Identifying the right person to lead your transformation programme

A man sitting in front of a laptop, with a grey jumper and glasses, speaking to a women in a grey blazer with black hair, next to him.

With 98% of respondents in our recent Transformational Leadership report anticipating transformation to occur in their organisation over the next five years, the need for highly experienced transformation leaders is greater than ever. The report also revealed that the three major challenges faced in unsuccessful transformation programmes were all linked to leadership and transformation skills.

This highlights the importance of having highly qualified leaders running transformation programmes, and begs the question, what are the key skills that define a successful transformation leader?

To provide guidance on how to identify the right talent to lead your transformation programme we interviewed Katherine Keen, HR Integration Lead at YouGov, Sanjeen Payne-Kumar, an experienced finance transformation programme director, Dan Kennedy, an experienced finance transformation programme director and Sam Elliott, Data Lead at Ocado Group.

Defining a transformation lead

It’s important to recognise that transformation leads are more than just change makers or project managers. Sanjeen states that “the distinction between a good PMO and a good transformation lead is that transformation is a large-scale cross-functional initiative which aims to achieve significant change and typically involves multiple stakeholders, and can be on a global scale.” They are dedicated end-to-end leaders of transformation who can identify the need for change in the business and how it can have a commercial impact on the wider organisation.

Katharine Keen supports this by explaining that “a lot of people who say they do transformation are just very experienced project managers, and that’s not to say being a project manager is a bad thing, it’s absolutely not. But transformation leadership is very different. There’s running a project, and there’s dealing with all the ambiguity that comes with leading a transformation programme. I think the biggest problem in the transformation talent market is that there is no one definition of what transformation is and what transformation experience ought to look like, but the basics of what makes a strong transformation leader will remain no matter what the desired outcome is.”

This reinforces the need for organisations to invest in highly experienced leads with “true” transformation experience rather than strong project management skills to ensure the programme is delivered effectively and successfully on time. Getting this wrong could set organisations up for failure before even starting their transformation.

Finding the balance between external and internal support

With the scale of investment that goes into a transformation programme, finding the ideal talent to lead is vital and is often a determining factor in whether the project is a success or a failure.

As previously mentioned, transformation leaders need to be comfortable in rapidly changing, unpredictable environments and need to have proven experience leading end-to-end transformations. It may save money for an organisation to utilise their existing team to lead their transformation programme, however, Sam Elliott reinforces that “the workforce does not go through transformation activities often enough to understand how to successfully lead large scale transformation programmes.”

From his personal experience, Sam explains that “it has taken years to develop the depth of expertise, knowledge and confidence I now have to successfully lead and deliver a successful transformation programme.” This level of expertise can’t be replicated through minimal transformation experience, making it crucial for organisations to invest in highly experienced experts. BIE’s recent Transformational Leadership report shows that this is something organisations are taking note of, with over 60% of respondents claiming that they will use more agencies and interim talent to support their strategic goals over the next five years.

This isn’t to say organisations should ignore their internal talent completely, Sanjeen suggests that “you should always look at internal support initially as they come with a deep understanding of the company, culture and history. However, if an organisation wants someone with a proven track record and the ability to be objective when making strategic decisions then interim is the favourable route.”

This was supported by Dan, who explained that there will always be a need for internal resources to be involved in transformation as well as interim hires because “the right internal staff will have a deep level of knowledge about the company which is hugely valuable to the transformation team, but they should be supplemented with strong interims with good knowledge and outside expertise that can quickly understand how the business operates and identify where the opportunities lie to deliver change successfully.” Katharine has a similar outlook and notes that “when you look at true transformation fundamentally changing how things are done, external support is really valuable because it’s a different leadership style. If they do it well, it offers an external perspective which is incredibly valuable, and it is far easier to challenge the status quo.”

Data integrity: The fundamental success factor

Sam Elliott, Katharine Keen and Dan Kennedy agree that data integrity is fundamental to the success of any transformation programme, yet is still a major challenge for organisations across the UK. This was backed up in our recent Transformational Leadership Report as “data integrity” was named the biggest challenge faced by senior leaders in transformation programmes that were successful in the past two years.

Sam states that “there is a clear immaturity around data ownership and a lot of organisations tend to assume that data should lie with IT but actually data should be viewed as a business commodity, and therefore everyone has a level of responsibility with data across the business.” He goes on to reinforce that “ownership of data is critical for success and transformation Leads should formally identify who should be responsible for different elements of data across the business as soon as possible, to create effective data management strategies that ensure data reliability is upheld.” Katharine reinforced this by explaining that “without reliable data, organisations can’t be sure what their goals and desired outcomes should be, and organisations can’t accurately measure whether the transformation activity undertaken has materially improved the situation.”

This demonstrates the need for all transformation leads to have a strong understanding of data and how to implement effective data management strategies to ensure the success of a transformation programme. By doing so this will also allow organisations to maintain ongoing business growth through accurate and reliable data. As suggested in our Transformational Leadership Report, organisations should also focus on investing more time and resources into data management as soon as possible so that when the need for transformation arises, they can utilise their existing data management practices rather than having to implement completely new strategies. Dan Kennedy continued this point by explaining that “there is an opportunity to gain a competitive advantage by putting data foundations in place pre-transformation so that you can deliver immediate impact when transformation comes along.”

Adaptability as the key skill for transformation

With 82% of respondents in our Transformational Leadership report expecting the rate and scale of transformation to continue to increase over the next five years, it is more important than ever that transformation leads are agile and can adapt to any unexpected hurdles along the way. This was also supported by 30% of respondents naming “adaptability” as a key skill for all senior leaders over the next five years.

Sanjeen explains that “transformation by definition, will always have a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty surrounding it, and there will always be unexpected challenges that arise” which reinforces the overwhelming requirement for leaders of transformation to be the most adaptable people in a business. Sanjeen continues, “There’s an element of experience that matters because the mindset of continuous skill and performance improvement while maintaining your enthusiasm is key” inferring that adaptability is not only crucial for making practical changes to delivery, but is also needed for self-reflection. If for example your leadership style is not effective, you need to be self-aware enough to tailor your leadership approach to various audiences.    Dan continued this point by noting that “transformation never tends to go to plan, so there’s an element of how senior leadership can manage those bumps in the road effectively while maintaining the original vision and desired outcome of the programme.” Katharine supports this by stating that the key difference between business-as-usual (BAU) leaders and transformation leaders is that “as a transformation lead you have to be comfortable with ambiguity and be brave enough to admit that you do not have all the answers despite being the visionary that understands the desired outcome of transformation”.

The power of executive sponsorship

With large-scale transformation programmes often impacting most areas of the business, it is natural for uncertainty to arise amongst the workforce, making senior sponsorship crucial for transformation success. Executive sponsorship allows for transformation leads to demonstrate unity and a clear vision amongst the board on the goals of the transformation, which naturally creates more buy-in and trust from the wider workforce. 

As an experienced data transformation lead sponsorship and trust from the executive committee is invaluable for Sam, “strong working relationships and senior sponsorship are crucial. Leadership with a thorough understanding of the value that the transformation will deliver is essential for successful programme delivery.”

As an external hire coming into a new organisation with a plan that often leads to significant business change, it is crucial that transformation leads gather as much support as possible. 

With this in mind relationship management and collaboration skills become vital for every transformation lead, without these building strong working relationships with the board and wider workforce will be unlikely. Katharine Keen supports this by explaining that “transformation leads should be the senior leaders that can build c-suite relationships and effectively communicate the commercial impact of the transformation programme to the executive committee and wider workforce.”

Sanjeen also went on to support this saying “Ultimately it’s about influencing people to support you in what you’re doing and being able to tailor your message accordingly to your audience” linking back to the need for adaptability to be a strong skill for every transformation lead, as well as strong relationship management skills. From Sanjeen’s perspective, a successful tactic he has used in the past “is humour because it’s a common currency. Working with so many different people there are naturally going to be different perspectives which you have to be open to. Humour allows you to have open discussions that become enjoyable but still lead to reasonable outcomes.”

In summary

Successfully leading an end-to-end transformation programme requires someone who thrives in unpredictable environments, has the necessary skills to build strong working relationships, and the technical skills needed to effectively manage your data to create well-informed strategies that achieve your desired outcome.

Identifying the right talent for your transformation can be a long and tricky process, but taking the time to find a transformation expert who encapsulates the key skills and mindset discussed in this article will set your organisation in good stead.

Top 3 skills needed to lead transformation successfully:

  1. Adaptability
  2. Data management
  3. Relationship management and collaboration

For support in identifying your next transformation lead, please reach out to one of our transformation consultants.

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