In light of the growing number of major Digital Transformation initiatives underway across the globe as well as the media & consultancy focus on the topic of “All things Digital” I wanted to re-publish a recent article on Transformation Leadership that ran in Information Age in the UK. I see if as still very topical given the state of flux that all of this remains in. Enjoy!
Peter Drucker, the so-called Godfather of Management Consulting famously opined: “Management is doing things right; Leadership is doing the right things.”
Managers come and go; Bureaucrats seem to stick around forever, but when a true Leader decides to leave the Organization there can be change and upheaval to contend with. This is especially true in long-term Transformation Programmes where over the course of the journey many individual contributors may “roll-on and roll-off” along the way, but there is always an emphasis on continuity of Leadership at the highest levels so as to insure successful outcomes, while maintaining acceptable risk levels at all times.
By definition: “Transformation Leaders define the mission & vision of the programme and then take a hands-on approach to its successful realization”. Most Leaders are subordinate to a more Senior Authority (CEO, Board, Civil Service Exec., Cabinet Minister, etc.) who are typically more political and subject to greater volatility in their oversight role. Friction at this level or a Change in the direction of the programme can force even the strongest Leaders to re-evaluate their role and its longevity. This is when Leadership Changes can be precipitated either voluntarily or via a very public sacking and typifies the high wire act that all Transformational Leaders undertake each day. The recent events at the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS) programme are classic in terms of this scenario and may play out similarly in the US and Australia’s nascent Digital Transformation endeavors as well. I tell many of my clients that “Transformation Leadership is like war. You must consider yourself already dead in order to fight on to the finish without consideration of your own survival”. A harsh analogy, but a true on from my observations.
However, anarchy & disruption do not need to be the norm. Changes in Leadership can be very cathartic events allowing for a detailed and transparent examination of the mission, vision and progress to date, such that Lessons Learned and Strategic Re-alignment activities can be undertaken in near real-time while the new Leader(s) is brought in and acclimatized to both the Culture and the Plan for the programme. This may disrupt some of the momentum that had been built up prior to the leadership change, but that is a small price to pay compared to the potential catastrophe that can result from everyone taking the attitude that “It is Business as Usual (BAU) until I am told otherwise”. It will not be BAU until the plan; its Leader(s) and all Contributors are re-synced and moving forward on a common plan once again. Additionally, there must be time allotted to mourn the Leader(s) who have left, to celebrate all accomplishments to date and to build a bond of trust amongst those who will continue the journey to a successful conclusion.
Much is said in the startup and consulting communities about the notion of Effective Leadership. Many these days believe that it can be “learned” as part of an MBA curriculum or in venture capital sponsored workshops. I find both of these efforts laughable given the scarceness of true Leaders around us. The mantle of Leadership is earned, not learned in my experience.
Needless to say, vetting and selecting a new Transformation Leader is a critical task once there has been a change in the current leadership. This person cannot be a clone of the previous leader, nor should they be expected to simply “carry on” in respect to the current plan. They must be allowed to examine all programme-related factors and to create an updated plan that reflects their leadership approach and the new BAU going forward. This process will allow for updates in mission, vision, scope and budgetary realities so that a successful outcome(s) can be achieved and everyone who contributes has had a say in the matter. No matter the strength or background of the new Leader there must be a process of reflection and collaboration so that an initial level of trust can be built and then nurtured by a healthy group dynamic going forward. If not, the Organization will be looking for a new Transformation Leader, or Oversight Executive in short order.
Transformation Programmes are high-risk, high-reward undertakings where the future of the Organization is at stake in terms of success. Leadership is the essential ingredient to insure that all elements of the Programme are working in concert, much less harmoniously, to achieve the Strategic Outcomes that the Organization has bet its future on. In virtually all Programmes there will be a Leadership Change along the course of the journey. Being prepared for it is a major Risk factor to militate against.
*- An edited version of this article appeared in the September 2015 issue of Information Age (www.information-age.com)