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How to get your company’s people invested in transformation

Big change can’t happen without employee buy-in, which is easier to get if you’re an emotionally engaged leader.

Look around at the corporate landscape. It seems like every business is trying to figure out how to transform, or already has. Transformation, driven by new industrial platforms, geopolitical shifts, global competition, and changing consumer demand, is front-page news because it moves share prices, tests leadership ability and mettle, and creates new business models that change how whole sectors operate. But we rarely talk about the people who live through and help drive these often-wrenching changes.

Can a global company successfully transform without bringing along its 30,000 employees? I doubt it. The human dimension is profoundly important. But too often, it’s forgotten or under-recognized in the rush to restructure or launch initiatives. Leaders who can engage emotionally with employees and humanize change initiatives by creating inspiration and innovation are most likely to succeed. This may sound obvious, but is a challenge for type A leaders who overly emphasize process, effort, and control. Transformational change often requires leaders to adopt an “antihero” style, characterised by empathy, humility, self-awareness, flexibility, and an ability to acknowledge uncertainty.

In a recent strategy+business article, my colleagues Al Kent and Kevin Reilly and I laid out four building blocks for transformation. These are practical perspectives on how to shift organizational and individual behavior in a more productive, competitive, and engaging direction, including concrete things leaders can do to humanize transformation. Recently, I discussed some of these tactics in a series of podcasts, called Transformation Talks , which I hosted with business leaders and thinkers.

Listen and respond in new ways. When leaders listen, show curiosity, and model emotional inspiration to their teams, they encourage employees to express themselves. Dan Cable , professor of organizational behavior at London Business School, calls this “emotions projection,” and points out that it emphasizes adapting and learning versus pursuing hard measures such as productivity.

This learning approach is central to his thesis that employees need space to experiment and place in order to be their best selves at work, as laid out in his recent book, Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do. He says that giving people this freedom unleashes their “seeking systems” — or urges to explore and understand — and shows them that they are evaluated not just on results but on creativity and initiative.

“It’s making enough space that people can learn, rather than creating procedures that they have to follow,” Cable says.

Identify influencers. Closely related to the importance of modeling self-expression is the need for leaders to be visible in a company, and to identify and get to know others who can be enablers and change agents in a transformation. These people, who my colleague Jon Katzenbach calls “authentic informal leaders,” are the individuals within your company who have a high degree of emotional intuition or social connectedness, and powerful influence on others.

Leaders of successful transformations harness the power of their people by listening properly, identifying the influencers, and fostering a sense of personal investment.

An authentic informal leader could be a union representative or local manager who is widely respected. Or, as Dame Moya Greene , former chief executive of the U.K.’s Royal Mail postal and delivery business told me, just an “old hand” who has seen a lot of change.

“You have to figure out who can be an effective ambassador…who can help you,” she says. She told me that relying on informal influencers was important in the transformation she spearheaded at Royal Mail because of the scale of changes the business needed and also because leadership needed to form a very different relationship with the organization’s 139,000 employees than what it had at the time.

Foster personal investment. Inevitably in your organization — especially if it’s a large one — there will be a lot of skepticism, institutional fatigue, and even outright resistance to the change that you think is needed.

The best way to avoid these reactions is to ensure that your people are personally invested in the change. Try talking with them first about themselves, not about the business and the challenge. Showing empathy goes a long way.


Claire Enders, founder of research company Enders Analysis, on bias.

Doing this has helped Tim Davie in various transformative initiatives at the British Broadcasting Corporation, where Davie serves as chief executive of BBC Studios, the commercially driven program production, sales, and distribution business. “Unless your top team is committed personally, not just professionally, [and] they truly see their personal fulfillment linked to what you want to do in the next three to five years, I think you are in real trouble,” he says.

It’s not enough to have a clear sense of the vision for a transformation. Actually believing in it is crucial, and that’s where a good leader comes in. Personal commitment to the transformation needs to be demonstrated by communicating a strong sense of purpose, showing passion, and disclosing beliefs and motivations in dialogue across the organization.


Claire Enders on great chief executives.

Leaders who are able to humanize a transformation in these ways, by guiding their people through changes while also connecting with them, will be most successful. Claire Enders, a top independent analyst of the creative and media industries, and founder of research company Enders Analysis, sums it up well. She says that great chief executives have a desire to galvanize the world and have an impact on everyone they meet. Essentially, great leaders truly care about their people. And employees will be your most valuable resource in effecting change when they feel this.

David Lancefield

David Lancefield is a strategist and coach who has advised more than 40 CEOs and has led 15 digital transformations. He hosts the interview series Lancefield on the Line and publishes the email newsletter Strategic Leader. Lancefield was a senior partner with Strategy&, PwC’s strategy consulting business.

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