive, what will we do to address it? Let’s stop blaming or trying to navigate a system that doesn’t work for us and start moulding it so it does. It’s not easy but it’s not impossible, and it takes courage, willingness and persistence.

The next step

Genuine transformation is complex and multi-faceted. The system weighs heavily on leadership’s ability to drive success. These ideas are not new but given the world we’re operating in today there’s an imperative to act now. We may feel drained by the last few years but we can’t afford to relax. Our organisations demand transformational leadership - leadership that is inclusive and inspiring. Leadership that delivers real impact, and lots of it! It’s time to be bold, ask the difficult questions, and make the changes needed.

Over the coming months we will be sharing a series of articles looking at different aspects of transformational leadership and exploring with you what you need to do to make an impact that matters in your leadership role.

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