The few leaders today whose success provides them with a public profile are conspicuous because they are rare. This is the case at every level of business and government in every corner of the world and, given the challenges organisations in all sectors are beginning to encounter, we should be concerned. Things are about to get a whole lot more demanding and we need leaders.

The emergence of the digital economy means that every business has to re-invent itself. This is the greatest challenge any organisation will ever have faced and the clock is ticking. Currently 70% of transformations are failing, many to the extent that the businesses concerned will cease to exist. John Cambers the ex-CEO of Cisco has told us 40% of the businesses we know today will not be around in a few short years and that’s mainly because they will have failed to transform.

To understand the demands placed on today’s leaders we should firstly understand, the would-be business leader’s greatest fallacy is that they should be able to roll up their sleeves and be the doer. The diversity of skills required to operate a modern business is vast and the process of transformation demands still more. Many concern technologies alien to anyone over thirty-five and the levels of proficiency required in all of them has to be very much higher than previous generations ever achieved. Transformation is a team effort and it’s totally unrealistic for a leader to think they can undertake a transformation alone. In fact, it would be a very rare organisation whose combined internal resources were at all adequate to the task. Hence the leader’s task becomes one of motivating and organising a large and eclectic collection of internal and external specialists in diverse and obscure skills.

At the highest level a leader’s role is to remove obstacles that would otherwise hinder the efforts of the experts charged with affecting a transformation, but a leader also has to be a mentor, figurehead, coordinator and much more. There are a few qualities great leaders share. Here are nine I can think of right now. Can you add a tenth?

Vision

Every organisation will have a “vision” and “mission” enshrined in its business strategy. It marks the point where branding takes over and defines where you want to be in three, five or sometimes ten years time. In part it is the leader’s role to always keep this in sight, but I’m thinking of vision in a slightly different context too. Some people have a knack, when faced with an objective, of being able to visualise the route to achieving it. It’s something to do with a mind that’s uncluttered by convention and legacy. This is an invaluable trait that enables leaders to guide their business through the uncharted territory of transformation.

Creativity

I’m not talking “artistic” here, this is creativity on a much broader scale. Many of the challenges you will encounter in a transformation have beaten you and others many times in the past. However, I believe that everything is surmountable and the only reason we are beaten by challenges is that we are approaching them in the wrong way. A great leader will help their team see problems differently, which provides opportunities for them to apply their specialist skills in less obvious ways. Leaders may not have the skills to solve the problem, but they understand this principle and are able to open the door to a creative approach.

Tenacity

A leader needs to get stuff done. It doesn’t always have to be pretty. Sometimes there are no points for artistic interpretation. It takes something like three years for most businesses to affect what is usually considered a transformation (although the outcome of transformation is a state of constant change, so the job is never really done). Time is running out for most organisations and progress is becoming the difference between survival and extinction. Transformation requires us to overcome previously insurmountable barriers and sometimes it will take a few attempts to break through. Great leaders don’t give up.

Pragmatism

This is the other side of the tenacity coin and it’s important to achieve a balance between the two. There’s a lot to be said for driving an idea through obstacles, but there is also the matter of flogging a dead horse. You have to be rigorous in the design of your KPIs and pragmatic in adhering to them and the responses they trigger. If your data tells you an idea or a process isn’t working cut it quick and reassign your resources to something more productive.

Energy

I make it a point to tell the leaders of any business contemplating transformation that the process will be long and painful for those in the driving seat as well as those at the coal-face. You’ll often feel exhausted by the need to constantly cajole, push, direct and mentor your team and as the leader, you have to always appear up-beat and energised in order to lift the spirits of those around you. It requires physical fitness and a lively mind.

Accountability

For all kinds of reasons that I won’t go into here, one of the biggest failings of transformations in small and mid-sized businesses is a lack of accountability. Transformation has to be driven and there is often a great deal of friction to be overcome. One key to achieving progress is to identify KPIs, deadlines and objectives and constantly measure the project and the people concerned against these. I see far too much tolerance of missed deadlines and initiatives that “nearly work”. If a project is fraught with continually missed deadlines there is something fundamentally wrong and measurement will enable you to identify and fix that.

Organisation

Of course you have to be organised. You’ll be leading a large and diverse team of people through a complex procedure and you can’t afford to waste time and investment going around in circles. Many do just that, often because of poor communication. I frequently see business leaders who keep changing their minds about the details or direction of initiatives that ends up with people running in all directions, but getting nowhere. Although this is only one aspect of organisation you would do well to concentrate on consistency. While transformation is very much an empirical process there has to be organisation. A good leader will set the basic rules then leave it to their project manager to devise a process for progressing and continually evaluating initiatives, enabling progress to be made, while modifying or cutting projects at key points.

A common weakness with undisciplined leaders is they experience a flash of inspiration, instruct the people in the room at that moment, but nobody else gets to know. Result – everyone working in different directions! While you can’t afford “death by meeting” – the phenomenon of having so many meetings that nobody has time to do anything – you need to establish a forum where the assessments mentioned above take place with everyone in the room and participating.

Charisma

Every successful leader I have encountered has charisma. It’s that X-factor I’m not sure whether you are born with or develop as you go through life. It comes in different forms. There are outgoing, showmen and women as well as modest quiet leaders. It’s about being liked and respected in equal parts but the “right-place-right-time” factor comes into play too. People who were great leaders in the seventies and eighties may not be so successful these days. Leaders I have worked with who I feel achieved the correct balance in their time include Bill Muirhead the one-time Chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi, Richard Branson, and Lord Harris (Phil Harris of Harris Queensway and Carpetright fame) who appeared on BBC Breakfast this week and was as modestly impressive as I remember him to have been when we were working together in the early Carpetright days.

Flexibility

One thing you can be sure of when launching a transformation is that you can’t be sure of anything. Great leaders are “adaptive managers”. You never know what challenges you will confront. Many of them will be truly unique, so there aren’t any set formulae for resolving them, you’ll be making it up as you go. That’s where the ability to apply the skills and instincts of your team without the hindrance of legacy thinking is essential.

These are my nine obvious requirements of a leader in the transformation age. There are surely many more. So, what would you add?

Phil Darby
August 3, 2018

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