Want to Transform Your Organization? Look in the Mirror.



July 28, 2017

In a 2017 North Highland survey of 200 business leaders, 69% indicated they are likely to tackle a large transformation initiative in the next 1-3 years, and large percentages of those transformations can be expected to fail.1 With increasing competition, globalization, digitization, and marketplace disruptions, corporations need to evolve to survive. But according to a 2016 study by Harvard Business Review, more than 70% of transformation failures are the result of leadership.2

What’s holding leaders back? Allowing past experiences to influence decisions about the future, lack of self-awareness, and a general fear of failure all get in the way, no matter how good leaders’ intentions are. So how can executives prepare themselves for a successful business transformation and meet the demands resulting from turbulent complex change?

  1. Put Culture First

Southwest and Zappos are ready examples of companies with unique and powerful cultures. These companies make their culture a priority and put their employees first (ahead of customers, even!). In 2013, Southwest rolled out a new vision and strategy designed to rally its employees around a common purpose: to become the world’s most loved, most flown, and most profitable airline. They successfully did so by creating a fun culture that is inclusive and encompasses values that encourage employees to go the extra mile for customers.3 Similarly, when Zappos was founded, its CEO understood that turning a company around starts with a strong culture – which has led to it being one of the most profitable and beloved organizations in the world today.4

  1. Have a Higher Purpose

Upholding a vision or goal that is larger than the organization itself is a key characteristic of an inspiring transformative leader. For example, when Waste Management realized they were moving 110 million tons of waste annually, its CEO changed its business model from dropping waste into landfills to a focus on helping the planet. The company’s new vision, “Extracting Value from Waste,” embodied a higher purpose of zero landfills – daunting, but compelling to employees’ hearts and minds. So much so, that they became the front line in driving behavior, mindset and cultural change.5

  1. Grow Social and Emotional Intelligence

Great leaders inspire not just because they are visionary. They also work through emotions, build self-awareness and can self-regulate, motivate, be empathetic, and have social skills.6 Jeff Bezos of Amazon is often admired as a leader with extremely high emotional intelligence who is known for his self-deprecating humor, a conversational style that makes others feel comfortable, and an obsession with winning over customers’ hearts and minds. When Amazon found itself in hot water as a result of a scathing 2015 New York Times critique on Amazon’s working environment for example, Bezos addressed the issue head on. His ability to work through emotions and be empathetic allowed him to quickly turn the criticism around and announce changes to directly address the concerns raised.7 In an environment that is becoming increasingly global, socially intelligent leaders also appreciate cultural diversity and energize employees who come from various backgrounds and cultures. All of these qualities distinguish truly effective leaders, and have direct ties with measurable business results.

  1. Move to a Growth Mindset

As humans, we tend to view obstacles as bad. Powerful transformative leaders use obstacles to build their personal and organizational tenacity and courage. Take Ralph de la Vega, author of Obstacles Welcome: How to Turn Adversity to Advantage in Business and Life. Mr. de la Vega was separated from his parents at 4 years old and lived in a country where he understood neither the language nor the culture. Despite this adversity, he launched the ROKR with Steve Jobs, the first ever music phone – which turned out to be a big market failure. However, with a growth mindset and belief that obstacles make him stronger, he stayed the course, eventually becoming part of the iPhone development effort. After the iPhone success, de la Vega ultimately moved on to become Vice Chairman of AT&T Inc. and CEO of AT&T Business Solutions and AT&T International.8

  1. Increase Agility

Leadership agility, defined as “the ability to lead effectively under conditions of rapid change and mounting complexity,” is viewed as a critical leadership trait by a number of Fortune 500 senior executives and human resource professionals. Agile leaders bring a greater capacity for taking multiple perspectives and for shifting easily and often between reflection and action. Paul O’Neill, who served as CEO of Alcoa before becoming US Secretary of the Treasury, delivered enormous shareholder value through, of all things, his vision of better safety at Alcoa. His commitment to zero accidents, along with a willingness to dive into the details and empower his managers and unions to continue to push the limits of safety improvements, exemplifies agile leadership.   O’Neill’s “meta-competency” of combining reflection with action not only affected how he led, but also fostered the wider culture of organizational agility critical to business survival.9

Effective leadership is central to successful business transformation and begins with personal development. When coaching leaders to embody these attributes, the transformation experience should not be created for them but rather, co-created with them. Leaders are, after all, also human and need time to embrace changes themselves.


For more information about North Highland’s Transformation services, click here.


[1] http://info.northhighland.com/transformation

[2] https://hbr.org/2016/10/organizations-cant-change-if-leaders-cant-change-with-them

[3] http://www.businessinsider.com/southwest-airlines-puts-employees-first-2015-7

[4] http://troyanosgroup.com/how-to-become-a-transformative-ceo/

[5] https://www.forbes.com/2010/05/03/david-steiner-waste-management-leadership-managing-reiss.html

[6] http://www.danielgoleman.info/

[7] https://www.inc.com/john-white/how-jeff-bezos-and-ursula-burns-build-success-with.html

[8] http://troyanosgroup.com/how-to-become-a-transformative-ceo/

[9] http://www.changewise.biz/?page_id=719


This post was co-authored by Andrea Barrett and Manoly Gustavson:

Andrea Barrett

Andrea BarrettAndrea Barrett is a Master Practitioner and Coach with more than 20 years of experience in coaching and change management. As a leader in North Highland’s People-Centered Change practice and a leadership coach trained in the neuroscience-based Results Coaching System, she also champions North Highland’s Leadership Development team, working with clients to help develop and implement new strategies to uncover and capture maximum value from themselves and their teams.

Manoly Gustavson

Manoly GustavsonManoly Gustavson is an Expert Practitioner with over 10 years in organizational transformation and change management. As one of North Highland’s People & Change leaders, she finds passion in helping her clients successfully transform their businesses by designing and orchestrating programs focused on one of the most critical assets for any organization: its people. Ms. Gustavson is certified in the Foundations of NeuroLeadership so she can apply the latest in brain research to driving change.