Transformational change: can your leaders cope?

Transformational change: can your leaders cope?

Organisations must increasingly ‘transform to survive’. Will the scale of the challenge overwhelm your leaders? Tim Bergin, a business psychologist and manager at KPMG in the UK discusses.

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Manager, People & Change

KPMG in the UK

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Transformation change

Use of the acronym VUCA - volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous - has never been more apt, with political, economic and regulatory change landing on what seems like a weekly basis. Leaders – across all sectors - are under increasing pressure to engage in fully-fledged, cross-functional, multiyear business transformations. If they do not, they are unlikely to survive today’s cut-throat business landscape.

Continuous innovation in the consumer sector increasingly demands a completely new set of behaviours and skillsets. Advances in digital labour means that organisations must often seek the support of their employees in setting up operating systems that will eventually render their jobs redundant; and the continuing pace of technological development is changing whole operating models, such as mobile banking in emerging markets, and the impending arrival of self-drive cars, and self-service shops. 

Experience shows us that organisations that view transformation as a tactical, discrete journey, with a start and end, routinely fail to realise the predicted value of the transformation. Indeed, our Global Transformation Study suggests that as little as 47% of executives say they feel well-positioned to deliver sustainable value from business transformation.

In our view, this is often owing to failures to maintain alignment to the vision and purpose of the transformation in the first place. Some also fail to identify suitable metrics for success, and do not ensure that the right capability is in place to deliver the transformation. The result is a familiar picture, with business units losing sight of transformation priorities, and the emergence of competing agendas, leading to resource shortages.  

The better method is to provide leaders with a ‘lens’ in which they can view the ‘change effort’, by directing them to the key capabilities which ignite and sustain it. We promote a move from leadership heroics, towards the leadership behaviours that create an environment for others to deliver the change.

Against the backdrop of a ‘transform to survive’ environment, organisations must focus more on building the capability and capacity to deliver large-scale change, by nurturing transformation capability in their leaders. But are we asking too much of our leaders?

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The overwhelmed leader

Today, the notion of the ‘overwhelmed leader’ is more relevant than ever, and focusing solely on inspirational, figurehead leadership, which many organisations continue to do, often means that we are simply adding to the long list of responsibilities which are already placed on our leader’s tables. 

Indeed, many organisations persist in promoting leadership behaviours from a bygone era when leadership capability was forged in a relatively steady state environment. Consequently, leaders are facing the upper limits of their cognitive capacity when attempting to lead change – prompting ‘dark side’ personality traits to come to the fore, often undermining the change effort and increasing the possibility of reinforcing toxic behaviours. 

So what is the answer? In a 2016 interview with the Harvard Business Review, a CEO of a global organisation suggested that ‘businesses can’t expect leaders to be out in front driving everything; it is much more of a team effort’. And this is the paradox at the heart of change leadership. Leaders need to do more than sponsorship - but the ‘more’ is not leading from the front and exhorting from the soapbox. Instead, it is about telling stories, activating change networks, and creating an environment such that “the followers” deliver the change. If the leader walked away, the change would still be delivered. In other words, leaders at all levels shoulder responsibility for the transformation.

In order to address the aforementioned challenges and support leaders in successfully delivering large-scale transformation, we must seek to reduce ‘cognitive load’. This can be achieved by providing leaders with a rich understanding of the challenges they are likely to face when seeking to deliver and embed change, as well as providing direction around the key behaviours that enable the delivery of change through others. This approach provides support and builds capability, allowing leaders to deliver the change through others, in addition to freeing up attentional resources so that leaders can focus on the myriad other challenges they face. 

We recommend an approach that is practical, allowing for immediate application; one that is informed by the example of organisations who have delivered, embedded and sustained transformational change successfully. Specifically, this approach should focus on equipping leaders with the knowledge they need to create an environment that supports the change by making necessary adjustments to the system that people work in, as well as pacing change activities to avoid change fatigue and the difficulties associated with mounting, and often competing priorities. 

In addition, there should be a shared understanding of the need to tap into organisational networks, facilitate debate to unlock opportunity, and proactively manage complex stakeholder relationships to facilitate a change that truly permeates the organisation. 

Lastly, leaders must recognise the importance of tackling the often-neglected facet of change; sustaining the desired change outcomes by retaining a focus on priorities and encouraging individual accountability. 

In order to flourish, it is clear that transformation is now a necessity; the key question is: are we equipping our leaders with the knowledge and capability they need to deliver our vision for the future?

People and Change

People and Change

We assist our firms' clients with: behavioural change management; talent development; organisation design and development & HR function optimisation.

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