The success or failure of any organization often begins and ends with the leadership traits of the business leaders. This is particularly true when undertaking an organizational transformation, where several key leadership characteristics can help improve the outcome of far-ranging change initiatives.
Research by Prosci, Inc., identified several leadership traits that drive successful change initiatives. Several of those leadership traits are particularly important in an organizational transformation. Those can be summarized as:
- Passion and enthusiasm for the process
- Ability to communicate and explain the reason for the change
- Engagement and involvement with project teams
- Allocation of sufficient time to the process
- Willingness to make the tough calls to advance change
The first two leadership traits – enthusiasm and communication – take on special prominence during times when the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many of us to leave our offices and work remotely. A leader who brings passion and enthusiasm to the process while effectively communicating why change is being made plays a vital role in the success of the organization. People already spend most of their time trying to complete their existing work, and now they may be faced with adopting new processes and learning to use unfamiliar technical platforms. Add a major transformation initiative to the docket, and some may wonder, “Do we really have time right now to tackle something like this? It feels like we’re just getting by with what we already have on our plate.” That mindset makes it even more critical for leaders to convey their enthusiasm for the changes while sharing a vision of why the organization needs to tackle these tough issues – even when employees are dealing with a pandemic as well as the hassles of ordinary work life.
Making sure project team members are engaged and involved in the transformation journey is also central to success. In an era of lockdowns and social distancing, the team’s involvement looks and feels somewhat different today as more people work remotely. Our firm does much of our work in virtual settings now, and it has proven to be quite effective. Despite the challenges of working remotely, leaders must continue to expect collaboration within their teams and engagement across teams. Even though people can no longer get together in the same room, do not lower the engagement bar.
Another significant leadership trait is the ability to allocate sufficient time to work through the transformation. People in your organization are creatures of habit who have their own ideas about how things currently operate and how they should work in the future. Often those opinions do not change simply because you walk into a room and tell them, “We’re going to do it differently now.” We tend to cling to our habits (sometimes to our own detriment). It takes time for people to come around to the way you think about and perceive the organization. When a good leader grants time and space for planning, co-creation of solutions and two-way dialogue, they give themselves and their employees a better shot at working through what the change will mean to them personally, to their teams, and to the organization as a whole.
Although leaders should provide plenty of time and space for people to become comfortable, there are limits. You cannot allow the project to linger so long that it loses steam or the positive benefits become diluted. The leader must also be willing to make the tough decisions needed to advance the change and sustain progress.
One of our clients is currently engaged in a transformation initiative that started in mid-2020. In many ways, she has performed admirably. She did not delay the project because of COVID-19, which reaffirmed her commitment to move forward. She has been inclusive, bringing a wide group of people together to work on the transformation. However, the work is still going on because she has failed to make the decisions necessary to keep the project moving. Her reasons seem sound: there are internal politics to deal with, and not everyone in the organization sees the changes the same way yet. Still, the initiative is beginning to die on the vine, and the leader is not pushing the transformation forward with the urgency needed. Sadly, a great start may not end with a resonating success.
When efforts do get bogged down, leaders need to make the necessary decisions to get things back on track. In the example above, this might mean calling people together to say, “We’ve had some really good discussions. I appreciate all the contributions. Now here’s what we’re going to do.”
These simple but powerful leadership traits are important to driving a successful organizational transformation. However, to rank the most important, the ability to push the project forward and keep it moving by making tough calls – even if those decisions are unpopular – stands paramount.