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Seven common mistakes leaders make when trying to spearhead change

Transforming a business can be stressful and difficult, but it can be made easier by avoiding these common mistakes, says management consultant and transformation expert Adam Bennett.

Transformation efforts

According to global research firm McKinsey & Company, more than 70 percent of transformation projects fail to meet their objectives, and it’s fair to say that every executive who’s been involved in leading transformation has at some point found it very difficult.

After leading and advising on transformation for more than three decades as a CEO, a  ‘big four’ bank CIO and a management consultant, I’ve experienced these difficulties firsthand. My mistakes over the years have been balanced; there were things I should have done and didn’t, and things I did that I shouldn’t have. To give your transformation project the best chance of success, I recommend you avoid these seven common mistakes.

1. They’re not personally committed

Successful transformation requires significant professional commitment. Transformation leadership can’t be delegated to one of your direct reports, or outsourced to a team of management consultants. As the leader, you must not only do the work, but also be seen to do the work. Additionally, your personal scorecard must reflect the importance of the transformation by having at least 50 percent or more weighted toward the transformation and the future success of the company. Once you’re fully committed, talented people will seek to get involved, resources will be easier to secure and momentum will build.

2. They can’t make the hard choices

Strategy is about choice, and as the transformation leader you must be prepared to make them. No organization can do everything, and it’s far better to move one or two things forward a mile, rather than 10 things forward an inch. This focus requires clarity of direction, followed by clear alignment of people and resources to deliver it. It also requires clarity around what you won’t do. You must be able to say no, and not seek to please everyone. Gather opinions, consult people across the company and try to build consensus. But at the end of the day, you must make the hard calls.

3. They think they know it all

No one likes a smart aleck, and the more senior you are in a particular industry, the more likely you’ll self-reference as an expert and maintain a traditional point of view. This is dangerous, especially now when entire industries are being re-invented and AI and other forces are changing the rules. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you know it all. Be curious to new ways and build maximum diversity into your teams. Create an environment of constructive debate where ideas and decisions are challenged. Seek ways to give other people credit for their ideas, especially when they build on or challenge your own. If you haven’t changed your mind recently, you might be falling into this trap.

Transformation efforts

4. They annoy everyone with blunt messages

If you’re new to an organization, or self-reference as the smartest in the room, then it’s very easy to annoy everyone with blunt messages. This is both unnecessary and ill advised. It’s unnecessary because you can be simultaneously direct and kind, and ill-advised because you need to win over the support of people in the organization to sustain the transformation. Instead, first find ways to acknowledge the good work already done that provides a solid foundation for moving forward, and only then call out those specific things that need to change and why they’re no longer serving everyone. After all, we’ve all been warmed by fires we didn’t light and sat in the shade of trees we didn’t plant. When communicating, engage people, don’t annoy them.

5. They don’t communicate a compelling case for change

If you’re getting ready to communicate your transformation program with a 30-page PowerPoint, think again. Good communication needs to be simple, memorable and compelling. You should be able to describe the essence of your transformation in a couple of sentences. For example, try this:

“Because of A, B and C [the disruptive forces you’re experiencing] we are launching a transformation program to X, Y and Z [the elements of your strategy].”

And the three golden rules to make it compelling are to  apply to self-interest; make it seem part of something big; and make it seem right to support it. Drop the PowerPoint and get ready to authentically speak with your people and explain what you’re doing and why.

6. They don’t take a thorough approach

Successful transformation relies on knowing which levers to pull to actually implement change. These include strategic levers such as the products and services you create, or the customers and markets you serve. They also include operational levers such as business process, technology, organization structure, and people and culture. It’s easy to fall into the trap of overdoing some levers (such as technology and structure) and under-doing others (such as business process and culture). While tempting to make changes to organization structure, in reality it changes very little because it doesn’t address the way work actually gets done. It’s also easy to assume that a new technology system will solve all your problems. Again, unless you actually change the underlying business processes, not much will be achieved. Effective leaders know which levers to pull to embed and sustain change.

7. They don’t deal with people likely to resist

In every organization there will be a group of people who simply won’t support the change. They may be traditionalists who can’t imagine a different future, those who stand to lose power and prestige or the white ants hellbent on eating away the foundations just to prove they’re right. Failure to deal with these characters will likely signal the death of your transformation project. Many leaders make the mistake of trying to remain popular, or investing too much time and effort in trying to win these people over. No individual executive is more important than the future success of the organization as a whole. So if – after having been consulted to get their view and then having been set clear expectations – an executive still continues to resist the transformation, they should be removed or replaced. Today.

So that’s seven common mistakes to avoid when leading transformation. I wish you luck, and hope that you’ll be in the 30 percent of projects that succeed.

Adam Bennett, author of Great Change – the WAY to get big strategy done, is the Principal of Great Change Consulting, and a former CEO, big-4 bank CIO and management consultant. With decades of relevant experience, he provides independent and pragmatic advice to businesses seeking transformation.

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