Top Skills You Need for Leading Business Transformation

Key Skills for Transformation Leaders

“I believe you have to be willing to be misunderstood if you’re going to innovate.” ~Jeff Bezos


Over the past several articles we have discussed how transformation is different from change and why businesses take on business transformation.

We also looked at different types of business transformation and how to know whether you need a business model transformation to flourish and grow amidst unprecedented change in the business environment, and the evolving customer demands.

We looked at the keys to business transformation success before and during the process. The need for visioning, considering alternative pathways to achieve transformation goals and the importance of a plan or roadmap were some topics we looked at.

We saw the need to assess our organisational capabilities and to work on contextual ambidexterity–the ability of people to focus on future growth initiatives while also working on running business operations.

We appreciated that only those companies that can adjust their bandwidth to accommodate both the present operations and future oriented projects will succeed.

We also looked at what we can learn from other organizations that have succeeded in their transformative efforts. This is critically important because many more organizations fail than succeed in their transformation efforts.

Human aspects of business transformation

Today we pivot to the human aspects of transformation and the leadership traits and skill-sets that are necessary for successfully seeing through a business transformation.

When we say transformation leaders, we are not just talking about CEOs or other leaders and leadership teams within organisations who are tasked with seeing through an business transformation. We are also referring to business consultants who may support those leaders with such transformations.

Top skills of transformation leaders

Here’s what are considered to be the top skills for successful transformation leaders:

  1. They are strategic and visionary. They can take a long view of their organization and articulate a vision for the transformed business. A lack of this skill can doom you to failure.
  2. They see the big picture. Whether in visioning, or in planning and executing narrow projects that are part of the larger transformation goal, ability to keep the end goal in minds is an essential skill for transformation leaders. Business transformation projects are lengthy, and span across many revenue and reporting cycles. Having this ability ensures that they do not go astray or forget the end goals.
  3. They are good project managers. By this we mean that they are able to deal with multiple innovation projects and initiatives—as is necessary in most business transformations—and still remain focused. Leaders with a narrow focus, and mere task orientation will not be as good at leading a business through a multiyear transformation effort.
  4. They are good story tellers and motivators. They have the ability to share the articulated vision to inspire and motivate others within the organisation towards the desired new state of affairs. The value of articulating the vision and leading the whole workforce towards a changed future is not to be underestimated.
  5. They are empathetic leaders. Empathy matters because change is difficult and stressful even to the most receptive and open minded teams. In general, people dislike change. They like the status quo, even with its inherent imperfections. Authoritative leadership and pushing the corporate agenda down everyone’s throat without appreciating these realities will doom you to failure. Empathy is a critical skill in a leader who needs to ask a lot from their followers and gain their buy-in to oncoming changes.
  6. They are skilled negotiators who can navigate internal politics. Most transformation projects disrupt internal fifdoms and break down previously impenetrable silos that are blocking growth and progress. Taking a fresh look at the business model or change the way things are done necessarily means hurting feelings and stepping on a lot of sensitive toes. Navigating through such minefields—they are no less dangerous and disruptive—and getting on with the transformation calls for diplomacy and negotiation skills of the first order.
  7. They are self-motivated and resilient. If you want to be a transformation leader, know that sometimes you will have nothing but your own steam to run on. It is tough to lead business transformations. There will be resource issues and setbacks. There will be active and passive resistance from within, at all levels of the organisation. You need to rise above all that and focus on your end goal of realising the vision of a transformed business. In order to not give up in the face of often insurmountable odds, you need deep reserves of motivation and resilience. Of course, you can try to develop a whole team of change leaders who will support you in this. And that would make life easier. All of the skills we’ve listed above will help you get there.
  8. They are well versed in change related tools and techniques. You need to have an understanding of organisational change and development, system thinking, business process analysis, lean management, robotic process automation, digital transformation, innovation and other theoretical aspects that feed into a business transformation. Business transformations tend to touch on all aspects of an organisation.
  9. They are ready to learn, are curious and have a steep learning curve. If you are only familiar with some aspects noted above, and feel there are gaps in your understanding, you can learn them, Once again, a good team with complementary skills, experience and expertise will help you immensely. You don’t need to know everything. But you need to appreciate the role they each play within your transformation effort.
  10. They have a growth mindset. A person with a growth mindset can learn from mistakes and know that there success may lie beyond current setbacks, failures and mistakes. Also, if you have a growth mindset and believe you can learn and are willing to put in the time and effort, you will be able to master any subject area that you must master in order to succeed with your transformation projects.
  11. They must be comfortable wearing multiple hats. On the one hand, you need the strategic and visionary long view as a transformation leader. You will need to be a specialist and have a narrow focus and task orientation. Often you may be called on to wear both hats at the same time.
  12. They know the business and the industry. While larger organisations may have leaders who have the benefit of rotation and have gained an in depth understanding of the business, this is rare in smaller organisations. It may often be difficult to have all of this experience and expertise inhouse, or in one person. Thus, a well-knit team of change leaders may be the way to go. Alternately, a versatile transformation consulting firm with complementary skill sets would be invaluable.
  13. They embrace the unexpected as well as failures and still keep going. Any leader contemplating business transformation needs to know that failure is a definite possibility. It is great to work with the mindset that failure is not an option. But still, you must be prepared to face big and small failures and meet the unexpected along your business transformation journey. Unanticipated events and eventualities may crash upon you. Setbacks and black swans may come your way. Resilience is a big part of dealing with them and to keep going.
  14. Oh, and they have to be rebels and be willing to be misunderstood. If all you do is stick with the rules and stay within the lines and confines of how things have been done… you are not going to become a transformation leader. Innovation is about disruption and often that means being misunderstood.

We’d like to leave you with another thought which we hope would motivate you towards action:

“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.” ~ Charles Darwin

As a transformation leader, your job is to ensure business survival and to guide your business towards flourishing.

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Are there other top skills you consider essential to transformation leaders? We invite you to share your thoughts in the comments

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