Transformation Starts at the Top


Can you imagine what your business needs to become, but just haven’t been able make it happen? Well, you’re not alone – not by a long shot!

Because transforming businesses is like that for most people. Transitioning a business that was great at one time, into what it needs to become to stay great, is hard. Even when the imperative for doing it is blindingly apparent.

Seeing the future configuration isn’t the hard part. Most of us already know what the next generation of ours needs to look like. Rather, it’s in untangling everything we’ve put in place that now locks it and our people into their existing modes, activities, thinking and positioning with our customers. Unwinding all that’s not for the fearful, the satisfied nor the faint of heart. And it isn’t easy work.

For 50 years businesses around the world have turned to the concept of strategy as the silver bullet for making these kinds of breakaways. With surprisingly consistent results. Seldom has it worked!

Rigorous bottom-up, organization-wide, data-intensive exercises to identify “strategic” initiatives and then assign individuals to their execution have arisen to ritual status in lots of companies. Even though I find few CEOs who attribute any significant success to those activities.

And it doesn’t take more than a brief moment and step to the sidelines to see why. To see the misconceptions underlying in the “default” strategy game plan for transforming enterprises.

I see three causes:

  • First, the content of most strategic plans center on maintaining and improving what’s already going on … rather than transforming it into something new.
  • Second, the accelerant for organization power is synchronization. Strategy that moves separate parts ahead independently disrupts that balance.
  • And finally, the inertia of the organizational systems and processes we’ve built into our businesses to reduce variance is huge.
  • So then, where does the force that sets an organization off its existing track and onto a fresh path come from? Only one place. It can only come from the top.

A quick rundown of just the most obvious transformational stories of recent years makes the point:

  • Ford Motor Co. – Alan Mulally – after the collapse of the American auto industry
  • Apple – Steve Jobs – upon his return in 1996 having departed after a power struggle in 1985
  • Southwest Airlines – Herb Kelleher – after start-up as an against-the-odds, single-route Texas carrier
  • Whole Foods – John Mackey – from a single, 19-employee Texas market in 1980 into today’s largest retailer of natural foods in the U.S. and United Kingdom
  • Zappos – Nick Swinmurn – from a one-man website in 1999 into a 10 business online conglomerate
  • IBM – Louis Gerstner – from a mainframe computer with proprietary software to generic PCs
  • Amazon – Jeff Bezos – from a 1995 online bookseller start-up into the dominant retail force of our day.

Effective transformation arises in the workings of one mind. One mind that thinks differently from the others. Clearly catalyzed by events and opinions surrounding it, but synthesized in the thinking of a single individual. One with the ability to see patterns others do not. And with the credibility and personal magnetism to inspire an organization to set sail from familiar shores for a destination that most people, including the one at the top, don’t yet fully understand.

Nor does the prescription only apply to big companies. The ones we’ve all read about. In fact it’s much more prevalent among smaller and younger ones where the friction of adhesion to what exists is less to overcome, and where you really don’t need to be a Steve Jobs or John Mackey to get it moving.

It only takes …

  • independent and clear thinking about what could be
  • the ability to infect others with the dream, and
  • zeal to start pushing away from the comfort of old ways … at the Top.

I believe that most of us have that. And demonstrating it is simply a matter of will … ours.