How to be a transformational leader

Transformation is nothing without the right leadership, but what does the leader of tomorrow look like, and how can they create teams that are truly adaptive and prepared for change?

The nature of business is changing as new generations enter the workplace and emerging technologies continue their meteoric rise. Organisations must now contend with machine-learning, cloud computing, the internet of things and an increasingly multi-generational workforce. Businesses must transform. And for this they need a transformational leader.

What makes a transformational leader?

Many of the characteristics of a transformational leader reflect the new times we live in: they should be nurturing when it comes to their staff, open about the decisions they make and willing not to be the smartest person in the room. However, driving transformation still requires leaders to be the bold visionaries we have seen in the past.

Charisma can be the difference between transformation success and failure. The process requires buy-in from everyone, from junior staff to the board of directors, and securing this is considerably easier if the leader can articulate the “why” of transformation. Transformational leaders must be storytellers, able to communicate their own enthusiasm, inspiring staff to want change.

“Leaders need to be adventurous,” says Rita Trehan, chief executive of global transformation consultancy Dare. “They should have the ability to look beyond what is known and cherish not having the full picture because this necessitates experimentation.”

It is this drive for something new and better that can bring energy to a change programme. Sophie Devonshire, chief executive of strategic consultancy Caffeine, agrees. “Transformation doesn’t come from bullet points and rational financial data, but from a sense that the organisation is changing in a way which employees can feel positive about,” she says.

Do you need a chief transformation officer?

So critical is business transformation that many companies have created a dedicated role to oversee it: the chief transformation officer (CTO). This role sits above both the chief technology officer and the chief operations officer, and is responsible for running interference between technology and people.

Think of culture as your circulatory system; if you can’t keep the blood flowing, you die

“A transformational leader needs to own the end-to-end outcomes,” says Nagaraja Srivatsan, chief growth officer at operations management company EXL, “and they need to be ambidextrous when it comes to understanding both the human and the technological. A CTO can help to integrate the operations and the technology teams more closely, allowing for constant experimentation.”

Transformation happens when technologies and people interact, but this is also where anxiety arises. Much of employees’ resistance to transformation comes from the fear they will be automated out of a job. Transformational leaders must present a different picture, one where mundane tasks are automated leaving employees free to do more exciting work.

How to lead a transformation initiative

“A lesson I’ve learnt, however, is that you have to live with the fact that some people simply will not be part of the team,” says Peter Oswald, chief executive of global packaging firm Mondi Group. “It might be that they are too conventional, or too traditional to understand, or it could also be that it doesn’t suit their interests.” People make organisations, so weeding out those who will be detrimental to a project’s success is just as crucial as identifying those with the capability and desire for change.

One school of thought says you do not “lead” transformation projects in the traditional way. You identify the right people, set goals, ask pertinent questions and then leave your team to roll the project out. You are there to add momentum and vision, not to hand hold.

“We can see this with Jeff Bezos at Amazon; what he has done really well is build a strong leadership capability,” says Ms Trehan. “The business side of Amazon is growing exponentially, and Bezos has made sure to have capable leaders in place. This is the sign of a true transformational leader; they ensure that not all of the responsibility sits with them. If it relies on one person, it’s impossible for a company to grow.”

Protecting company culture during transformation

The people element of transformation is not simply limited to your allocated transformation team, it also requires you to get the whole company behind your initiative. “Think of culture as your circulatory system; if you can’t keep the blood flowing, you die,” says Ms Trehan.

This means the plan for change should be communicated clearly from the earliest possible moment and feedback must be welcomed. “The most effective thing,” says Mr Srivatsan, “is to identify people with a learning mindset and turn them into ‘change agents’, evangelists who can show people how the change will make things better.”

How digital transformation is shattering hierarchies

Transformation involves turning traditional workplace hierarchies on their heads and creating opportunities for new leaders to step up. Particularly in terms of digital transformations, positions of responsibility are increasingly going to digital natives, who tend to be younger than the traditional senior management team.

“Companies are turning to the next generation of leadership,” says Alex Shootman, president and chief executive of work management platform Workfront. “It’s no longer the vice president of an organisation being given problems to solve, but someone who has a technological solution and, if it works, they get promoted. If you were to put ages next to these new leaders, they are all in their early-30s; it’s exciting.”

Ultimately, a transformational leader is one who can future-proof their organisation and make it more efficient

A transformational leader must understand patience and pacing

Creating a strong leadership team, however, does not mean bowing out entirely. A transformational leader is responsible for keeping the project on course andturning to the next generation of leadership

“Conscious pace-planning is an essential responsibility for one very simple reason: some things should be done fast while others need to have more time made for them,” says Ms Devonshire.

“One global CEO of a multinational organisation I spoke to said that if you are initiating change, assume a year for every layer in the organisation to transform.”

Mr Oswald agrees: “Sometimes you have to be patient. There is always time pressure, but you have to think things through properly and make sure there is conviction, not just superficial agreement to an idea. In other instances, you simply have to press ahead or the whole process will take too long. Being a leader means knowing how to weigh up the value and risk of each.”

Ultimately, a transformational leader is one who can future-proof their organisation and make it more efficient, while preserving the culture and maintaining employee engagement. Their ability to do this rests on a combination of qualities and skills, but fundamentally comes down to mindset.

“The leaders who are really effective understand that human dignity can be fulfilled by work,” says Mr Shootman, “so they take time to manage it like it matters. Frame the transformation, make sure people know why they’re doing what they’re doing. Treat work like it’s worth doing.”

Five steps to being a better leader

  1. Set Goals. Not only with transformation, but with all projects, it is important to establish the “why” of work and to break it down into small, manageable steps. Make sure staff understand why the end-goal matters and what they can do to help achieve it
  2. Fail Fast. Leaders should embrace an entrepreneurial mindset: a determination to find simple solutions to problems and new ways to make things better, quickly. This can only happen if you create a culture which rewards risk-taking and forgives failures.
  3. Prioritise people. Staff are your greatest asset, so you must ensure your employees care about the work they do, feel free to express their feedback and are motivated to do the best possible job. The key to this is openness.
  4. Stay informed. Keeping an ear to the ground will both help you keep abreast with what your competitors are doing and teach you about new technologies and processes used in other industries. This should, in turn, make it easier to come up with new visions for your organisation.
  5. Be humble. The best leaders are content not to be the smartest person in the room or the one with all the answers. Surround yourself with capable experts, and be prepared to listen to others and draw on their expertise.