When I shared this idea [of “always-on” transformation] with my wife Nicola, she said, “Always-on transformation? That sounds exhausting.” And that may be exactly what you’re thinking — and you would be right. Particularly if we continue to approach the transformation of organizations the way we always have been. ~Jim Hemmerling in a Ted Talk, TED@BCG Paris

Your job as a transformation leader is to make it exciting, invigorating, less scary and most of all, less exhausting on your people (and yourself).

The people aspects of business transformation should never merely become an afterthought.

After all, you are considering business transformation because you want to serve your consumers in a better way, give them more choices or to find new consumers in new markets previously unavailable to you. Or perhaps meeting your customer demands better is at the root of your transformation.

Either way, your end goal is a more resilient business with better performance.

In all fairness, the improved organization should also transform into a better workplace for your people.

We discussed the drivers of business transformation in a previous article.

Here are a few basic truths to keep in mind if you want your business transformation to succeed and bear fruit that you, the leadership team, employees, customers and other stakeholders expect from it.

  • Transformation is an imperative.
  • There will be resistance because change is hard and transformation may be more difficult and challenging.
  • Clear, honest, consistent communications matter.
  • Putting people first and empowering them

Most of this is not new.

All points other than those related to COVID-19 are well supported by a century of management theory, human psychology and covered thoroughly under change management.

But still, these home truths are often seen as the root of business transformation failures.

Transformation is an imperative

For today’s businesses, transformation is an imperative.

It is not a matter of choice, anymore, if you want your business to survive and thrive. Political, economic, social, technological, legal (regulatory) and environmental factors are presenting businesses with unprecedented challenges and disruption.

Just take technology as an example. The rate of change in technology is challenging organisations’ ability to keep up with that change. And then there are the changes happening in political, social, economic and regulatory changes coming together in 2021 as a perfect storm, amid an ever-present new wave of the pandemic.

Global warming and environmental impacts are also rolling out at an unforgiving pace across the globe.

CEOs the world over are recognizing this and taking action. Here’s what CEOs top strategic business concerns for 2021-2022 according to Gartner.

The survey, of 465 business leaders from 30 countries shows “that CEOs are placing their growth bets on new segments and increasing investment in digital initiatives”.

The question now is not whether transformation is necessary, but what type of transformation you need to take on. Is it business process transformation, capability transformation, business function transformation or business model transformation, which is transformation at the whole enterprise level? We have discussed these matters over the past few articles in this series.

For the Gartner survey CEOs, the choices appear clear: Growth predominantly from new market segments and by leveraging technology.

There will be resistance

There will be resistance because change is hard. Transformation may be more difficult and challenging. There will be resistance to the transformation plans, and a different way of doing things. Jim Hemmerling, Senior Partner at Boston Consulting Group’s San Francisco office and a leader in BCG’s People & Organization and Transformation Practices explains how in a TED Talk, 5 Ways to Lead in a Era of Constant Change.

But the bottom line is that you need to get it done. So what measures are there to ensure that you get your people on board?

Clear, honest, consistent communications matter.

Beating transformation odds does not require you to reinvent the wheel. You can learn from others who have come before you.

Pre-pandemic McKinsey statistics show that success rate of transformations correlate to senior management’s approach in terms of:

  • Communicating openly about the transformation’s progress and success
  • Communicating openly about the transformation’s implications for individuals in their day-to-day work.
  • Using a consistent change story to align around the goals of the transformation.

However, McKinsey makes it clear that these measures are neither easy nor the norm in business transforms. That also explains why many transformations fail. But how difficult is it? It requires making communication a key pillar in your transformation efforts. It requires being sensitive and putting your people first. You cannot transform an organization alone. You need buy in from everyone.

Putting people first and empowering them

Putting people first leads to buy in and better results in the long run. A transformation leader needs to understand the implications to individuals, teams, divisions and departments, and take an honest upfront approach to what is likely to change. If jobs are going to be lost, which jobs are they? What are your plans for those employees? What plans do you have for reskilling those people or training them for the transition?

When people do not have to worry about their jobs and the future, it becomes easier to buy into changes and help implement the transformation.

Putting people first requires:

Inspire through purpose. We discussed the value of seeing the big picture, story-telling and empathy among the Top Skills You Need for Leading Business Transformation. Your jobs to help people see how the transformation goes beyond financial goals and cultivate a deeper sense of purpose.

Going all in is another imperative for putting people first. For this you need vision. If you are unable to think beyond cutting costs and short termism, why should your employees buy-in to a so called strategic vision that is going to be detrimental to them? A well thought out plan that covers wins in the medium term and to drive future growth must be part of a longer, strategic transformation.

Enabling people with capabilities to succeed during and after the transformation is another factor. Chronos, a global software company did this well when they wanted to transform from software products to software as a service.

They invested in new tools to enable employees monitor the usage of the features and customer satisfaction with the new service. They invested in skill development that enabled employees resolve customer service issues on the spot. Chronos also reinforced collaborative behaviors, a critical factor for delivery of end-to-end seamless customer experience.

This level of support energized and empowered Chronos employees to succeed within their transformed roles within the business. This was possible because Chronos did not leave people aspects-employees and customers-as an afterthought, but a critical factor for success.

Creating a learning organisation, with a growth mindset is also key. This means instilling a culture of continuous learning will help people deal with “always-on” transformation. When change becomes part of your routine, a little bit more is not going to stress out people. Satya Nadella transformed Microsoft from a culture of silos and internal competition to one with a growth mindset.

A growth mindset helps individuals and teams keep on improving because they look upon mistakes as a natural step along the path to growth both for themselves and for the company. They do not attach stigma to things that go wrong but look upon them as learning opportunities.

Criticism is taken and given positively. When individuals have a growth mindset, or cultivate one with support from the business, reskilling, deskilling and training will become easier.

In the pre-pandemic era, all of this would have meant the end of the article. But the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world, the workplace and business practices. It has also changed people, their expectations and attitudes to life and work. And this means all leaders need to understand and appreciate those changes and respond to these additional challenges accordingly.

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