By Stuart R. Levine
Published In, Forbes
Industries have always faced challenges in the marketplace, but today they are under stress like never before. Advances in technology have ushered in dramatic changes, remaking traditional industries like energy, retail, journalism and medicine. Even cutting-edge technology companies that themselves are disruptors, are in a continuous state of transformation. Companies cannot settle for incremental improvement ; they must accept major transitions as a fact of life.
The CEO has to drive dramatic change, and it takes much more than having a strong strategic vision. The CEO must look in the mirror to assess their own approach and duty in the transformation. Then ask; “Am I communicating the strategic vision with clarity? Does everyone know their responsibilities and how to achieve them? Am I addressing all the constituencies needed to drive change? Is my senior team up to the task? Does the organization have the leadership skill sets?”
People will devote a surprising level of effort for causes they believe in, and a clearly aligned, strong, coordinated message will serve to create and reinforce their commitment. As chief role model, the CEO’s every action and every word is scrutinized and has an impact. When CEOs pay lip service to change and speak in euphemisms, employees take their cues from the top and do the same. CEOs must take real action themselves before they can expect others to do the same.
The CEO needs a strong senior team, and must make certain that each member has the ability and motivation to change, to develop their leadership capacity and to inspire change in others. Even with a productive and effective team, these smart, determined, and independent people must become aligned.
Years ago, I became the CEO of a company with a mission of developing personal confidence. It had a very well-respected name, but faced a changing and increasingly difficult market environment. New competitors were entering the field and new delivery technologies were emerging. We did not have the capital to advertise our way out of the problem or to turn to strategic acquisitions for a solution. Internal transformation was required. We built a strong senior management team that understood the situation clearly and were aligned on the challenges ahead. We engaged each other in relentlessly delivered honest communication in order to develop the strategic vision describing what we considered necessary to compete and grow. This difficult process allowed us to spell out the transformation plan, and determine what each person’s role would be.
CEOs and leadership teams must engage their employees in the transformation conversation , describing the changes that the organization must create. People respond to personal stories that illustrate what’s needed as well as regular updates on how the change is progressing. Senior management can infuse energy by reinforcing what is working well, and spotlighting success. Stories crystallize the effects of change and inspire confidence. My own stories were from the perspective of a parent and a spouse and not just as the CEO. It was a powerful way to bring the strategic vision to employees. They needed extraordinary energy to fundamentally rethink and reshape the business, while continuing to run it effectively every day.
Effective CEOs lead by example by creating a culture of accountability. We have heard managers say, “Yes, my team understands what they are responsible for”, but in reality people are still unclear, even though plans may be on paper. Accountability requires clarity. Every team member must unmistakably understand what is expected, recognize their specific personal roles in the big picture, and have the leadership skills and tools to deliver successful results.
When our client, the CEO of a large healthcare system, saw drastically changing governmental systems, rapidly rising labor and equipment costs, and the difficulty attracting quality physicians, he knew the organization needed a major response. He asked that we conduct a top to bottom assessment to identify the skill gaps, uncover organizational processes that inhibited needed change, and expose redundancies that added to cost. Senior management used this organizational analysis to create and rollout the transformation required. Tailored programs of learning and coaching addressed skill gaps. Each team and each person on the team was clear on their responsibilities. Feedback and communication took place in real time, as high quality, timely feedback and coaching became the norm. Moreover, coaching was more focused on what people were doing right, as well as guidance on what they could do to improve now. With clarity of communication and clarity of each person’s role, accountability evolved.
As Winston Churchill once said, “The price of greatness is responsibility” and in the case of corporate success that responsibility starts with the CEO. The CEO cannot settle for half-measures when economic disruption abounds. They must lead by example by living, breathing and communicating transformation.