Leading companies through profound change is different to running a successful business set on a steady path. Companies that enjoy continued success generate some sort of self-perpetuating inner energy which incites most members of their staff to surpass themselves and “go the extra mile”, with great clarity of where they are headed for and a high level of confidence that they will get there. On the other hand, companies that are reinventing themselves or change profoundly, for example as a result of a major acquisition, merger or divestment, require from most members of their staff and management an extraordinary and prolonged effort to understand, accept and embrace the new ways of working and new interfaces each of them is required to adopt.
The intensity and the duration of significant change programmes call for a specific style of leadership to achieve a successful outcome. In today’s competitive world, most individuals can deal with momentary workload peaks when the circumstances require them to do so. But what if the intensity and duration of the effort go beyond what they believe they can deliver or even accept to deliver? In the same way as sportsmen striving to reach beyond their limits have a coach to provide them with that much needed additional energy, stamina and motivation, the same type of motivationalleadership is needed to fuel the sustained effort which will result in successful and durable change in a business.
Beyond the set of capabilities and knowledge one would expect from a project leader (such as communication skills, programme management techniques, stakeholder management, analytical skills, intellect etc), we need to also consider the way the project leader will interact with the team of people in charge of organising and executing the change, and will motivate each individual in that team through a prolonged period of inordinately intensive work.
Those key characteristics fall into two categories: the first one being general success behaviours, which can be learnt and acquired, emulated, replicated:
- Individualised approach: taking the time to get to know everyone in the team, their strengths, their development areas, their interests.
- Social bonding: ensuring the team can enjoy regular moments of shared social activity to identify commonality and build a bond.
- Role model: always living up to the highest standards of professional conduct and work ethic; helping team members by working together with them rather than just delegating work to them inconsiderately. Not just “do as I say”, but “do as you see me doing”.
- Champion: being the leader but also the ambassador of the team towards the rest of the company.
- Clarity and high standards: ensuring everyone knows what needs to be done and holding them accountable for timely implementation.
The second category forms part of a person’s character and temperament; these are personal traits, most probably shaped by a person’s upbringing, that are not necessarily coachable or trainable for people who don’t possess them. They are nonetheless important because people may have a few ‘natural talents’ that are attributes of their personality which provide them with a distinct advantage when it comes to capturing an audience’s imagination, stimulating a team, overcoming objection and obtaining people’s trust and commitment.
Here are a few such traits of personality that project team members have fed back as attributes that give them cause to respect a leader, enjoy working with that person, and really stretch to the limit of their ability to meet the project’s objective and timelines:
- Charisma and charm: magnetic personality that people enjoy being around;
- Sense of humour: the ability to find the humour in the everyday monotony while nonetheless remaining professional in all circumstances at all times;
- Optimism: the ability to see the possibilities of a better future and convey them with confidence;
- Intelligence and worldly perspective: allows team members to expand their professional horizon with an improved understanding of the context in which they operate;
- Humility: a nice complement to intelligence so that one does not come across as arrogant;
- Being ‘real’ and approachable: this requires a mix of candour, openness and patience to create an environment in which team members feel free to express themselves, voice ideas, and occasionally seek support;
- Energy and stamina: energy (not to be confused with ‘agitation’) is contagious; the project team is most likely to underperform in the absence of a strong ‘locomotive’.
In real life, it is unlikely that the person who is chosen to lead the business transformation will possess each of the wide range of capabilities, experience, knowledge and personal attributes that are required to be the ‘ideal’ leader of the change programme. Gaps in “technical” capabilities can be filled by calling upon the support of functional specialists, consultants etc. However, the dynamics of change must be generated from within the organisation and cannot be imposed upon a business by a team of keen and willing external consultants in their mid-twenties.
Most mid-size organisations do not have a continued flow of business transformation projects that would justify hiring a senior change programme leader. Calling upon the services of a senior experienced interim executive is most probably the best solution in such circumstances. Unlike an external consultant, that senior interim executive will be held accountable for delivering the programme and will be perceived as a member of the organisation, with an internal email address, company business cards and most of the attributes that typically identify an individual as an “insider”, albeit for a finite duration.
That finite duration is in itself a significant advantage, because it allows the senior interim to act independently of company politics, with no long term personal agenda, and to remain focused with the benefit of his experience and gravitas on delivering the required outcomes and leaving a durable legacy to the business upon completion of the change programme.