Over the past several years, I’ve tried to put my finger on why leading transformation feels a bit different than other leadership roles. In the area of transformation, leaders are often the primary change agent and don’t have others inside their organizations to turn to for advice.
These same leaders also have lessons learned that they are willing to share so that other leaders can be better prepared and more effective. I found this to be true in my own experience when collecting advice and insights to expand my personal perspective and approach to transformation, and I want to share the wealth and invite others into the conversation.
With that in mind, I am excited to announce a new series called Leading in the Gap. Leading in the Gap features interviews (videos, podcasts, blogs) with transformation leaders and experts. The slate of guests is intentionally diverse spanning different industries, types of companies, levels of digital maturity, company cultures, and even personal leadership styles. Just as there is no “one-size-fits-all” transformation strategy, there is no single way to successfully lead people and organizations through transformation. Leading in the Gap aims to give a voice to hard-earned lessons from those that have “been there, done that” and be a source of sound advice, positive encouragement, and diverse perspectives on transformation leadership.
When choosing guests for this series, I ask them to be open and vulnerable about their personal experience. It’s only fair that I share what personally inspired me to explore this topic. Read on for my perspective on some of the special challenges of leading transformation that we’ll be exploring in our Leading in the Gap series.
Living and Leading in the Gap
“It’s the best job in the world…but at some point, it will feel like the loneliest.” This is what I wish someone had told me when I started leading enterprise transformations. This is what I tell others who are considering a role in leading transformation or leading change at scale. It’s not about scaring or deterring anyone – it’s simply about preparing for one of the many inevitable leadership challenges to come.
In 2019, I was privileged to be in an Executive MBA course called Leading Organizational Transformation taught by the esteemed Sally Blount, former Dean of Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. I could write a treatise on what I learned in those classes, but I’ll focus on one of the things that Dean Blount said. This particular comment switched on a light bulb for me personally and it changed how I thought about my role and purpose. It also planted the seed for what this new series explores:
Leaders live in the gap and living in the gap can be lonely.
BOOM. Maybe you read that and just glossed over it. But when I first heard it, it was an epiphany. This statement concisely summarized what I had been experiencing, and it diagnosed why leading transformations can feel different and require different skills than other leadership roles.
Leaders live in the gap that exists between an organization’s current state and where it desires to be (aka future state or aspirational state). But, as leaders, we aren’t just living in the gap with everyone else; we’re also tasked with the responsibility to provide leadership across the organization in order to close the gap and successfully transform the business in a significant manner. Transformation leaders have to be out in front, paving the way while guiding and inspiring the rest of the organization throughout the journey. Sometimes that requires bringing along people who really don’t want to make the journey (y’all know what I’m talking about – “detractors” or “resistors” is the change management terminology). As a result, transformation leaders can be so far ahead of the others that they feel lonely and isolated. Don’t shy away from this… prepare for it, recognize it, embrace it, and tackle it head on. The guests on our Leading in the Gap series share how they’ve approached this challenge in their careers.
Complexity in the Gap
Leading enterprise transformation – pick your flavor: Agile, Business, Customer Experience, Digital, IT, etc. – is essentially leading change on a massive scale. It’s challenging and complex work spanning across experience, technology, process, and people.
While transformations are often IT-centric and IT-led, the organization cannot optimally transform while operating in departmental silos. Partnership and alignment with business units and other departments are critical for progress and success. Creating best-in-class experiences means business and IT must work together if the goal is, for example, enabling the customer to move seamlessly between online and offline channels. Implementing a modern and flexible technology stack takes years and requires change across the enterprise. In addition, cultivating agile ways of working and empowering teams requires shifts not just to business processes but also to people’s mindsets and behaviors.
The complexity of transformation isn’t an inherent negative from a career standpoint; indeed, it is why many of us are drawn to the ever-evolving journey that is transformation. (The gnarlier the better! Are you with me?!) The time that a transformation journey takes …well, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t wish it would move faster. And while transformation journeys can be accelerated, we also know the pitfalls and damage that can come from pushing a transformation agenda and implementing without adequate and intentional change management across the aspects of people, process, experience, and technology.
There is also another dynamic presenting complexity: those leading transformations are intrinsically challenging the status quo and advocating for change. And guess what – people don’t like change! This creates a tension that transformation leaders must actively and persistently confront and channel toward positive outcomes. Transformation leaders are challenging their organizations in three directions — upwards (bosses, the Board of Directors), laterally (peers), and downwards (the rest of the organization). Leading in the Gap guests will share how they handle challenging the status quo respectfully and effectively.
Bridging the Gap
Leading in the gap can feel lonely, but the fact is, you’re not alone.
There are other leaders who are leading transformations that have helpful perspectives and valuable lessons learned along the journey. They may be at a different point in the journey than you and they may be in different industries. However, their perspectives can help guide you now or in the future. I can’t promise an epiphany, but it is my hope that you will take away your own nuggets from the Leading in the Gap series to help bridge the gap in your organization and enable you to be a more impactful transformation leader.
Please join with others in the transformation journey and subscribe to the AndPlus newsletter to be notified as new guests are announced and new content is released. In the interim, feel free to connect with me any time on topics or guests that you are interested in as we all make our way in this beautifully complex and rewarding world of transformation.
Let’s shape the future together.