5 ways to lead in an era of constant change

Who says change needs to be hard? Organizational change expert Jim Hemerling thinks adapting your business in today's constantly-evolving world can be invigorating instead of exhausting. He outlines five imperatives, centered around putting people first, for turning company reorganization into an empowering, energizing task for all.


By Jim Hemerling

Have you ever noticed when you ask someone to talk about a change they're making for the better in their personal lives, they're often really energetic? Whether it's training for a marathon, picking up an old hobby, or learning a new skill, for most people, self-transformation projects occupy a very positive emotional space.

When it comes to self-transformation, you can't help but get a sense of the excitement. But there's another type of transformation that occupies a very different emotional space. The transformation of organizations. If you're like most people, when you hear the words "Our organization is going to start a transformation," you're thinking, "Uh-oh."

"Layoffs." The blood drains from your face, your mind goes into overdrive, frantically searching for some place to run and hide.

Well, you can run, but you really can't hide. Most of us spend the majority of our waking hours involved in organizations. And due to changes in globalization, changes due to advances in technology and other factors, the reality is our organizations are constantly having to adapt. In fact, I call this the era of "always-on" transformation.

People naturally resist change, especially when it’s imposed on them

When I shared this idea with my wife Nicola, she said, "Always-on transformation? That sounds exhausting." And that may be exactly what you're thinking -- and you would be right. Particularly if we continue to approach the transformation of organizations the way we always have been.

But because we can't hide, we need to sort out two things. First, why is transformation so exhausting? And second, how do we fix it?

First of all, let's acknowledge that change is hard. People naturally resist change, especially when it's imposed on them. But there are things that organizations do that make change even harder and more exhausting for people than it needs to be. Leaders often wait too long to act. As a result, everything is happening in crisis mode. Which, of course, tends to be exhausting. Or, given the urgency, what they'll do is they'll just focus on the short-term results, but that doesn't give any hope for the future. Or they'll just take a superficial, one-off approach, hoping that they can return back to business as usual as soon as the crisis is over.

So given these obstacles, what can we do to transform the way we transform organizations so rather than being exhausting, it's actually empowering and energizing?

To do that, we need to focus on five strategic imperatives, all of which have one thing in common: putting people first.

The first imperative for putting people first is to inspire through purpose. Most transformations have financial and operational goals. These are important and they can be energizing to leaders, but they tend not to be very motivating to most people in the organization. To motivate more broadly, the transformation needs to connect with a deeper sense of purpose.

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Take LEGO. The LEGO Group has become an extraordinary global company. Under their very capable leadership, they've actually undergone a series of transformations. While each of these has had a very specific focus, the North Star, linking and guiding all of them, has been Lego's powerful purpose: inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow. Expanding globally? It's not about increasing sales, but about giving millions of additional children access to LEGO building bricks. Investment and innovation? It's not about developing new products, but about enabling more children to experience the joy of learning through play. Not surprisingly, that deep sense of purpose tends to be highly motivating to LEGO's people.

 Photo credit:  recombiner

Photo credit: recombiner

The second imperative for putting people first is to go all in. Too many transformations are nothing more than head-count cutting exercises; layoffs under the guise of transformation. In the face of relentless competition, it may well be that you will have to take the painful decision to downsize the organization, just as you may have to lose some weight in order to run a marathon. But losing weight alone will not get you across the finish line with a winning time. To win you need to go all in. You need to go all in. Rather than just cutting costs, you need to think about initiatives that will enable you to win in the medium term, initiatives to drive growth, actions that will fundamentally change the way the company operates, and very importantly, investments to develop the leadership and the talent.

The third imperative for putting people first is to enable people with the capabilities that they need to succeed during the transformation and beyond. Over the years I've competed in a number of triathlons. You know, frankly, I'm not that good, but I do have one distinct capability; I am remarkably fast at finding my bike.

By the time I finish the swim, almost all the bikes are already gone.

Real triathletes know that each leg -- the swim, the bike, the run -- really requires different capabilities, different tools, different skills, different techniques. Likewise when we transform organizations, we need to be sure that we're giving our people the skills and the tools they need along the way.

Chronos, a global software company, recognized the need to transfer from building products -- software products -- to building software as a service. To enable its people to take that transformation, first of all they invested in new tools that would enable their employees to monitor the usage of the features as well as customer satisfaction with the new service. They also invested in skill development, so that their employees would be able to resolve customer service problems on the spot. And very importantly, they also reinforced the collaborative behaviors that would be required to deliver an end-to-end seamless customer experience. Because of these investments, rather than feeling overwhelmed by the transformation, Chronos employees actually felt energized and empowered in their new roles.

In the era of "always-on" transformation, change is a constant.

 Photo credit:  recombiner

Photo credit: recombiner

My fourth imperative therefore is to instill a culture of continuous learning. When Satya Nadella became the CEO of Microsoft in February 2014, he embarked on an ambitious transformation journey to prepare the company to compete in a mobile-first, cloud-first world. This included changes to strategy, the organization and very importantly, the culture. Microsoft's culture at the time was one of silos and internal competition -- not exactly conducive to learning. Nadella took this head-on. He rallied his leadership around his vision for a living, learning culture, shifting from a fixed mindset, where your role was to show up as the smartest person in the room, to a growth mindset, where your role was to listen, to learn and to bring out the best in people. Well, early days, Microsoft employees already noticed this shift in the culture -- clear evidence of Microsoft putting people first.

My fifth and final imperative is specifically for leaders. In a transformation, a leader needs to have a vision, a clear road map with milestones, and then you need to hold people accountable for results. In other words, you need to be directive. But in order to capture the hearts and minds of people, you also need to be inclusive. Inclusive leadership is critical to putting people first.

In the era of "always-on" transformation, organizations are always going to be transforming. But doing so does not have to be exhausting.

We owe it to ourselves, to our organizations and to society more broadly to boldly transform our approach to transformation. To do that, we need to start putting people first.


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Jim Hemerling is a Senior Partner and Managing Director in The Boston Consulting Group's People & Organization and Transformation Practices. He is a BCG Fellow with a focus on high-performance organization transformation. He also leads BCG's global Behavior & Culture topic.


This is an extract from a 2016 talk delivered by Jim Hemerling entitled "5 ways to lead in an era of constant change" delivered at TED@BCG Paris, published under a Creative Commons Attribution License