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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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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