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  • Writer's pictureMark Hefner

Leading Transformational Strategy

Updated: Mar 16, 2019

Not all business strategies require the same degree of change to be considered successful. Many are simply a continuation of an already established path and destination. Others identify change in some areas of the business but those changes do not represent a significant departure from the status quo.

Some strategies however require transformational change. These strategies are usually required when companies are either in deep trouble or pursuing significant and new market opportunities to maintain their market leadership.

All strategies require the support and active involvement of the senior leaders but transformational strategies raise the bar for the leadership required to succeed. In recent years we have worked with dozens of such leaders who have pursued and successfully executed transformational strategies. How did they do it? What did they do to succeed when so many others have failed? What was their mindset, how did they think about executing transformational strategy and what actions did they take to ensure success?

Here is 12 insights gleaned from working with those CEO’s and business unit leaders who successfully executed their strategy and transformed their business.

  1. These leaders viewed strategy realization as their job. On the surface this sounds like nothing new. Most CEO’s know that strategy is part of their job. But, we are not talking just about being involved in developing a strategy and then delegating its implementation. We are talking about leading from the beginning to the end of the strategy realization process. These leaders actively are involved in strategy development, strategy clarification, implementation planning, aligning people/organization, linking strategy to operations, tying rewards to results, monitoring through regular strategy reviews and visibly sponsoring change. The CEO’s who lead successfully sees it as their job to actively lead throughout each step of strategy development and execution, day after day, month after month and year after year. They do not see it as a once a year event but as a daily responsibility to lead the execution of their strategy.

  2. They know how and when to push the leadership accelerator. They understand that the amount of leadership energy required to execute an incremental change strategy is substantially less than that required to execute a transformation change strategy. They push the leadership accelerator so that they and their senior teams spend the right amount of time and energy leading the execution of their strategies and major change initiatives based on their understanding of the degree of change required to be successful.

  3. These leaders had a keen understanding of organizational and personal change. They not only understand the dynamics of change, they understand how change will impact each of the key stakeholders (customers, shareholders, management, employees, suppliers, BOD). They ensure that these impacts are understood and managed with each stakeholder group throughout the process

  4. Effective leaders stay the course. They are undaunted in their focus and commitment to their strategic objectives even in the face of staunch opposition, often by members of their own boards and management teams. They consistently demonstrate through their words and actions their commitment to executing their strategy and achieving the breakthrough results expected.

  5. Transformational leaders put a premium on managing people through transition. They know how to make a compelling case for change to create a sense of urgency and how to paint a compelling vision for their organizations future. They know that communication is much more than sending an email or making a video. They are actively and personally involved in engaging stakeholders in different and compelling forms of communication to ensure they are enrolled in the strategy. They are adept at convincing people why the strategy is necessary, explaining what the strategy is and what it will accomplish and why they should care. They are clear that all stakeholders need to understand the strategy and their role in achieving results.

  6. These leaders assigned and held accountable their direct reports to fulfill specific roles in strategy realization. They are not hesitant to back this up with positive as well as negative reinforcement and they insist that their direct reports do the same with their direct reports, cascading this horizontally and vertically throughout the organization. In making these assignments, they also make investments to prepare and develop other leaders for their assigned roles. They are willing to make the difficult decisions when, not if, some leaders cannot make the cut. They invest in preparing people for change, encourage new thinking and require that people understand behaviors and results that are expected, measured and rewarded.

  7. They insisted on putting a priority early in the strategy realization process on building strategic readiness across their organizations. Initiatives to develop leaders who understand and can execute strategy, initiatives to develop and or acquire talent and necessary capabilities, initiatives to design the future organizational structure and initiatives to architect the future culture are high priority and planned for early implementation in the overall strategic initiative portfolio.

  8. The leaders understood the difficulty of overcoming inertia associated with the status quo. Early on in the strategy realization journey they took action to overcome inertia by making structural change to their organizations. They leveraged organization analysis and design techniques to increase spans of control, directionally align with their strategy, move better talent into key positions and reduce bureaucracy and cost. Implementing structural change shook up and woke up the organization, moved new managers into positions who were more ready to lead and created some initial momentum toward a new future. In addition a side benefit was that some of the cost savings from increase spans of control and reduced bureaucracy were used to help fund the execution of the strategy.

  9. These leaders built into their plans a process to indentify and implement quick wins. They focused on making changes that could be implemented within 90 days resulting in measurable improvements to cost, quality, service or speed. Making these “quick win” changes continued to build momentum for the strategy, increased confidence in the organization that change is possible and spun off additional benefits that could be leveraged and resources that were re-allocated to strategy realization.

  10. These leaders understand the true cost of execution and they allocated and protected the resources required. They assign the best, most talented people within the organization to work with their leaders to coordinate, integrate and facilitate strategy realization and dedicate them to this task full-time. They did not fall into the trap of assigning execution responsibilities as a “night job” that has lower priority than managing day to day. They allocate financial resources and protect those budgets required for execution and they treat this as an investment with an expected return, not a cost.

  11. Leaders that succeeded demonstrated an ability to make timely and difficult decisions based on factual information. They ensure that a distinct governance process is employed that is supported by regular and truthful reporting on the status of executing their strategy. They are very clear on the responsibility of those leaders involved with strategy realization governance to make fast and often difficult decisions to drive change, remove barriers to execution and achieve expected results from strategy. While they are collaborative in their decision making style they are also clear that they own the ultimate accountability for decisions and expect full support for those decisions, even from dissenting executives.

  12. Strong leaders are open to feedback. They showed a willingness to change their own mind and behaviors that may be in and of themselves a barrier to successful strategy realization. Because of their commitment to executing their strategy to realize breakthrough results, they understand the importance of receiving and acting upon feedback on how they are leading (or not). They are continuous learners and are always honing their leadership skills as well as that of others. They lead with not only their intellect but also with their heart.

As you can see, realizing breakthrough performance from a transformational strategy raises the bar for the leaders who must drive it. This brand of leadership must be present at the very top of the organizational unit within the scope of the strategy. Leadership at the top is necessary but unfortunately insufficient by itself. This brand of leadership must be ubiquitous and developed broadly to create a critical mass of people that can work as a team to drive successful strategy realization. 

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