Throughout The Secret Sauce for Leading Transformational Change Panel with NYHRPS, we explored what it takes to lead, survive, and even thrive in periods of transformational change. Each of our panelists shared their own unique experiences, thoughts, and practical advice on this topic to help leaders not only implement but also sustain transformational change for the long haul. Here’s a recap of our discussion and some of the key themes that stand out from the event:
What is transformational change?
While each of our panelists shared their own unique definitions of transformational change, there were a few common topics we heard echoed again and again:
Transformational change involves growth
At its core, transformational change is about exploring new ways to do things, which Cheryl Perkins, CEO and founder of Innovationedge, pointed out during our discussion. “You really have to stretch your competencies and your thinking to grow your business or create something new in the market for your customers and consumers,” she explained. That’s how you make a difference.
Karen Jaw-Madson, Principal at Co.-Design of Work Experience, summed up her definition of transformational change simply as learning. She went on to explain that “learning is change. It’s not about acquiring information and doing nothing with it. It’s about encountering new knowledge and integrating it in a way that changes our outward behaviors and actions which impacts results.”
Transformational change is comprehensive
When we think about transformational change, we think about impact across all levels of an organization, not just a few small tweaks here and there. While small changes can certainly happen in silos, transformational change is felt across departments, by shareholders at the top and entry-level employees who are just starting out—and often by consumers and customers as well.
“There’s a fundamental, foundational shift,” Padma Thiruvengadam, CHRO for Onsemi, explained, and this type of shift requires clear direction. “The transformation has to align with your stakeholders, but in some instances, you also need to direct them instead of simply deliver to them.”
As Ian Ziskin, President of EXec EXcel Group, shared, “transformational change involves completely rethinking and repositioning the what, why, when, who, how, and where” associated with dramatic improvement. In other words, transformational change is systemic, extensive, and rather dramatic. It takes place over a long period of time and has a ripple effect across organizations.
Transformational change matters
When we embark on the journey of transformational change as leaders, it’s usually because we want to have a positive impact on our organization and the people around us. While implementing and sustaining transformational change may not be an easy task, seeing the good that comes from it often makes it all worthwhile.
Barbara Frankel, Founder & President at Coaching Initiatives, summed this up beautifully by sharing that her definition of transformational change is “having a vision and creating something that really matters to the organization, to individuals, to team members, and to departments. Something that makes a difference.”
What does transformational change require?
Defining transformational change is one thing, but what does implementing it actually require from us as leaders? Let’s take a look at what our panelists had to say:
Transformational change requires leaders to understand core needs
“You have to embark on the transformational change journey with an understanding of the need,” Cheryl began. It’s crucial to know what needs to be fixed before you start making changes, but the good news is that you can do it in “bite-sized pieces” as Cheryl recommends. A little success means a lot, so focus on what’s attainable to get started. Then, use those successes to build.
As Padma explained, “at the end of the day when you’re transforming an organization, it’s all about people,” which makes having authentic conversations and digging deep to understand their needs a crucial component of transformational change.
Transformational change requires leaders to engage the right people
“People tend to assume that they’re not in a position to effect transformational change, when, in fact, they can,” Karen noted. The key? “You need substance and the process to work hand in hand to bring about meaningful change,” she explained.
“Make sure you have the right core team engaged. People who have the right skills to really make a difference,” Cheryl advised. Look for people who are adaptable and able to pivot when the time comes.
And as you’re engaging people, place a heavy emphasis on culture. As Barbara highlighted throughout her stories about working with Bob Schimmenti, President of TrueNorth Partners LLC, having a “forward-looking, inclusive, and engaged culture where people have a sense of ownership” is crucial to drive transformational change.
Transformational change requires leaders to be comfortable with ambiguity
There’s a common misconception around transformational change, and it’s that “somehow to be successful you have to see around corners and connect the dots of seemingly unconnected things. That it has to be anticipatory,” Ian noted during the panel. But we can’t predict the future.
“Transformation is grey and fuzzy and feels uncomfortable,” Cheryl shared with us during our discussion. “If you’re truly going to leverage your creativity and do something that makes a difference, then you have to be able to deal with ambiguity.”
The Mike Tyson quote Ian shared fits particularly well here: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
It’s important to note that leaders can implement successful transformational change work in response to things they didn’t see coming and weren’t prepared for. On the flip side, sometimes leaders venture into ambiguity with a plan to solve a problem others haven’t fully identified yet.
“In some instances, you’re actually creating the need” and leading your audience through ambiguity, as Padma pointed out. “Sometimes the market doesn’t know what they need, so you have to target the white space,” she explained, going on to share that putting systemic things in place can help leaders overcome this challenge. “As humans, we’re all looking for something we know in a world of constant change, so when you take a systemic approach and introduce programmatic things, you can actually grapple with the change.”
What are the most important leadership skills to maintain during transformational change?
Here are a few of the skills our panel highlighted as being the most critical to enact and sustain transformational change:
Leaders need to be resilient
As a leader, “you constantly need to pivot, which requires resiliency and the ability to keep track of your vision,” Cheryl opened up with during this portion of our discussion. Part of being resilient involves embracing the naysayers in your organization as well as the cheerleaders.
“Resisters tend to be a little bit more vocal, especially at the beginning,” Ian pointed out. “They push back, and they ask tough questions.” But marginalizing, ignoring, or firing these people early in the process is not the answer.
“Often, resisters bring up good tough questions that the organization actually needs to address in order to successfully drive transformational change,” Ian continued. “So, love the influencers and the resistors” to build resiliency.
Read more: 5 Tips to Become a Resilient Leader
Leaders need to be honest
“Start with the truth,” Ian shared as he highlighted the advice he received from Dr. Ronald D. Sugar, which is included in the foreword of The Secret Sauce for Leading Transformational Change. Make sure your actions are based in reality instead of denying the data that’s in front of you. It is a huge risk as a leader to deflect, dismiss, or ignore any facts that don’t somehow reinforce your preferred view of the internal or external environment.
Of course, being honest also requires opening up the lines of communication with your team and stakeholders. “You need to be able to have strategic conversations that encourage dialogue,” Karen highlighted. This is how leaders uncover possibilities, build resiliency, and manage change effectively. “Remain connected with other people and pay attention so you can respond appropriately,” she advised.
Leaders need to be agile
One of the most important skills leaders can have is learning agility, as Karen pointed out. Being flexible and embracing speed can help you “collaborate, experiment, and reflect” while getting the ball rolling to implement change that has a real impact.
“Most leaders say they wish they moved faster, not slower, when it comes to driving transformational change,” Ian noted. Often, progress requires us to act more quickly than we feel comfortable doing.
“You never know what’s coming down the pipe,” Padma noted, so you need to be able to communicate boldly, move fluidly, and manage capacity versus capability. “Balancing the whole value chain is really important,” she continued, so pay attention to the needs of your internal team, your external stakeholders, and your consumers or customers to make informed decisions while navigating ambiguous situations with speed.
How do you measure success throughout the transformational change process?
While the measures of success are usually specific to the unique organization, need, and context, as Karen pointed out, there are a few things you can focus on to track your progress:
Quantitative and qualitative measures
While we typically think of quantitative measures as being more stringent, qualitative measures can be as simple as setting pass or fail parameters to determine your success throughout different stages of the transformational change journey. Oftentimes, “there’s an emphasis on metrics that are numerical in nature, but the qualitative measures tell the greater story of the change narrative,” Karen shared.
She went on to stress the importance of being thoughtful about the measures you put in place because they will “solicit certain behaviors, so you have to make sure they don’t elicit the wrong types of behaviors, but rather reinforce the ones you do want to encourage.”
Primary and secondary measures
Padma highlighted the importance of establishing both primary and secondary measures. “The secondary measures typically act as a counter to the primary measures,” she explained. For example, your primary focus might be on launching a new product, improving an existing product line, or increasing revenue. An important secondary measure could be tracking customer satisfaction.
“An organization is interconnected,” Padma shared, so focusing on primary and secondary measures can help you maintain a balanced and well-rounded approach to transformational change.
Difference vs. improvement
“One of the biggest mistakes we see leaders make over and over again is to change everything and focus on doing a bunch of things differently, without having any idea whether any of these things generate a real improvement,” Ian stressed.
To prevent this, Ian suggested creating a dashboard that focused on three or four big ticket items that you’re really trying to improve. Measure your progress in these areas using both quantitative and qualitative metrics on a regular basis.
Then use this dashboard to hold key people accountable. Focus on improvement, instead of making changes for the sole sake of doing things differently.
How can you sustain transformational change for the long term?
The goal is to keep transformational change going for an extended period of time, but maintaining these efforts certainly comes with a slew of challenges. Here’s what our experts had to say about sustaining transformational change for the long term:
Start with pilot programs
“A lot of organizations seem to fall into the trap of covering 100% of the organization and people all at once when implementing transformational change, but usually that doesn’t work nearly as well as experimenting with a subset of the organization, learning from the experience, and then expanding it,” Ian shared as we discussed the Skunk Works model.
Karen, who has extensive experience with the Skunk Works model, shared that it’s important for the people doing this work to be really attuned and in a place where they can truly represent the voice of the employees. “That’s how they get their credibility,” she explained. “It’s great if they experiment and they stretch the boundaries and they explore innovation, but if it doesn’t resonate with the audience they want to move with them, then it’s not going to be successful.”
Create a team of champions
“I can’t think of a single example in The Secret Sauce for Leading Transformational Change or in my 40 years of experience where a leader did it on their own. It’s about surrounding yourself with highly talented people that can help drive and execute the change,” Ian shared.
As Barbara highlighted throughout her story of working with Bob, it’s important to nurture a greater diversity of thought while you build your team of champions. Assess your team and consider what demographics you’re missing. Then take the initiative to expand, like Bob did when he encouraged leaders throughout the company to move between departments. By sharing resources, changing the leadership structure, and bringing people from different backgrounds—including a great deal of women—in to work, Bob was able to transform the culture of his organization.
Identifying a team of champions can also help you create a sense of ownership and encourage individuals to find solutions to common issues. Consider creating a team of culture ambassadors and asking them to get a friend involved like Bob did to sustain this effort long-term.
Listen to your people
“Usually, what people think of when they think of communication is a lot of talking, but all that talking is not nearly as important as listening,” Ian pointed out. “If you listen to people, particularly those who are closer to the customer or the issues you’re trying to overcome, you’ll find out whether things are actually improving and what things are still getting in the way.” This is a much more successful way of sustaining transformational change than simply preaching your vision to your organization.
Barbara expanded on this idea by sharing that in her and Bob’s experience, “mid-managers really have influence over about 80% of the workforce,” making it essential to coach and engage these individuals.
“What we’ve all learned from years of implementing transformational change is that you can’t take either a top-down or a bottom-up approach,” Cheryl commented. You need to incorporate both. “You really need all aspects of the organization to contribute and communicate so that everyone, regardless of their level in the organization, sees how the change impacts them.”
We hope you enjoyed The Secret Sauce for Leading Transformational Change Panel with NYHRPS!
Stay tuned for announcements about future events that will feature additional transformational change experts.
In the meantime, visit www.transformationalchangebook.com to learn more and order your copy of The Secret Sauce for Leading Transformational Change today.
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