There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things” (Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, 1532)

Transformation attempts in organisations are ever more complex, the stakes are higher and the impact of these changes on people and culture are more profound than ever before. Dean and Linda Anderson, in their book “Beyond Change Management”, note: “These challenges are requiring leaders and those that consult to them to advance their thinking and methods to succeed at transformation – personally, organisationally and globally”. In the 21st Century, change and how to lead it successfully is a critical topic on the minds of business leaders – change is happening everywhere, its speed and complexity are increasing and the future success or organisations depends on how successful leaders are at leading that change.

What makes it more challenging for leaders, however, is that there are no “one size fits all” approaches to organisational transformation. Companies need to be able to customise, align and incorporate the nuances of the respective situations that they face. These nuances lie in the following areas:

  • Corporate culture – our set of values, norms, behaviours and relationships. Do we demonstrate fairness? Do we encourage our employees to teach us? Do we care? Do we listen adequately? Can we be influenced? Are we trusted?
  • Customer expectations – the needs, expectations and desires of those that buy our products and services. Do we listen to clients? Do we understand the solutions that they seek? Do we communicate adequately with customers?
  • Shareholder needs – establishing a pattern of consistent return on investment for all shareholders. Do shareholders have insight into our business challenges and how we are attempting to resolve them?
  • Market, industry and legislative requirements – compliance, known for integrity in the industry, adapting to new market trends, fighting for market share.
  • Technology and operational requirements – incorporation of and investment in new technology that impacts outputs positively. Are processes and people aligned to what we want to achieve?

Transformation cannot rely on a few individuals: systemic change is needed. This involves a response that questions the structures, policies, procedures and practices that are the norm in the organisation. It ‘rattles the cage’ of ‘the way we do things around here’ and causes discomfort for those in positions of power. It should challenge all the ‘untouchable’ parts of the business to bring about complete alignment and seamless processes. It should correct the imbalances and address the anomalies within the business, especially in relation to corporate values. It specifically challenges the old and no longer useful narratives that defined behaviour and relational etiquette and establishes a new sense of inclusion and an expectation of meaningful contribution and teamwork.

Strong leadership drives transformation – with the complete commitment from senior leadership, the process gains credibility and the executive team becomes an example for the organisation to follow. Leaders need to be consistent in showing their support – in both their being (how they make people feel in their presence) and their doing (their actions, like their availability to engage and to make appropriate changes). This may cause discomfort (moving into ambiguous spaces always does), but where leaders do this with authenticity, the benefits are enormous and visible.

There are no “one size fits all” approaches to organisational transformation – it should rather be contextual and relevant. Destructive internal narratives need to be addressed and rectified. Leadership must set the pace and be seen to be willing not only to engage at all levels, but also to recognise and redress internal anomalies. A culture of fairness and trust needs to be established to muster the focus and subsequent energy of all towards the fulfilment of the goals of the change process.

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