Senior executives who can transform businesses are particularly valuable in an era when organisations must be lean and adaptive. But what are the skills that make someone a transformational leader and is it possible to acquire them?
When business transformations go to plan they make the leaders involved look sage-like. But when bosses are asked how they achieved that rebrand, product launch or how they swung a business out of the red and into the black, most have pretty straightforward answers.
Putting the specifics of a transformation aside, the skills required to create change in a business are not especially cryptic or hard to understand. Communication, strength of leadership and clarity of purpose are the main ingredients. Bosses who can blend them together will achieve their goals and keep employees on-side.
It is simple stuff, though some leaders are more naturally equipped by dint of their personalities and predilection for empathy than others to force change while steadying the ship.
Leadership, in this case, is not about knowing all the answers and making all the moves. It is about facilitating the work that is going on beneath you. People work best when they know what they are doing and why – so tell them.
Dr Mark McKergow, author of Host – Six New Roles of Engagement, says leaders who shine during periods of transformation are those who can park their fears and accept that things are about to go wrong. Worrying, he says, burns too many calories.
“The very first thing is to get over worrying about hiccups,” says Dr McKergow. “Not only is it utterly impossible to foresee every bump in the road, it’s also highly counterproductive to expend energy and time worrying about them.”
Much more useful, he thinks, is the ability to generate a crystal clear picture of company objectives, as well as being able to share the overriding vision with all stakeholders, especially the people who will be carrying out the grunt work.
“Have a clear view of where you want the business to be. Not just a load of business school jargon, but a really clear, detailed, multi-dimensional picture of how things will work, what you will all be doing, and the benefits of that for you, your people, your customers and suppliers,” he says.
Clarity of purpose is often missing in examples of transformations gone wrong. Sometimes the point of changing a business gets lost during the process; occasionally it was never truly nailed in the first place. In either case the net result is an unholy mess that gets worse by the day.
Professor Omid Aschari, from the University of St Gallen in Switzerland, argues that leaders must cover all questions concerning the change. The questions should be raised during the process and if the answers change, then people need to know about it.
“Leaders question the status quo and focus on the purpose. They must answer why are we in this business and what for? A relentless focus on purpose aligns the organisational purpose and creates unity of vision to undergo deep transformation,” he says.
Information cuts both ways during this process, top-down and bottom-up. Clarity and openness are great qualities in a business, but management misses a trick if it resists information and advice coming back the other way.
The single biggest area where managers can go wrong is thinking that it is their sole responsibility to come up with a solution
According to Martin Hall, head of marketing at Honda Motor Europe, senior managers too often turn in on themselves when faced with a problem, like schoolchildren trying to solve a maths puzzle, and mistakenly equate asking for advice with stupidity and weakness.
“The single biggest area where managers can go wrong is thinking that it is their sole responsibility to come up with a solution. They need to be looking to the greater wisdom from within their team. Rarely, if ever in history, have the greatest achievements been achieved by one individual alone – it is always a collective effort,” he says.
The ability to build trust is another essential quality of a good transformational leader, says Mr Hall. Bosses can bark orders and most people will probably follow, but it is obviously much better to win the confidence of middle-managers and their staff.
“The best leaders focus on the challenge of leading, developing and nurturing individuals, and bring out the best in them,” he says. “People are naturally complex, as their work, family and social pressures are all interconnected.
“Great leaders take the time to get close to and develop deep trust with each team member – all of which takes a lot of time, but is invaluable and incredibly rewarding from both a personal and business perspective.”
So soft skills are important, but what else? How about the surprisingly rare quality of being able to act decisively? “The main issue is waiting too long,” says Ella Bennett, HR director of Fujitsu. Dithering is a sign of weakness which can erode confidence and belief in a project.
“Leaders also need good old-fashioned project management skills,” agrees Colin Price, chairman of Co Company. “Transformations are complex – they are like changing the wings on an aircraft while in flight.”
Mr Price says it is important to blend the different elements – or “strands” – of a transformation; a process which he calls “weaving”.
70 per cent of transformations end in failure
“Most transformations are made up of multiple strands, such as new products, new service models, new systems and processes, and new behaviours. Each one of these strands might be quite delicate and even weak, but when woven together, they create a new fabric.”
He estimates that 70 per cent of transformations end in failure and there are three main reasons for it happening. One is that the original idea was bad. Corporate history is littered with mergers gone wrong (AOL-Time Warner), massive investments of time and effort in doomed products (Kodak) and rebrands that were quietly sidelined (New Coke).
This is as much a leadership failure as a bad implementation of a good idea, which brings us to point two: getting the timing wrong. Mr Price points to the example of Nokia, which dominated the mobile phone market until the iPhone smashed it to pieces. The company had a window in which it could respond, but missed it.
The third common point of failure is behaviour. To illustrate this point he uses the UK’s much-maligned banking sector. Part of the reason these have struggled to shrug off negative press is that they failed to control the behaviour of some employees.
“Behaviour let them down. It’s not clear whether they were too big to lead or just took their eye off the leadership ball. But the bottom line is the same. From rate fixing to rogue trades, miss-selling, tax evasion, the list goes on. The banks responsible simply did not ensure that individual behaviour lined up behind the strategy,” says Mr Price.
With all these complexities it’s no wonder that leadership qualities are in demand. As organisations get leaner and qualities such as adaptability and dynamism are evermore highly praised, people who can create and control transformations will become increasingly desirable to recruiters.
“It is unsurprising that if you took a snapshot of newly appointed leadership board members in the FTSE, you would discover a trending increase in the number of ex-management consultants who bring with them strong transformation skills,” says Jean-Pierre Green, partner at executive search firm Eton Bridge.
“It is very evident that transformational skills are sought after in a market where strong interim programme directors will often command day rates in excess of £1,500 per day.”
Writing down the elements of a great leader of transformation makes it look easy. It isn’t. While the concepts are simple enough, learning the lessons and putting them into practice is another thing entirely. As the salaries suggest, demand is currently outstripping supply.