If you’re like many of our global clients, the digital transformation of your organization isn’t just one of your strategic imperatives, it’s the strategic, financial, operational driver for your company right now. Makes sense: a successful digital transformation reaps many rewards, and when it’s done right, nothing can have a greater impact on an organization’s success. Given that, why is it so hard to do? We know that the risks that come with getting transformation wrong are astronomical, elevating the stakes even further. Yet, despite the urgency and desire to transform, we see many initiatives lose steam fast. Even when the ‘why’ seems obvious and evident to leaders, it is hard to maintain the momentum and commitment to execute and see it through.
Consider one client of ours – a global, public company experiencing significant fee pressure and eroding margins in a highly regulated, competitive industry. While the company had long maintained a strategic focus on technology, the challenging external environment and increasing client demands required them to do more to accelerate progress and demonstrate results. Public announcements highlighting the costs savings and future growth that would come from digital transformation drove expectations from the media, board, analysts, and employees to an all-time high. Whether you were a senior executive expected to reduce costs, a sales leader required to champion the initiative with clients and prospects, or an employee who needed to adopt a new technology process, all were led to believe great changes were on the way.
Getting Stuck: The Digital Transformation Challenge
One year later, efforts stalled, adoption had slowed, and company surveys revealed high levels of skepticism in the initiative. Even senior executives at the company had questions as to whether any progress had been made at all. Despite efforts to communicate the intent and value of the initiative, the company continued to experience resistance, anxiety and frustration with the pace, scale and implications of the transformation. Employees grew cynical and viewed the transformation as a cover story for job cuts. Without a shift in sentiment, things risked staying stuck. And there was an even bigger question. This technology transformation promised to usher in a new era for this company, attract new talent, and create a better way of working: if it didn’t succeed, what would the future look like?
Winning Hearts and Minds: The Pivotal Role of Communicative Leadership
As tough as things were, there was plenty to appreciate about this organization. It was built on a strong legacy of performance, with deep client relationships and talented leaders committed to doing the right thing. The long-term business case for the initiative was indisputable. When the transformation leadership team reached out to us, they wanted to get underneath the deeper challenges and create an integrated and sustained effort to proactively champion the transformation and develop a comprehensive communications approach that would allay anxieties and concerns, so employees not only understood the “what” and the “why” behind the initiative but most importantly, the “how” to get there.
The 3 “I’s” for Successful Execution
Over several months, we worked with the team to accelerate execution and address key barriers that were holding the initiative back. We began with a benchmark assessment to provide a comprehensive review of current messaging and an assessment of future needs. We also relied on our research using the Bates ExPI™ multi-rater assessment tool, which helped us to identify the most important elements for a leadership team to have for executing on a vision, such as the digital transformation this company was undertaking: the three “I’s”.
1. Intentionality – If vision is about getting people excited about why we’re climbing Mount Everest, intentionality is the dialogue and conversation about where we’re going to set up ‘base camp’. It’s how we’ll make adjustments based on the weather and conditions, so to speak. In the case of our client, the vision was powerful, but the more tangible side of vision was needed to drive execution. Our work helped leaders translate the initiative into the language of their businesses. We were able to jointly clarify the rationale and drive action, using ‘real’ dialogue to get everyone on the same page, enabling projects to move forward and help people understand what to do.
2. Inclusiveness – Inclusiveness is essential to driving execution and getting the best of an organization’s people and effort. It requires leaders to actively involve others to generate a broad array of opinions and diverse points of view, so leaders feel consulted and considered in the face of change. Done right, inclusiveness drives accountability and ownership of a firm’s mission and strategy, and empowers people to take initiative. In the context of our client’s technology transformation, we conducted a global ‘road show,’ facilitating sessions with senior leaders in all key regions. These facilitated sessions met leaders ‘where they were,’ and empowered them to make decisions about the actions they were committed to taking to advance transformation and accelerate execution.
3. Interactivity – Global transformations often require leading far-flung teams operating in multiple time zones, making the right quality and quantity of relevant information available, and a platform for dialogue that is accessible to all. Active, frequent communication minimizes the negative effects of the rumor mill and replaces it with reliable information people can trust. Our work pinpointed the global information bottlenecks and demonstrated how providing a steady ‘drumbeat’ of relevant information helps resolve misunderstandings, avoids wasted time, and helps leaders better notice when tensions or conflict arise.
Outcomes Beyond the Transformation: Results that Have an Impact
Studies tell us that, on average, 70% of all corporate transformations fail. That means that most of the time, major initiatives don’t ultimately deliver meaningful business outcomes that move a company towards success. Instead, they often just disrupt the business of delivering results.
It doesn’t have to be this way. This initiative reminded us that successful transformation is not only possible, but when the time and commitment to communicative leadership is part of the process, an organization reaps rewards that extend far beyond the digital initiative. In the case of our client, this included:
Creating Ownership and Accountability at Senior Leader Levels – Often, even the best team members don’t know where to begin when it comes to turning the vision of digital transformation into actions and results deep into the organization. We worked with senior leadership teams across the entire organization to make sure that everyone knew how to talk about a change—how transparent to be, how to make sure the communication cascades down, how to create feedback loops and how to make measurement clear. Repeatedly, we saw the executive participants take ownership of the initiative and start to proactively drive cultural change in their respective regions and business units.Improving Collaboration and Sense of Urgency – To build a cadre of champions, we worked closely with senior leaders to ensure that messages around the transformation felt relevant, targeted, and credible. As a result, executives were better prepared to engage in dialogue about the initiative with clients, and with each other. They were better equip to improve collaboration across functions and regions to ensure the local voice of employee and customer were represented in key technology decisions, product development, etc.
Leveraging Transformation to Grow the Business – If told correctly, our client knew that their digital transformation story could serve as a powerful differentiator and firmly establish their position as a leading technology player and industry disruptor. We helped senior executives and teams in the organization tell a compelling story that would resonate with clients and appropriately represent the importance of the digital transformation in real-time conversations, RFP opportunities, and other sales situations.
Think Marathon, Not a Sprint
As is often the case in major transformation, the problem is not the vision. We know the devil falls squarely in the details. Our work helped our client get clear on what specific, comprehensive steps need to be taken to execute the change, to help transformation leaders sell the “why,” and put steps in place to make sure changes stick. Leaders must stay in the game for months before and after the launch, so people will believe the change is not just the flavor of the month. State the case for change, and create a vision for what life will be like once the change is truly executed. Then be ready to repeat it, champion it, and translate it…. relentlessly.