4 Tips for Leading a Successful Business Transformation

December 22, 2016 Scott Leavitt

Transforming your business is like going on a journey… one that’s long and potentially perilous.

If you’ve been tasked with leading this voyage, you’re like the First Mate of an ocean liner. You’ve got to steer the ship and keep thousands of passengers — employees, shareholders — safe. You’ve also got an opportunity to show your Captain (your Executive Sponsor) your ability to go beyond your day-to-day duties and add real value to the business.

How can you both lead the transformation and inspire confidence in your superiors?

Here are four tips for making sure both you and your company get the best results.

1. Focus on What They Need to Know

Your Captain doesn’t need to know every last detail. He or she needs to know: Are we still on course? Are there any foreseeable risks? And, if a decision is required, what do you recommend and why?

Don’t prove your value by how much you know. Instead, synthesize the facts into a coherent set of observations and recommendations. Focus on what your executive sponsors need to know, decide, and do. Doing this will not just increase the efficiency of your transformation — it will also build trust by demonstrating that you understand priorities and respect everyone’s time.

Keep in mind, however, that it actually takes more time to provide this synthesized update. You need to roll up your sleeves and get into the details, and then effectively condense what you learn. Achieve this, and you will be trusted, respected, and depended upon by both your corporate and project leaders.

I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.” – Blaise Pascal

2. Build Trust through Consistent Behavior

If your specialists aren’t being honest with you, you cannot adequately advise the Captain.

It is vital that you earn the trust of the project manager or leader who are driving projects within your Transformation Program, as well as the required Center of Excellence (COE) stakeholders. Why? So that they are honest with you about risks and issues related to their respective projects.

How do you accomplish this? If they have an issue, don’t call them out in front of management. Instead, work with them to develop and recommend mitigation options so they can succeed and look good. Understand enough about their respective projects so that you can spot issues that they haven’t or can’t — like conflicts between projects — then collaborate with them to develop potential solutions before raising with senior management.

3. Have a Point of View

As First Mate, you spot a large storm on the horizon. Here’s what your Captain wants to know: what are our options and what do you recommend?

As the Leader of your organization’s Transformation Program, your job isn’t just to track the progress and risks tied to the program’s projects. It’s to be proactive about identifying options for mitigating current and potential issues, what YOUR recommendation is, and why.

You are in your role because senior management respects your wisdom and judgment around the transformation program, based upon your knowledge about the current situation, dynamics of both the overall program and larger organization, and experience and forethought.

Ideally, you should vet these recommendations in advance with the key stakeholders tied to the issue/risk so they aren’t taken by surprise in front of their peers/bosses, seek and integrate their input, and, ideally go into the larger meeting with alignment around your shared recommendation(s).

4. Don’t be a hero

Would your Captain prefer to know after the fact that you just narrowly avoided beaching the ship, or that you spotted an obstacle far in advance and were able to navigate around it with plenty of room to spare?

Most executives talk the talk around assessing the status of a project/program. They all say, “Red is good,” but ding employees who bring issues to their attention.

Some points to remember:

  • RED is good to the degree that you raise risks early, and come forward with recommendations for resolving/mitigating them.
  • Too much GREEN is bad — rare is the transformative project where everything is going beautifully, and there are no risks on the horizon. If your PMs are showing you a status report that’s all green, time to get nervous, role up your sleeves and validate.
  • Executive Action sets the Culture by how they respond to RED and GREEN –- everyone will be watching to see if their actions match their words.
  • Ultimately, it’s your decision to present an issue as Green, Yellow or Red. Call it as you see it, but give the stakeholders a heads-up if your call is different than theirs.
  • Even good surprises show your executive team that you’re not fully on top of what’s going on.

As the sailing toast goes, “May all your landfalls be expected!”

Wishing you and your team a safe and surprise free journey!


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About the Author

Scott Leavitt

Scott Leavitt brings over 20 years of hands-on experience growing and transforming organizations to effectively execute global strategies. He's helped BTG clients coordinate complex, cross-functional programs and align transformation programs with topline strategic objectives.

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