A-Z of Interim. X is for … X-factor

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I’m not sure who actually said ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’ – the more things change, the more they stay the same – but they were definitely onto something.

Although organisations can vary wildly in terms of structure, process and culture, when it comes to implementing business change, the challenge remains the same.  How do you create lasting transformation?

Is there an ‘x-factor’ that elevates transformation programmes, creating lasting benefits and sustainable change?

As an interim who uses her expertise to build and lead change programs with staying power, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’!  Successful change arises from a combination of factors rather than a single, elusive element.

Here’s what I know:

Do, don’t delegate:  You don’t delegate change.  Transformation only happens when you establish clear ownership and commitment to change across all levels of the organisation. Savvy leaders do this by modelling authentic behaviours which provide the foundation for change. They create a compelling narrative which acts as a lynchpin, connecting individuals and teams to the change.

Stay focused: The road to transformation is long, and it’s no place for monkey mind!  It can be all too easy for leaders to get distracted by short term results – a.k.a. the next shiny thing on their corporate agenda – instead of staying the course. To get the prize, keep your eyes on a prioritised set of changes, and make sure you have assigned clear accountability for specific actions during implementation.

It’s not a part-time, pastime: I’m called in when things transformational have tanked. Sometimes it’s because the fanfare surrounding the initial announcement of change has faded. Often it’s because the people responsible for implementation have not been properly engaged. Very often it’s because change is considered something you can do on top of your day job. Erm, no… Successful transformation relies on sufficient resources and capability to implement change.  Have the right people, doing the right things. Hire in capability, if needed, but don’t forget to coach and support your own teams so they can build their transformation muscles.

Bend and stretch: External events and corporate disasters can derail even the most meticulously planned transformation, so make sure you bake in a degree of flexibility, should you need to adjust or re-calibrate your plans. Change sticks in places where it can be sustained, so craft plans that are practical and results oriented. Your chances of success will improve exponentially.

 

 

A-Z of Interim: U is for…Unexpected

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Image: Lisa Bondesio | 2019

It’s always good when you get the ‘Miracle Fish’ in your Christmas Cracker!  Place the cellophane fish in your palm, and its movements will indicate your fortune.  Spoiler alert! If the fish is motionless, it is a dead one! Great party trick, but not so great for helping you navigate the unexpected…

Unexpectedness, is definitely something to be expected in today’s workplace. Whether you work as an interim or not. For instance, 2018 for me was a year where a fantastic new client and assignment came out of left field, thanks to a personal recommendation from one of my Linked-In network.  I’d like to say this was expected. A carefully plotted opportunity as a result of meticulous networking and a solid business plan. Nope. It was the right thing at the right time. Unexpected but good!

2018 was also the year where another personal recommendation led to a complete waste of my time and effort.  An unscrupulous potential client who shall remain nameless, but who will not be forgiven for assuming that 1) I work for free… and 2) it’s okay to steal someone’s ideas and pass them off as your own. I’d like to say this was expected. That I trusted my gut like I should have, and said ‘no thanks’ at the outset of the conversation. Nope. I thought they would behave professionally. They didn’t. Unexpected, and bad business karma besides!

Both these occurrences have me thinking about the best way to flourish in times of great uncertainty. If you choose to work for yourself, you do choose a path less travelled. Less secure. Less certain. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, unless you crave 9-5 and a regular pay-cheque until you reach a pensionable age. In that case, this probably isn’t the blog post for you!

Of course, there are some things you can do to mitigate the vagaries of living in an age of unexpectedness.  Here are my top tips:

Don’t take it personally.  Unless you yourself have done something hugely unprofessional (see paragraph 3, above) – losing out on an opportunity, having projects stalled, cancelled or just generally petering out is actually not about you. Trust me, it’s not. It’s usually about stuff you cannot control, so don’t waste time and valuable energy ruminating over what went wrong or why the other candidate was better qualified.  Chalk it up to experience, learn and move on!

See the unexpected as an opportunity to do something different, differently. Even the most skilled professionals experience a cosmic butt-kicking at least once in their career. Whether it’s a long period prospecting for new assignments without pay-off, or a change in the direction of your assignment which means you and the client must part ways gracefully. Be graceful. Accept the challenge. Shift your mental gears and figure out a new way of dealing with the circumstances. P.S. There is always a way!

Action is the antidote to despair. Comfort zones are great, but nothing much grows there.  In other words, don’t let discomfort keep you from continuing to move forward. Bad days, just like good days come and go. Of course, there will be times when – of necessity – you will need to pause and reflect, but camping out in a spiral of doom isn’t really the way to feel motivated. Keep taking action, because sooner or later opportunity – cunningly disguised as the unexpected – comes knocking.

Create your own safety net. Well-being is no longer in the realms of the touchy-feely. It’s a weapon against the unknown.  Your safety net could be financial – as in a 6-month cash buffer. Personal – as in a good network of colleagues or family who can support you. Physical – as in a hobby that gets you out of your head and into the fresh air!  All of the above? Or something else entirely.  Whatever it looks like for you, make sure you have one!

Fortune telling fish, or not…I’m looking forward to 2019. My wish for you is that it brings good clients, great work and even better achievements.  Happy New Year!

A-Z of Interim: T is for…Teamwork

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I’m writing this in an airport, en route from New York to home.  I’ve spent 2 – very full -days with a leadership team, facilitating a retreat which required us to move from strategy to implementation. So far, so very consultant.  But, here’s the thing…

This particular workshop was full of people with a strong moral diligence, and a passion for what they do in the world. High integrity individuals, each as different and unique as a snowflake. From a facilitation perspective, this could have been a disaster…but it wasn’t.

As I reflected overnight on how the first day had gone, what struck me most about the group was their absolute commitment to work together to resolve some very thorny organisational issues – without personal agenda, and with a collective commitment to the greater good of their organisation.

At this point, I should probably declare that I live with The Belgian (a.k.a. my husband) and we are partially based in a country whose political system exemplifies compromise for a greater good.  Give a little of yourself, get a lot for everyone. In short, team-work.

Which brings me to today’s post. As an interim specialising in transformation, I have to deal a lot with big egos and even bigger personal agendas. Both were absent over the last few days. How refreshing, I hear you say! Indeed.

Yet, I was not facilitating a group of meek, understated ‘yes-people’.  Far from it. Everybody felt able to express their opinions, concerns and perspective. Yet, everyone was prepared to roll-up sleeves and work together to reach an optimum solution. Team-work in action (a.k.a. ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’).  Thanks, Aristotle!

My point is, that as an interim – your ability to galvanise teams is critical.  I’ve lost count of the number of arrogant individuals I’ve encountered who think it’s ok to step into an organisation and deploy cultural and operational landmines in the name of transformation and then think that justifies their day-rate. Really? My point is, that as an interim – it’s wrong to assume you are single-handedly going to save the organisation. You are there to bring people together, to build a collective solution that works for your client, long after you exit the building. The whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.

A-Z of Interim: S is for…Skills!

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What’s your particular interim superpower? Mine happens to be working with CEOs and their teams to help them navigate change successfully. Of course, I wasn’t bitten by a radioactive spider – so while some of this ability might be innate, my skill in this area comes from a combination of graft and experience – a.k.a. hard work and multiple client engagements over more than a decade!

Although I make my living from change, I also am in the process of changing countries – swapping home life in the UK for wedded bliss in Bruges, Belgium.  To help in this adjustment, I’ve spent the last 6 months formally studying Dutch.  I’m pleased to say that I’m now about 80% fluent (give or take the odd verb) but this prolonged period of self improvement has made me think deeply about keeping current as an interim.  Is it really necessary?

The short answer is ‘Yes’.

Clearly, there is no substitute for experience, but in today’s interim market, it’s wise to remember that ‘old ways, do not open new doors’.  Here are my top tips for staying skilful and staying ahead:

Be relevant.  Do your skills still matter in today’s gig economy? Are you au fait with developments in your industry or discipline?  Once on assignment, it can be hard to make time to bone up on the latest trends – but it’s vital if you need to keep up with more than the Kardashians.  I usually read the business section of a quality newspaper at least once a week, with a focus on the articles that relate to transformation and business change.  Another option is to attend conferences or industry events. And if you really are short on time, why not use your commute to listen to a TED talk or podcast which speaks to your area of expertise.

Be portable. Just because robots are taking over the world doesn’t mean the future workplace won’t need people with super-powers.  I’m not talking X-Ray vision here! However, if your skill set is limited to an industry with a shortening shelf-life, you might need to re-evaluate. Where best could you use your ability?  What do you do that could be applied elsewhere?  What value could different experience bring to a prospective new client? Wherever you are at, its important to package your know-how in a way that fits more than one square peg.

Invest. The best thing about being an interim is that you really are in charge of your own destiny.  The worst thing about being an interim is that you really are in charge of your own destiny!  If you are not investing in yourself, how are you adding value to your clients? Outdated ways of thinking and doing are not going to build your credibility as a proficient professional. So, spend the time to read. Spend the money to learn more. Spend the effort to sharpen your skills – it could be the difference between being left behind and leading the way in the interim olympics.

And finally…

Stay Curious. When I was young, I was interested in everything.  My biggest worry was that all the mysteries of the world would have been solved by the time I became a grown up. Obviously we still haven’t found the location of Atlantis, but we have found life on Mars,so maybe wanting to know isn’t such a bad strategy after all. The point is, ask questions, be interested in what’s going on around you. You might just learn more than you think you already know.

I’m curious!  What do you think the top skills are in today’s interim market?  Do you think it’s necessary to reinvent yourself every so often?  Answers on the blog, please!

A-Z of Interim: O is for…Opportunity

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It was all supposed to be going so swimmingly…

2016 brought a new assignment, a wedding (my own) and a cross-channel commute home. It also brought additional stress and a severe case of shingles as my immune system finally called time on the frenetic interim lifestyle.

I said ‘sayonara’ to the assignment.  November was spent lying in a darkened room channelling a look that was somewhere between The Terminator and a deranged raccoon on account of the red eyes and anti-itch powder. Not exactly client-facing!  

Fellow workaholics will realise that enforced bed rest is not my thing. Neither is being ill. But this was an entirely different matter. There was no option but to endure, and no way to see an upside. Upside-down more likely!  And yet…there is always an opportunity to learn from the circumstances you find yourself in.

Henry Ford said it best. ‘Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently’. As the meds kicked in and my convalescence wore on, I had ample opportunity to think.  Which is why I am spending the first quarter of 2017 acclimatising to a new culture (Belgium), learning a new language (Dutch) and looking to base my business (and my assignments) closer to home.

As interims, one of our superpowers has to be that we can craft opportunity out of a piece of string and some sticky tape. That’s called change management.  Being flexible and open to changing circumstances means we can course correct when we need to. That’s called being entrepreneurial. And finally…knowing when to pause and when to act. Well, that’s commonly known as having Plan B. 

How do you define opportunity?  How do you deal with failure?  Answers and comments via the blog, please…

I am not a robot…Can AI replace the interim?

 

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Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to attend TEDx in Brussels.  The theme was The Deeper Future – drawing quality ideas and talented speakers from around the globe.  Topics ranged from food computers to outsourced love (you can now marry yourself in Japan), from craft beer (well, it was Belgium after all!) to a bank for the common good.

On the journey home, I reflected on the pace of change in the world that surrounds us.  Driverless cars, which once seemed the stuff of science fiction are a reality. Remote sensing devices replace traffic cones on the smart highways springing up between here and there. Nanotechnology is winning Nobel prizes.  And Russian billionaires are spending a fortune on trying to cheat death by uploading their brains to a computer.  Which got me thinking.  If Artificial Intelligence will replace the jobs of postmen and cashiers, what is the future for interims?  Will we go the way of the video store or the cassette tape?

There was a time when 2020 seemed to belong to another future, but in 2016 the future is here. In a recent World Economic Forum (WEF) report, it’s estimated that by 2020, at least 7.1million jobs will be lost, most of those is administrative or white-collar functions – something they describe as the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’.  Furthermore they estimate that 65% of school children today will end up working in jobs that don’t yet exist.

Revolutionary or not, something disruptive in happening in the labour market, and it means a seismic shift in the way we view work – and working life.  In 2020, the jobs which are most sought after will require advanced Mathematics and Analytical skills. Enhanced sales skills will be in demand in order to sell the new technocracy…And yes, an ability to manage and implement change will be vital.  Furthermore, HR and organisational fluency will be a must to help people adjust to this new reality. Plus ça change…In the 80’s pushy parents were enrolling their 5 year olds for Mandarin classes and baby yoga, today it’s probably robotics and mindfulness!!

So where does that leave the career interim. Tempting though it is to develop a cloning app so I can be three places at once, I think the future is brighter than it might first appear…here’s my hypothesis:

 

  • The interim market will continue to grow as traditional organisational structures begin to give way to leaner, less top heavy corporations. So, being able to get in, and get things done will be the way to go.
  • Specialist skills and experience will be in demand – particularly in transformation, and technology. It won’t be enough to know your domain, you will need to learn more about what you don’t know and can’t yet conceive.
  • Softer skills – leadership, knowledge transfer, facilitiation will increasingly be in demand to help the old guard navigate the new order. Are you sure you can negotiate with a robot?
  • Interims will have to be in a learning mindset to add value to clients and assignments. Old ways of thinking do not lead to new solutions. Old dogs will of necessity need to learn new tricks. Interims will have to be agile of thought to stay current.

What do you think?  Will there be a role, or should we all be planning to retire?  Comments on the blog, please.  Clones and bots, not allowed!

 

 

 

Business Transformation: Why technology changes nothing…

Image: Dreamstime 2014As an undergraduate, I had an art lecturer who  was into Bauhaus – the artistic movement, not the band!  Founded by the architect Walter Gropius, the Staatliche Bauhaus was all about creating a ‘total’ work of art, in which all artistic disciplines would eventually be brought together.

It’s got me thinking about the technology end of business transformation. Very often, technology is sold as the ‘total’ work of art that will bring everything in the organisation together. Want people to collaborate? Invest in collaboration software!  Want your employees to be more productive? Give everyone mobile technology so they can work on the train! Want to change the company?  Change the technology!  You get the picture…

In case you think this is some sort of Luddite rant against all things IT, let me be clear. In and of itself…technology is neither good nor bad. It just is. A fact of modern business life. A tool. As the way in which companies interact with their customers shifts, the technological landscape must rapidly flex to accommodate new ways for commerce – helping organisations drive value, grow profits and respond to market demand at lightning speed. Which brings me to one of the fundamental challenges with technology. In and of itself...it changes nothing. And yet…it can change everything.

For Gropius and his cohort, Bauhaus represented a practical opportunity to extend beauty and quality to every home by means of well designed industrially produced objects. For change-savvy organisations, technology represents a practical opportunity to derive business benefit and streamline operations by means of well designed systems and software. So… what makes the difference between truly transfomational technology, and the stuff that just clogs corporate arteries?

The three ‘ologies’…

Psychology. In my experience, the secret is to start with the psychology. Yep.. you heard right. The abstract people bit! Lets face it, large scale business transformation is only achieveable by bringing people, process and technology together. Clever organisations do this by creating a shared ambition for change. They tell a compelling story and create a future that truly involves their employees. They consult widely, and then spend sufficient time buttoning down the scope and setting expectations. Everyone involved in making the change happen is clear about what is expected, and what they can expect.

Methodology. Bill Gates is famous for saying ‘The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.’ Clever organisations look closely at their existing processes to understand where inefficiencies lie. They conduct a detailed gap analysis to establish what is missing from their processes, what can be re-engineered, discarded or left as is. They do this more than once!

Technology. Creating a shared ambition for change, then using technology to facilitate and incentivise new processes or ways of working is a far better approach than using IT to beat people over the head in order to make them shift. Of course, some degree of change resistance happens in most organisations. Poor execution of technological change simple exarcerbates this. I’ve lost count of the number of pitched corporate battles I’ve witnessed when ‘those guys in IT’ get it wrong. Notice, it’s not the technology that is wrong, it’s the people implementing it. Well communicated change, underpinned by well conceived technology can change corporate fortunes. Or it can change nothing.

Business Transformation: Are you the hammer or the nail?

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Perhaps the title for this post should be ‘Why organisations resist change’ but in today’s pacy business environment, change is the standard against which the business agility of companies is measured. In the words of the Borg, ‘resistance is futile’. Yet change doesn’t happen easily.

Despite reports of the upswing in the UK economy, the financial pages are littered with examples of organisations who failed because they couldn’t or wouldn’t change. In reality, business transformation occurs because a) there is a burning platform and the business must change to survive; b) external forces such as competitor activity, technology or customers require it; or c) the board genuinely want things to be different…(see reasons a and b above!)

Of course, business transformation is not something binary, nor is it transactional. People matter, and if your aim is successful corporate evolution, it’s important to have the right people making the right changes at the right time. Change is relatively easy if you are the one inflicting it. Not so much if you are on the receiving end. Which is probably why some organisations resist change so successfully, by the time the burning platform is in sight, it’s too late to call for rescue.

So how do successful organisations bring their employees along with them? Much as the CEO might want to embed change by dint of a strong personality, stakeholder engagement is key if you want the change to stick. But is it enough? Tempting though it might be to adopt a hammer approach, your people aren’t accessories in a hardware store!

Really transformational business change targets leadership, but also engages people across the organisation, while making sure that organisational structure and key enabling processes such as performance management align with the future vision for change. As well as making a rational case for change, stellar organisations also create the ’emotional’ case – to enable people to connect with, and buy into, the new reality they are facing. Their leaders become role models of the change – not simply paying lip service, but actually demonstrating the change they want to see – in everything they say and do. Most importantly, they stay focused and stay the course. Change is inevitable. Failure to change, doesn’t have to be.

Business Transformation: Ready, Steady…Stall!

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Recent headlines documenting the ongoing saga at Tesco bring to mind Lao Tzu, who wrote: ‘If you do not change direction, you will end up where you are heading’. No doubt many column inches will be devoted to the analysis of what went wrong and why. Did management ignore the warning signs within? Or did they simply fail to adapt and react to changing circumstances in their external environment?

Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain. If it is to appease shareholders and customers, Tesco’s incumbent CEO, Dave Lewis will need to transform it’s business, to do so radically – and in a short space of time. In this case, the £250m hole in Tesco’s finances, a property portfolio of large and unprofitable stores, and a devalued ClubCard and brand, are all powerful incentives for change. But, what happens when the organisation isn’t ready?

In my experience, things only change, when you do. Such change may be conceived in the boardroom, but it is delivered with and through the people inside the wider organisation. And this is where the challenges begin. I often say that business transformation is about psychology, not methodology. So it’s just as important to understand the ‘who you are dealing with’ as well as the ‘what needs to be different’. Just ask the team who are transforming the Co-Op!

Instead of charging headlong down the transformation tunnel, it might be wise to ask:

Is the vision clear?
Is the appetite for change genuine?
Are management’s messages consistent with their actions?
How ready is the organisation to make the change?
Do the resources and business conditions support change?

The greater the complexity of change, the more vital it is to understand where you are starting from. Otherwise, ready steady go ends up as ready steady stall.

Do you see what I see…? How perspective builds engagement in times of change

Anyone remember ‘Magic Eye’ pictures… or more precisely, autostereograms?  You know, those  two dimensional patterns that allow some people to see the hidden 3-D images contained inside the picture. The trick is to shift your gaze.  I often think it must have been really difficult to sell the concept – especially if your prospective client was someone who just didn’t get it…  ‘Really, that is a penguin juggling a white rabbit!’  

And like the picture of the conjuring penguin, engaging people during times of organisational transition can be just as much of a hard-sell.  Change can be uncomfortable for most folks, especially if it’s imposed and not chosen.  Merger. New CEO. Restructure.   He-l-lo Dotty… suddenly you and the dog aren’t in Kansas, any more!  It’s clear that change remains a feature of the corporate landscape as economic, technological and demographic shifts continue to affect the way we work and interact with one another. Still,  it can be pretty difficult to rally the troops when said troops are – for dear life – hanging on to the rug management have just pulled out from under their feet.

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘stakeholder engagement’, but in badly-led organisations that boils down to a few road shows and a set of PowerPoint slides for managers who are so busy, they think ‘reply all’ equals ‘reaching hearts and minds’.  And if you think I am making this up, then just consider the example of The Accident Group (TAG) who, in 2003,  fired 2,400 people by text message when the company went bust here in the UK.   Change is as much about communicating the art of the possible, as it is about making people do or believe something different.

So, how can you get the best out of people affected by change?  The trick is to shift your gaze.  This is what separates good change agents from the masters.  Good change agents know they need to communicate clearly, and so they ask questions, identify the issues, and then tailor their words to the audience in question.  Masterful change managers go one step further…they try to understand the other person’s perspective before they communicate.  Perspective is a gift – it can show you new ways of looking at old problems, and it can help you to see where your employees are coming from when the CEO launches the latest change initiative.   This doesn’t mean that you will see eye-to-eye with everyone who is part of the change process – this is the real world, not Oz – but making an authentic effort to stand in someone else’s shoes for a while, may mean they walk with you.