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Why building the right team is key to successful transformation

By Adam Bennett | |6 minute read

After working on organisation transformation for over three decades, I’ve observed that success or failure is ultimately dependent on the scale and ambition of leaders, the skills and temperament of the team, and the power and patience of its resisters. Above all, transformation involves a competition of ideas, views, biases, hopes and aspirations of an organisation’s leaders and employees, with no guarantee that any particular idea or view will win.

Whether an organisation successfully senses the disruptive forces that might put it at existential risk, is able to craft a compelling strategy, and then, most critically, can implement the changes required is not pre-ordained. Success will always depend on the people involved.

Transformation is difficult

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Harvard Business School estimates that 70–80 per cent of transformation projects fail, and I’ve seen many programs fail due to the resistance – active or passive – of people within the organisation. If you’ve ever tried to change your organisation, you too may have met some of the characters most likely to resist:

  • Losers – can see that the change will reduce their power, prestige influence or empire.
  • Traditionalists – simply can’t imagine or countenance their industry working in a new or different way.
  • Disinterested – are disengaged and unwilling to get behind anything too hard.
  • Defenders – hate being told what to do or having their established views challenged.
  • Rationalists – just want to do what’s in their scorecard.

Building the right team is key to transformation.

Transformation is about getting the right people aligned around the objectives and then using their skills, energies and temperament to take the entire organisation on a journey. Quite simply, the people you select will make or break the transformation.

A great gauge of whether an organisation is serious about its transformation is to look at who’s assigned to it. The companies that are the most serious put their best talent on it. These are the superstars who can least be spared from running the business-as-usual operations. Next are those who hire a range of very experienced people from outside to form the nucleus of the team. A team comprised of these two types of people is off to a great start.

Beware the team comprised of those who are likable, mildly competent, and know the company well because they used to have a more senior role than they do now. You’ve probably seen the type: been around a million years, gradually restructured down the organisation food chain, and has a live redundancy letter in their pocket right now. Their greatest superpower is that they’re available to work immediately, because their current boss – who should’ve actioned that letter – is willing to release them at short notice. Ideally, select people for both their temperament and skills.

Temperament or character is usually innate, and ‘baked’ into people by the time they’re likely to be working on your transformation. Look for traits such as self-awareness, empathy, humility, curiosity and ambition to find better ways to do things.

Skills, by contrast, are not fixed. If motivated, you can learn new skills throughout your life. Look for both hard and soft skills. Team members should have the intellect and experience to make sound business decisions to drive things forward, softer skills to take people on the journey, and ideally specific skills in transformation such as strategy, business analysis, organisation design, technology and so on.

Change management

Sometimes fielding a team with the right temperament and skills is not enough in the face of determined resistance from one of the characters mentioned above.

The leader must then recognise that successful change management may depend on their willingness to change the management. Graveyards are full of indispensable men and women, so be prepared to remove those executives who cannot or will not get behind the transformation. The stakes are simply too high. The needs of the company’s customers, employees and shareholders far outweigh the biases or ego needs of any individual. Get rid of them and move on.

Organisation transformation is a challenging endeavour typically made more difficult by the potential resistance from those likely to lose or have their traditional views and habits changed. Building the right team is therefore critical to success, so find people with the right temperament and skills, get them aligned, and then unleash their energies, skills and ambitions to drive your organisation forward to a better future.

By Adam Bennett, principal of Great Change Consulting, and a former CEO, big four bank CIO and management consultant. He’s also the author of Great Change – The WAY to Get Big Strategy Done published by Wiley.

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