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: 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.

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!




Retail Therapy: Why technology is no substitute for customer service…

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It could just be me, but I’m beginning to notice an alarming retail trend.  Smartphones may have revolutionised communication, but I’m not so sure about the inexorable rise of the SMS notification when you’ve ordered something online.  On one hand, it’s hard to object to this type of customer interaction. Today’s tech-savvy shoppers are far more demanding.  It’s a rapid reassurance that what you’ve ordered has been acknowledged, and is on it’s way.  Deployed correctly, it can help to build trust in the brand and connect the dots between  internal operational systems and customer touchpoints.

Online grocer, Ocado have this down to a fine art – I know exactly when the monthly shop I’ve ordered will arrive, the colour of the delivery van and the name of the driver.   SMS has other uses too. Having my bank statement texted to me every week helps serves as a timely reminder to help me keep track of my spending.   So too, knowing well in advance that the Dover:Calais ferry has been delayed allows me to adjust travel plans accordingly.

So far, so good…  That is until it all goes awry.  I was sharply reminded of the pitfalls of technology when I unexpected received an SMS giving me notification that my ‘goods’ were going to be delivered on Monday.  Said goods were actually a champagne ‘thank you’ from a colleague and were of course, intended to be a surprise.  Well, surprise spoiled by SMS!  Hmmm… Within minutes another SMS saying the goods were definitely going to be arriving on Monday – this time from the logistics company despatching the order. Hmmm… Of course, they didn’t, much to the annoyance of my colleague who had paid a premium for a ‘named day delivery’.

Net result.  A new customer who is angry and disappointed.  A potential customer who waited in on delivery day while her champagne languished in a depot in Ashford!  And, a complete lack of trust in the company who supplied the goods.  And no follow up from the company, even when they realised something had gone wrong. This is the reason why machines will never rule the world!  Nevertheless I’m amazed by the number of times this keeps happening.  As sites like Etsy and Notonthehighstreet.com make online commerce more accessible to small entrepreneurs and their client base, automatic notification systems are multiplying like topsy.  Logistics companies are particular culprits!

The inherent flaw is that if you are reliant on a third party to despatch and deliver your goods, you have no control over how and when these reach your customer.  So having customer-centric systems is a vital element to this particular type of supply chain. Getting it wrong can damage your brand, and seriously affect your bottom line – critical if you are a small retailer, just as important if you are a large one. Technology might facilitate e-commerce, but it’s human beings that make the world turn.





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.

How to win enemies and alienate people…

I spend a lot of my working life in boardrooms.  What I do for a living means I am often required to have tough conversations with senior people.  Most of them are men.   That has never bothered me, nor has it hindered my ability to be good at what I do.  I’m judged for the quality of my thinking, and not my gender.

Which, is why I found myself prematurely walking out of a swanky dinner at Claridges this evening. Hosted by a global search firm, the event was meant to mark the launch of a network to attract female talent into the FTSE boardroom. I was invited.  So far, so good.  I was looking forward to hearing the keynote speakers and networking with interesting people over a glass of champagne. Even better.

Until, that is, one of the keynote speakers stood up and spent the first five minutes doing a Romney. You know, alienating 53% of the audience. Who were female. Who were meant to be the next generation of talent.  Who – might I remind any head-hunters reading this blog – were potential candidates and/or clients.  This man ran data centres. He explained we wouldn’t know what a data centre was – his tone implying that data centres were too technical  for our pretty little heads. The fact that several accomplished MDs for UK tech firms were present seemed to have passed him by. Then he mentioned his ‘other half’. We were urged to feel gratified that this Neanderthal twit had introduced his ‘little woman’ (yes, those were the words he used to describe his spouse), because clearly women are not professionally complete unless they are also sleeping with the boss!

I am afraid to say that common sense overtook courtesy at this point. I voted with my feet before the main course was served.  On the high-speed train home, I reflected on the experience. I have been to many dinners and networking events in the City, often very male dominated.  I can honestly say I have never been offended by the discussion, no matter how robust or different from my own view of the world.  Gender quite simply, wasn’t an issue.  What set tonight’s event apart?

For me it had to be the old-style misogyny and out-moded thinking. This man was representing purveyors of talent, who claim to actively support diverse leadership teams.  Really? As their spokesperson, I certainly wouldn’t want him representing me in the market. Instead of engaging with his audience, he simply confirmed a highly negative stereotype. His archaic leadership model has no currency in today’s workplace, nor is it borne out by the many women who sit on boards in the UK.  This is currently 15%  according to the latest report from Cranfield.  Women also make up 49% of the workforce here in the UK, across both public and private sector firms. Approximately 21% of start-ups in the UK are female-owned or led.

Personally, I think it’s time for a new paradigm. Instead of lamenting the glass ceiling, it’s time we built a new house.  Search firms, investors, networks and employers all have a role to play, as do the men and women who make up our workforce.

What do you think? Should gender matter?  Comments on the blog, please.

The ‘C’ word…

Organisations are a lot like families.  They have history, they have memory, and they have personality.  And yes, in some organisations- like families – you find the odd, mad relative sequestered in the boardroom!

All of these attributes are what make up the behaviours, attitudes and culture of a company. In short, ‘the way things are done’ – or not done – depending on the organisational culture.  You ignore this at your peril.  Culture isn’t just the preserve of multinational organisations, it impacts the start-up as well as the SME. Like brand, culture is one of those intangible organisational assets – tricky to quantify, but something that will hit your bottom line if you get it wrong.

In the corporate world, many mergers fail, not because the deal is bad, but because insufficient cultural due diligence has been undertaken.  I’m sure you are familiar with post-merger cultural change programmes where the acquiring leadership bring on the bling – extolling the virtue of the shiny, new strategy and how it will magically meld the cultures, distilling the best of both, and so doing transform the business.  And I’m equally sure you have seen those people at the back of the room mentally giving the new leadership a two-fingered salute as they carry on doing what they’ve always done!

Culture can be an enabler to transformative change, or it can be an impermeable barrier.  Does this make cultural change a pipe-dream? Not necessarily. Jack Welch famously transformed GE, by fundamentally shifting the way employees thought and acted.  Although there are critics of this approach – he wasn’t called ‘Neutron Jack’ for nothing – GE’s business transformation succeeded because it was rooted in cultural change.  Stuart Rose, erstwhile CEO of Marks & Spencer is credited with re-energising the business – not simply making it more profitable, but capturing a young, more fashionable customer base.  He refocused the business by recalibrating the culture.

Really great organisational cultures can enhance employee productivity, strengthen talent retention and grow customer revenues.  Toxic cultures by contrast, corrode organisational confidence, haemorrhage talent, and alienate clients.  How so? Well, culture determines organisational priority – in other words, the way things are done will tell you a lot about what is considered important by the people who work for and with you.  Is it any surprise that performance-driven cultures place great emphasis on margin, acquisition and growth, while innovation-loving start-ups prize creativity and quirk?

To my mind, the determining factor in successful cultural change pivots on two fundamental axes. Leadership.  Leadership behaviour.  Do the words of the CEO match his or her deeds?  There are many hackneyed phrases to describe this, but if your leadership isn’t 110% behind the change in ‘everything they do’ it simply won’t happen.  If leadership lack the necessary pair to make tough decisions (and let’s face it, in a merger situation, some people will adapt to the new world order, and some will need to exit the building) then at best, you will have a hybrid culture – not one thing or the other.  Finally, if there are no consequences for non-compliance – in other words, counter-cultural behaviour is tolerated by leadership – don’t expect to make lasting change.

Ghandi once said that ‘a nation’s culture resides in the hearts and soul of its people.’ This holds just as true for organisations.  Real organisational change is based on cultural shifts that create corporate soul. Change the culture, transform the company.

So, what do you think?  Does culture matter? Comments on the blog please.

Banjos, Passion & Persistence.What my dad taught me about business…

My father was a pilot.  He flew maritime patrol aircraft and spent his entire career (bar a few lost years when he was doing something else) in the Air Force.  Not content with flying as his day job, he earned his commercial pilot’s licence, and at weekends he taught other people to fly. You are probably wondering what, if any, wisdom he had to pass on about business.  Here’s what he taught me:

1. Do what you love

There is no point being miserable in a job you hate. As human beings, we bring the whole person to work, not just our working wardrobe or telephone voice. Since we also spend a considerable proportion of our time working – A recent OECD study clocks average working hours per annum at between 1,379 (Netherlands) and a whopping 2,193 hours (Korea) – it makes economic sense to enjoy what you spend most of your day doing. How so?  Well, work satisfaction has a direct effect on employee engagement and productivity. Workers who engage emotionally with their job/leaders/organisation are more productive and more likely to exceed expectations. They are also more likely to innovate and use their discretionary time to further organisational aims.  Productivity + performance = profits according to research published by the Association for Psychological Science. You can read more here.

2. Always do your best

My dad always used to say it didn’t matter what you did for a living, as long as you did your best.  Of course, your best may vary according to the resources at your disposal. My dad ran away to join the RAF when he was 21, and spent several months in Earl’s Court pumping gas to make ends meet while he waiting to be accepted for the officer’s training course. He made a point of being the best petrol jockey he could – because satisfied customers meant bigger tips. Bigger tips meant not having to eat baked beans for five days in a row. Working meant taking productive action while moving towards a bigger goal. In fact, setting goals can have real impact on performance by directing individuals towards productive (vs. non-productive) behaviour, and by incentivising persistence.

3. Never use the skin of your a***, to cover a banjo!

I know! That never used to make a lot of sense to me either. Actually, it was my dad’s rather earthy way of saying ‘have a Plan B’.  The best leaders I know always prepare for every eventuality.  Scenario planning – as it’s known in consultant-speak – is a strategic tool which allows organisations to make long term plans. It has it’s origins in military intelligence, but it’s business value is that is combines things you can quantify (and therefore predict) with things you can’t in order to formulate specific business strategies. Made famous by Shell, it allowed the company to ride out the OPEC Oil crisis in the 1970’s to become one of the largest in the world.  If you want to know more, the best book I’ve ever read on this discipline is by Kees van der Heijden.  Like I said, make sure you have more than a banjo to see you through inclement market conditions.

My dad may not have been a captain of industry, but I think he knew a thing or two about leadership.

What do you think?  What are your three insights about business?  Answers on the blog, please!

The Firing Line…

There are a few things in business life that make me come out in hives (metaphorically speaking).  One of them has got to be ‘The Apprentice’ – a reality show that seems to exist in a time-warp.  It advocates such an outmoded view of leadership, entrepreneurship & business, I don’t know whether to despair or laugh at the absurdity of it all. Machiavelli would be proud!

Apart from gender competition – boys v. girls, and the sycophantic ‘Lord Sugar’ crap – lets face it, he blows his nose and goes to the loo just like the rest of us – this is a programme that makes people think being a leader is about ego, bullying & blame.  As the utterly self-absorbed corporate hopefuls try to outsmart, out-talk and oust eachother they seem to have forgotten that good business is actually based on a few strong principles:

1) Relationships matter.  You might be the most brilliant brain this side of the solar system, but if you are unable to put your ego aside, it will eventually trip you up. There is a fine line between arrogance and confidence. Confidence will inspire people to follow you and clients to purchase your product or service. Arrogance will just brass them off!

2) Being a leader means that the buck stops with you. If you lead others, you accept that mistakes will happen. They are simply another way of doing things. OK, maybe the wrong way, but another way nonetheless. They are not an excuse to find a scapegoat for your own shortcomings.

3) Integrity is something you cannot manufacture. You have it or you don’t. On first inspection, most of the talentless twits on the show couldn’t even spell integrity, let alone recognise it if it happened to walk up to them and wiggle.

John F Kennedy said:’ Leadership and learning are indispensable to eachother’. I suspect Alan Sugar – along with his apprentices – is too arrogant to learn anything. Perhaps the lesson here is to change the channel!