How do you make someone change? Thoughts on Leadership in a Transformation

It has been a year now since I took a step sideways to learn about Transformations. “How do you make someone change?” was one of the first thoughts, that went through my mind, when I was asked to lead a Global Transformation Program. The answer has taken me a while to piece together. Truth be told, it is not as easy as one would think, and paradoxically, it is not as hard as it might be when you first set out to do it.

Leading through change is fast becoming a constant.

Gone are the days when we could tend toward stability, put a process on something and watch it auto-pilot itself along. The rate of technology and societal change has been staggering over the last decade and everyone is playing catch up.

Those who can adapt to this changing world will not only survive, they’ll thrive. Those that don’t adapt will fall by the wayside.


My Story


Up until a year ago I was sitting in the finance seat. I had joined a new company in a completely different industry, and I was learning the buzz words, trying to understand the company culture and make friends and influence people along the way.

They say being able to change industries helps us learn change agility and I can attest to that. I’ve always been adaptable.

Growing up my family moved multiple times between cities, and I had to make friends, learn the talk of the locals, fit in, adapt, thrive and learn a whole lot of new things, notably languages along the way.


Into my adult life, I started in an industry that exposed me to the inner workings of multiple industries, from petro-chemical companies, to fishing, automotive, investment banks and insurance companies. Each company had a different style of leadership. They ranged from the extroverts to the technical experts. From the loud and noisy to the quiet and contemplative. And every time I had a few hours to adapt and assimilate myself to the surroundings. In some companies you wore a suit and tie, in another one jeans and a shirt. Figuring that out the fastest, meant you were able to do your job better by winning the trust of those around you.

Those first 4 years helped me realize, even more so than when I was growing up, that being adaptable was a skill that one needed to survive, and it was also a skill one could learn.


The power of observation is key to adapting to a new environment. All groups seem to have similar ways of behaving, similar ways of speaking, of holding themselves, even dressing. It is like an unwritten code. It is easy to see when you look for it. Try it out at work tomorrow or look around you. Do you see underlying patterns in the way people speak, how they start meetings (are they always on time or running 5 minutes late), the types of presentations they prepare, the buzz words they use?

All of these things are tiny pieces of a puzzle that one can learn to put together to form a perfect picture of the environment in which you find yourself.

Once you can see the picture, you can blend in and become one of the establishment.


I was always fast to assess the environment and quickly adapt my ways so that people trusted me without knowing why. Truth is they felt safe with me because I seemed like one of them.

Ever been in a foreign country and come across someone from your country?

Remember how you were with them? You felt drawn to them as they had characteristics and shared beliefs and ways of behaving similar to what you had. Implicitly you trusted them more than the other people around you.

Meeting the same person back in your hometown? You probably wouldn’t have given them the time of day.


Observation is the most powerful skill needed to adapt. Adapting is a necessity to creating trust.


After my first 4 years and multiple industries, I changed countries and landed in a place where I couldn’t speak the language and had never been before. Try that for the deep-end. At least I was working in the same industry.

A year later, I was speaking the language and was changing jobs. I moved to the head office of a conglomerate and was exposed to the music industry, mobile phone operators, fixed telephone line operators, cable TV, video games and book publishing. All that under one umbrella and I had access and worked in all of it. And across multiple countries to boot!

I explored Asia, Africa, South and North America and most of Europe, travelling with my company over the course of 5 years.

Following an amazing ability to continue to build on my adaptation skills, I changed again into the entertainment industry and worked for a company that had over 500 different job types under one roof, 50 languages spoken and over 100 nationalities represented. Again, a treasure trove of experiences boiled down into one company.


This amazing, varied experience taught me the power of adapting to the situation, the ability to morph and draw on different strengths and skills to fit the situation and the ability to also somehow fly above the lot and see the bigger picture.


Seeing the bigger picture is another key skill needed to survive in a changing world – even one in relatively stability but one in which you are thrust into such a multitude of cultures, ways of working and ways of leading. Being able to see how the pieces fit together and what is needed to move between them is critical.


Seeing the bigger picture is the second most powerful skill needed to adapt.


As I reflect on my past, it was this explosion of experiences across multiple industries that helped prepare the foundations for my Transformation Role.


The Transformation Brief


Imagine a company that has been growing in the mid-single digits for the last several decades. Leadership is decentralized and each geographical region has ownership of their operations, from sales strategy down to supply chain and finance. In addition to the regions, several product categories are centralized in one country and manage R&D and product insights and strategy across the globe.

Imagine the company is operating in industry categories that are being disrupted and which haven’t changed in decades. Imagine a leadership team that has been in place for decades and largely been executing on a single blueprint for all of that time.

Imagine it? Good! My brief was to shake that all up and change it, without changing the people at the top. Reignite innovation, develop a new long-term strategy, find new ways of selling and create a harmonized global approach that the local geographies could build off. Also, we needed to seize the power of data, modernize our systems and find the economies of scale the company had never put in place, despite its industry having done it years ago.


Top 5 things to think about when leading change


When you look to the textbooks, or speak to other Transformation Leaders, everybody has their Top 10 things that make Transformations successful. By all means, go and have a look at them. I did. I even tried to use them but slowly I realized that there are only 5 things that are most critical in getting someone to change and these are them:


1. Everybody needs to know what you are trying to do


When you wake up in the morning, you know what you need to do. You need to get out of bed, get dressed, brush your teeth, have breakfast and get out the door to head to work. It is usually a combination of those things and you may need to throw in some children duties or some spouse duties as well.

In any case, the actual things aren’t important.

What is important, is that you know what you are doing and why you are doing it.


Now, you may think that is the most obvious thing in the world and you’d be right to think so. It actually is so obvious and so simple because we humans have been doing pretty much the same thing for thousands if not millions of years. We go out and gather food to feed ourselves, so we don’t die. We build our habitations and make them safe, so we don’t die. We go get a job to earn money to pay for the food we need to live and the house we need to be safe and warm. We may use the money to learn new things, to entertain ourselves, to go explore the world, to give our kids a better education. The list is endless, but the truth remains is that we know exactly why we are doing these things.

Yes, we may try and make up some philosophical idea of the purpose of our lives, but I’m not trying to be that fancy. You can do that if you’d like. But life really comes down to one thing: living. How you live it is an entirely different quest.


At work, people search for pretty much the same thing. They turn on their computers, put on their uniforms, start their cars, or whatever for the simple reason to do their jobs.


And every job has a reason for it being there in the first place. To account for the sales numbers so we know how much we’ve sold, so we can know how much more to build or assemble or order to sell more. Selling more makes us more money so we can pay ourselves increases and reward the owners of our capital.


Go and try it, every job should have a reason for existing.


And as you put all those jobs together, every company is doing a series of things to achieve some goal. At the base it is to make money to do all the things that it needs to do to pay bills, buy raw materials etc, but beyond that is the reason it was started in the first place. To make the world a better place, to elevate consciousness, to get clean drinking water for everyone on the planet, to ensure the world communicates, to provide affordable everyday products to everyone.


Whatever the reason, your company has it and it is paramount to ensuring that everyone comes to work and does their thing.


When you start to Transform a company, everything gets a bit fuzzy. Hang on? You’re changing the reason why I’m working here? Suddenly everyone starts wanting a mission and vision statement and they won’t accept the old one, because if the old one was right, you wouldn’t need to Transform in the first place.


Such is the first thing to do when Leading Change: Have a really compelling story of why you are changing and what you’re trying to achieve.


And remember it isn’t about the money. Money is a necessity to get the engine moving but it isn’t the reason the company was started in the first place or the reason it is targeting to transform itself.


This is all of utmost importance and it should seem pretty obvious to you now, but you want to know something amazing? Most leaders dismiss this part!


Yes they do! Can you believe it? Imagine not knowing why you got out of bed every morning! I’m pretty sure, if you didn’t know why you had to get out of bed every morning, that you’d just lie there staring at the ceiling wondering what you’re doing in a bed…


If you don’t do this one right, you’ll never Transform anything. You’ll keep yourself busy and things will look to be changing, but you’ll be blind to the most important motor that gets things changing and that’ll be a sure-fire way not to get to your destination at all. Hint: see point 5 later.


2. Make the tough decisions quickly


Ever bought a new mobile phone? Do you remember the excitement of unboxing it? Charging it up? Exploring the new functionalities? Remember how that made you feel?


Remember hanging onto your old mobile phone, thinking it may come in handy? You didn’t want to sell it right away, as what if the new one didn’t work? Then weeks went by, maybe months, maybe you even forgot about it and now it is just sucking up space in a cupboard. Maybe you did eventually try to sell it, but the price you got wasn’t even worth the hassle?


Now imagine you sold it right away? You would have probably received a better price for it and used that extra cash for something nice. (think investment not splurging it)


The point here is, don’t wait to make the hard decision. Now a mobile phone for some may not be a hard decision, whereas for others it will be.


Getting rid of Dan who has been in his role for 30 years and doesn’t have a clue about how server virtualization works even though he is your lead technology person, may be emotionally hard, but I’m guessing it is probably the right choice if you want to modernize your IT department.


Not many people like making the tough decisions. Most people like to think people will adapt and start to change when we ask them. Well, maybe Dan grew up in a small town just around the corner from your company headquarters. Maybe Dan has never traveled and asks his direct reports to help him when those Damn French People talk on the tele-phone. Maybe Dan is just really content in his life and still gets his shoes from the same Walmart store he was going to as a kid. Do you really, honestly think Dan will suddenly prick up an interest in software virtualization? Really?

Truth is Dan won’t and keeping him along for the ride, means things won’t change and no amount of willing them to change will make them change.


Here again, you’d probably think it is obvious in the above example that we’d ask Dan to move onto different pastures right away?


Most companies take their time in making the tough people decisions, especially when it comes to Senior Leadership. Oh, it is relatively easy to downside a team nobody has heard of in a country people have a hard time pronouncing, but when it comes to letting Dan go. Good old Dan who always dresses up as a fireman at the Halloween party and whose kids are always at the end of year party, despite now being in their thirties. That’s a much harder call.


But as hard as it might be, it needs to be taken right away or you definitely won’t succeed in getting things to change.



3. Be rigorous in tracking progress


When  you’re going on a cross county, cross state or cross country road trip and you have a deadline to meet, you’re probably good at defining milestones: when you take a break, when you put in gas, which hotels you stay at and so forth. And you’re probably good at assessing the time and recalculating the distance ahead and what you may need to change to still meet the deadline.


In a Transformation, it works in much the same way. And you need to be rigorous about keeping it that way.


You need to strictly define what you want to achieve, be it specific sales growth or cost reductions. Organizational changes, system enhancements and by when you want all these things to materialize.


Having a clear deadline and deliverables is critical. Tracking them is even more critical. Tracking enables you to identify roadblocks, to know when you need to accelerate, to know when you are on the right track and when you may need to adjust things.


Most organizations going through Transformations get this one fairly spot on. It is probably because most companies have run a project before and apply simple project management to the Transformation.

And you know what? It works!


4. Have the right team


When I was 16 years old, I went through a football season with my team unbeaten. It was an amazing experience. We had bigger teams, more skilled teams, more equipped teams play us and we beat each and every one of them. We became somewhat of a mythical team and nothing could stop us. As the season went on, even our strongest opponents, who had easily beaten us in the previous year, started getting worried before playing us.


And we weren’t the best team, taken individually. However, when we played together, we compensated for each other and everything gelled each time we played. We were in the zone every single game.


As the season neared the end, everyone of us knew we would win each and every next game. It was just evident to us. Such was the strength of the team together and our belief in ourselves.


Ever since that time (I was the Captain), I have tried to bring together teams like that. I’m not interested in the smartest and the brightest, although that can help. What I’m interested in is how the team come together and how each person fits together and complements each other.


Designing a team is more art than science, but you need to be attentive to how each of the team members behave and how they come together as one to make things work together. The right team can go unbeaten for a whole season against much stronger teams.


When starting a Transformation, make sure you take the time to understand who you are bringing onto the team. Focus on team deliverables and team successes. Don’t focus on the individual and what exactly they did or didn’t do. It is the team that primes. Everyone needs to be part of the team success and the team failures. Work hard at creating the right trust, the right openness, the right vulnerability.

As the team leader, being sincere, authentic and vulnerable are essential traits to building up trust amongst the team. Once the trust forms, the rest can follow.


Don’t underestimate the time it takes to build the right team.


5. Focus on the People


I’m hearing you say it as you read the title. Another obvious one, Chief Money Man! And yes, you are right, but again, I’ve seen it over and over again – corporations often don’t focus on the people side.

They skip over the vision, purpose and mission, they keep the deadweight senior leadership around and they prime individual performance. All the wrong ingredients to be successful in a Transformation. And then they don’t concern themselves with the mindset and state of the people.

They tend to focus too much on end-state and fool themselves into believing that the end-state will answer everyone’s grievances. However, they forget that getting to the end-state depends on one thing and one thing only: the People!

If you forget all the previous 4, don’t forget this one. People are all that matters, take care of them and they’ll take care of the company.


Transformations take time and care


Being a Transformation Leader has taught me so much about myself, my adaptability, my leadership skills, the shortcomings of others and the solitude of Leadership in this kind of role.


I had felt a certain solitude when I was CFO, but nothing like it as Transformation Leader. In this kind of role, you become both the jailer and the liberator. People are afraid of you and they envy you. They target you right away, hoping you will fail, and they do everything to undermine you. Yet at the same time they support you and work with you as they know what’s at stake. They don’t want your job, but they despise you for doing it while at the same time praising you for having taken it on.

Transformation Leader is the job of the king, the advisor, the executioner and the servant, all rolled into one.

Would I change the last year for anything? No, not at all. The skills and capabilities I have learnt over the last year are priceless.

As a Transformation Lead you never know what tomorrow will bring and that’s the beauty of charting a new course into the unknown. The pleasant surprises, the many victories and the satisfaction of knowing you took something to a better place.





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