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Have you noticed, that when people talk about change they drive in their personal life, they are often really energetic. And what about when you hear people talk about change or even transformation in their organization? Why are they thinking more about “cost-cutting” or even “layoffs”.

Let’s acknowledge change ist hard –  especially when put on us from the outside. But we all, that we spend the majority of our life in organizations, we can’t hide from changes associated with the 4th industrial revolution. Changes in society, culture and technology are forcing us to constantly adapt. In fact, we are living in an era of “always-on” transformation.

But what is making this so exhausting and how can we fix it?

First of all let’s acknowledge that leaders typically wait too long to act. As a result, everything act in a crisis mode and trying to fix the “issue” – as a result we see typically a series of “one off approaches” very much how we as students prepared for an exams when we realized they are on only tomorrow. Then back to business as usual, once crisis is over. This approach can work, but it fails the fundamental goal to prepare students for life. the same for organisation: you might have survived one crisis, but you are still not prepared for the future

Making transformation empowering and energizing: Putting people first!

How can we make transformation not exhausting but actually empowering and energizing?

 To do that: focus on 5 important strategic imperatives all of which have one thing in common: putting people first.

  1. First imperative to put people first, is to inspire with a purpose. Realizing, that most transformations have financial and operational goals, but no broader meaning, no purpose that can rally people behind the “WHY we are doing this”. To motivate broadly, leaders must connect with a deeper sense of purpose.
  2. The second imperative to put people first is to go all in. Too many transformations are not more than headcount cutting exercises 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.
  3. The third imperative for putting people first is to enable people with the capabilities that they need to succeed during the transformation and beyond. We need to be sure that we’re giving our people the skills and the tools they need along the way. It is equally important to build clarity for your people in the organizations and their managers and create room for the “New”.
  4. In the era of “always-on” transformation, change is a constant. The fourth imperative therefore is to instill a culture of continuous learning – 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.
  5. The 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.

Inspire with a purpose – go all in – enable people – create a culture of continuous learning – combine a directive and inclusive leadership style.

In an era of constant change, you need to rely on your teams to equally fuel your organization’s transformation – both to ensure they are equally motivated as you, but also, there is simply no time to “tell” them all. Finally, master the “Tell and Talk” – transformational leaders typically do both in a good balance to give direction and understand where people and teams are in the change adoption curve

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.


Note: this article is largely following a speech of Jim Hemerling (Senior Partner & Managing Director at BCG, San Francisco), which I highly recommend and you can find on Ted Talks.

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