Effective leadership is about being flexible, thinking outside the box, taking risks, and being creative

They teach us that a significant role in the transformation of an organization is played by clearly defined business goals, the relationship of a leader with people and well-chosen communication tools. And although I subscribe to this approach, I personally emphasize something else - individual experiences.

Leadership organization change Norbert Biedrzycki blog

Executive trainers tell us that a key to successfully transforming an organization is clearly defining business goals, ensuring that leaders maintain good relationships with people across the organization, and choosing the right communication tools. Although I agree with this approach, I propose another prerequisite: personal experience.

I am convinced that any change I plan to achieve within my organization should rest on a personal foundation. The process of change should be anchored firmly in my own value system and resonate with every part of my psyche I consider genuine, mature, and vital. In other words, the potential, extent and direction of the change I want to effect in my organization depends largely on my beliefs and psychological abilities.

Look for role models in surprising places

I am hardly the first business leader to set out to change an organization. I am not inventing the wheel; I do not have monopoly on knowledge; I am not irreplaceable. When intervening in my organization at key moments, I draw on lessons I’ve learned from the achievements and experiences of others. But it is crucial to choose the right role models and examples.

If effective leadership is about being flexible, thinking outside the box, being bold, taking risks, and being creative, the implications of where one searches for knowledge are truly enormous. My approach is to follow my own cognitive habits while challenging them as needed, finding advice that has previously been hidden from me because it was (perhaps) unpopular, incompatible with my own value system, controversial, or formulated by people distant from my own spiritual self. Once I open myself to inspiration from any source, the results can be (and have been) revelatory.

Find stories that engage

While searching for examples of leaders who have changed their organizations in remarkable ways, I came across a funny but powerful story of John Hammergren, the CEO of the pharmaceutical firm McKesson. Asked how to run a company effectively, he described how he realized he, too, would one day become a patient and a customer of the healthcare system. This realization strongly influenced his management style and business behavior. Can you imagine a more compelling story of management taken to a personal level? If I were a mid-level McKesson manager listening to Hammergren, I believe I would be deeply inspired by his example. I, too, would envision myself as a future patient and think about what I needed to do now as an employee of the pharmaceutical company to help myself in the future. All in all, I am convinced that leaders capable of personally relating to transformation achieve greater results, and have a greater impact, than those who limit themselves to PowerPoint presentations, no matter how meticulously prepared. The idea is to show how change in an organization can be of personal relevance to the leader. The leader must find a key example that will illustrate the importance of the transformation to himself and to the people who are close to him. Once the leader gives his workers a story they will recognize as meaningful to him, it will become meaningful to them, and they are likely to redouble their efforts.

The questions I start with

When searching for ways to change an organization, there are many questions I ask myself. As I go along, they pop into my head, like an avalanche. The more issues I encounter along the way, the more questions arise. Then, however, there are other fundamental questions that I ask myself at the outset, before key decisions are made, and even before I make my choices about how to effect the transformation. These questions help me define the underlying purpose of the change and, as a result, enable me to see what resources I have, who I can count on, and what risks I’ll be facing. I think the courage to ask difficult, foundational questions is essential for mustering the resolve necessary to execute a transformation that will entail a reorganization.

For example, Do I understand the essential meaning of the changes that my actions will bring? Do I know how to communicate the critical points? Will I be able to get the attention of those I presume will be opposed to change? Do I know what resources I have at my disposal and whether they are sufficient for achieving my goals? Can I make the new values ​​I’m proposing become part of the organization’s culture? Can I imagine what the company will look like a few years after the changes have been implemented?

These are some of the many questions that all leaders should ask themselves at the start of a transformation. The key is to draw up the list and use it for more than simply enumeration. Connect it become part of your value system, a reminder of why you’re doing what you’re doing as you manage the process.

Asking the right questions – not just of yourself but of the people with whom you’re working – is crucial. An effective leader does not lead people by command; he or she asks the right questions of the right people at the right times. It’s much like coaching and provides my co-workers with a sense of autonomy that reveals the potential of every individual to contribute to the process.

Embrace the risk

Every time I attempt to make a change, I am forced to step out of my comfort zone – which, like anyone else, I tend to cling to. Change entails risk, and one is not always able to gauge the extent of the risk in advance. While taking a risk sometimes gives me an adrenaline rush, it can also make me freeze. Effective leaders need to embrace, not deny, those feelings. A person who cannot tolerate the fact that some decisions will bring him or her to the edge will never be able to advance the most exciting solutions. On the other hand, an acute awareness of risk allows leaders to foresee – and plan for – the challenges that lie ahead.

Ed Catmull, a co-founder and president of the Pixar animation film studio, discusses three stages of risk in a McKinsey interview. The first is the most important: consciously deciding what risks you must take, and what risks are acceptable. The second is assessing the negative consequences of choices and decisions and developing appropriate strategies for dealing with them as they arise. The final stage is making sure not to pile risk upon risk, no matter how tempting it might be to go that extra mile. By adhering to these principles, Catmull successfully built his organization, fully aware that in doing so he was operating without a roadmap.

Designing a business venture, and even more so, transforming one, often resembles drawing up plans for a house into which one wants to move. Unfortunately, most of the time, as the house is being built, one is confronted with certain inescapable truths: although the house is taking shape, its costs are mounting, and difficult choices never cease, especially concerning matters unforeseen in your original design. According to Catmull, that’s normal. To remain in control, one needs to define at the outset what level of “messiness” one is willing to accept, and then be resolute in pressing ahead.

It comes down to passion

It is commonly known that people with a passion for what they do are more likely to be successful. Many studies show that most people who have succeeded professionally are those who have managed to find pursuits that match their personal interests. Modern leaders need to make this connection as strongly as possible; it must be part of their value system.

I do not think I would ever be able to transform an organization were I not passionate about it. Only after I discover the passion in myself will I be able to inspire others. And only when I succeed in inspiring others will I be able to build a team of allies that will follow me to the end.

To effect change, I must first achieve an inner commitment. It is therefore imperative that I get personally involved and remain true to my core convictions.

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Works cited

Bloomberg, McKesson Corp. chief executive officer John Hammergren speaks with Bloomberg’s Erik Schatzker at the JPMorgan Healthcare Conference and forcefully refutes criticism that his drug distribution company did not do enough to prevent the opioid epidemic, McKesson Corp. CEO on Opioid Epidemic and Tech’s Role in Pharmaceuticals, link, 2018.

Interview conducted by Stanford University professors Huggy Rao and Robert Sutton and the Quarterly’s editor in chief, Allen Webb, Staying one step ahead at Pixar: An interview with Ed Catmull, link, 2018.

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Leave a Reply


  1. Zoeba Jones

    It is always about customer experience and value to customer.

    • Norbert Biedrzycki  

      Real reasons for technology disruptions. So true 🙂

    • SimonMcD

      I do not agree with opinion about Amazon. I recommend the book “The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google” to better understanding how “Amazon plays”.

  2. tom lee

    In a balanced workplace, around half the people are men and half are women. In practice, some women gravitate towards particular roles whilst men seek other work positions. The ‘glass ceiling’ still exists in many companies and, perhaps due to life breaks such as having children, fewer women make it to the higher echelons.

    This can lead to frustrations and energy that can be put to good and destructive use. If you can harness this, you have power. There is also the power of sexual attraction, and tall and shapely people continue to make good use of their physical assets.

    • Adam

      Quite an amazing guide, really. I’ve been wanting to do this but didn’t know how to start. Now, I feel a lot more confident to dive in after reading this. Thanks for such an enlightening post.

  3. Adam Spark Two

    Technology is (or should be) an enabler, providing data, analysis, information, access and other benefits. Those who control what technology is used by the organization or who gets the latest computers and software has significant power, and the person who used to be the ‘IT Manager’ may now be the ‘Chief Information Officer’.

    Having the latest technology can also be a status symbol, thereby giving the holder social power in the way they can show themselves to be influential and clever.

  4. Simon GEE

    I believe this is the biggest one of all. Research and personal experience shows that your level of belief in your people (as their leader) will have a huge impact on their productivity and success. Little belief, little success; bigger belief, more success. What is your limit?

  5. Karel Doomm2

    Good read

    Another likely trend will be developing new, creative strategies for retaining skilled staff. Low unemployment and a lack of skilled workers is expected to continue to be a challenge for businesses in 2019

  6. TomHarber

    With so much focus on diversity and inclusion, we may have overlooked the value and power of separation. I say 2019 will be the year of individual growth. The steady stream of dramatic events in 2018 have forced us all to ask some tough questions about life, and I think many will turn to their employers for help and support in clarifying one’s purpose and how to actualize one’s full potential.

  7. PiotrPawlow

    The vast majority of companies say that they’re highly committed to gender and racial diversity—yet the evidence indicates that many are still not treating diversity as the business imperative it is.
    Take gender diversity as an example. In contrast with what companies say about their commitment, only around half of all employees think that their company sees gender diversity as a priority and is doing what it takes to make progress.

    • Norbert Biedrzycki  

      In reality they have no clear business requirements to follow and do not want to invest money in improving and maintaining data quality.

  8. Zidan78

    When you know the general characteristics of the different stages of organizational change, you can adopt strategies appropriate to your own specific circumstances at the stage you’re currently navigating.

    • TonyHor

      When guiding employees, it is important to define their role in the work process and provide them with tools needed to perform and participate in their efforts along the way. Some military maneuvers are difficult. Often, orders are to perform tasks that involve intricate details, like explaining how to dig a tunnel past enemy lines. A good leader will explain the tasks, provide the digging tools, direct the work and be available to assist the soldiers if they run into a problem.

  9. Zoeba Jones

    You’re not likely to find statistical significance for this data point (teams being able to work on anything). At least not this data point by itself. When it comes to complex systems, and especially flow, there are many variables that contribute to how quickly and effectively work moves. each variable has a tolerance, and if even one variable is outside that tolerance it can cause the entire system to bottle neck. if you have multiple variables out of tolerance, it can become very hard to find them let alone make changes and understand the impact.
    Traffic is an excellent example of this. I love using traffic as an example because it’s something most of us are familiar with and can visualize. If every car is doing exactly what it’s suppose to, things move pretty fast. people can move in and out of lanes, merge on and off, and generally get where they need to go. but all it takes is one car slowing down or doing something unexpected to cause a shock-wave that could extend for miles causing slowdowns and frustration for everyone involved. I primarily use this to discuss deployment strategy, as which do you think is easier to keep moving: A sea of motorcycles or a sea of giant trucks?

  10. SimonMcD

    Indeed, instead of creating self-organized, empowered teams, it looks like you want to create these old functional silos again. But this depends on how prepared your organization is – have cross functional teams. you don’t necessarily have to do that right now. Start with a cross-functional team with a business connection, plan and build in one- or two-week cycles, show everyone your real, running, tested software after each cycle and after each cycle sit down and devise real ways to improve. It’s important to recognize you likely can’t do this right now, and even if you could it wouldn’t happen over night. It’s more important to understand what you’re giving up by keeping teams that aren’t cross functional.
    Based on the benefit, you may decide that having a functional and working backlog should come before (rather than at the same time as) cross functional teams. IE: there’s not a lot of benefit to a cross-functional team if they dont’ have that business connection. part of your strategy for that connection could be this backlog. so you need that in place and stable before you make the teams cross functional.

  11. Jack666

    Leaders are committed to and personally involved in improving organization performance. They should create and maintain the internal environment in which people can become fully involved in achieving the organization’s objectives.

  12. Simon GEE

    A leader cannot be successful if they do not know how to communicate effectively – but there are also many other qualities which they need. Leaders need to show, not just tell. Even Richard Branson said,” Communication is the most important skill any leader can possess”. Most problems can be solved with some good, honest and open conversations. But if you are a leader your communication skills are absolutely vital to also inspire your employees, keep them happy and engaged and dazzle your customers and investors.

  13. ZoraBora

    Communication: Good leaders communicate effectively. They communicate clearly and timely to the team any information critical to the business and respect team members opinion. It gives them a sense of belonging which enhances productivity.

  14. Oscar2

    I think my greatest leadership experiences have come straight from employment. I was a manager for a few years and worked on scheduling employees and leading training etc. and I felt that I really learned what leadership strategies I liked to use and that my employees didn’t seem to get annoyed at.

    • tom lee

      It’ll be worse than that if we don’t get solid leadership. Elway needs to be held accountable and someone needs to be in place to tell poor leaders to shut the fuck up. I truly think he’s done a great job in getting new talents to the tech organisations.