Strategic Leadership: Driving Transformation Success Through Choices & Trade-offs

What is it about strategic transformation projects that makes it so challenging to get the intended results? There is plenty of research out there to tell us the common pitfalls. There are plenty of firms like ours that have proven methodologies to plan and execute strategic transformations. There is no shortage of business books and papers that preach “how to do it right.” So why do some transformations make more progress than others? Here’s my opinion: The single largest factor is strategic leadership. We like to call the sponsor of a transformation the Alignment Leader®, though this skillset needs to be developed and demonstrated at multiple levels within an organization.

The skilled Alignment Leader:

  • Makes Choices and Trade-offs
  • Ensures Alignment
  • Drives Change
  • Builds Capability

While working on a few major transformations, I’ve noticed again how crucial these skills are, and want to call out the first one today: An Alignment Leader makes choices and trade-offs. For most leaders, this is incredibly difficult and also completely necessary. We often hear clients say, “we don’t want to be everything to everyone”, but when pushed, too many requirements keep creeping in. As a result, we often find that they are unwilling to make hard trade-offs.

Recently, I was working with an HR team on a project designed to free up their department’s time to focus on the most strategic initiatives in growing markets, segments, and products. For the last 20 years or so, the most common and effective way to do this has been to automate and streamline typical HR processes by implementing an HR shared service center – which is what this team had chosen to do. From the beginning, the team absolutely struggled with the idea of giving up the “white glove” service for which they were known. They weren’t willing to make this trade-off.

Let’s dig a little deeper. Successful strategic leadership means asking the following questions to determine necessary choices and tradeoffs:

  • What is it that we’re willing to not do or be for our customers in the future state? If you can’t answer this question, then you’re at serious risk of striving to meet all stakeholder needs – which can be a recipe for failure. This core trade-off needs to be determined up front, communicated clearly to the people working on the transformation, vetted with key stakeholders in the organization, and measured against as the transformation is underway.
  • Have we identified the organizational capabilities we need in order to succeed? Every transformation is intended to change what we do or how we do it. This means a significant volume of new work processes or different work processes. The Alignment Leader must drive the organization to make choices around which capabilities directly enable the strategy, get resources (people, funding, technology, etc.) aligned to new or different work processes, and free up resources from work that is going away or can be made more efficient.
  • Have we secured the right leadership talent to lead the journey and the new work? Like many leaders, I personally find it difficult to let great talent go or bring in new talent that could disrupt the team. However, smart, strategic leadership requires making these hard choices for the transformation is to be a success. Choices around people are clearly more emotional than choices around process, technology or metrics – which makes them harder to make, and harder to implement. Always remember, though, that excellent talent in one space doesn’t mean that they’ll be excellent in another. At risk of using a bad metaphor: Don’t try to make your star football player into a race car driver. You can rationalize that both are athletic, both have to communicate well with their teams, and both have to make split-second decisions. But those are only the similarities, and those don’t get deep enough into the foundational years of experience and fundamental differences in skillsets needed in each discipline.

When you’re the Alignment Leader, or advising one, consider raising the bar on making choices and trade-offs – your transformation requires it. Finding the answers to these three questions will help you focus on the critical elements that will truly differentiate your organization from the competition.

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