Leading on a digital transformation programme can be hard work. We humans don’t really like change; we like comfort, we are programmed to be safe, to do what we know, to maintain our security, to protect our personal space and to be sure of our tomorrow.
This can make it a challenge when looking at your digital roadmap. Once you have a plan in place, the roadmap, and a clear vision of the outcomes, you need to start on the journey, bringing all of your people with you. Most will likely be change resistant and so, here begins the really hard part.
Over my career, I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of working with some outstanding change leaders. All of them had three activities in common that stood them apart and allowed them to lead with challenging tasks at hand.
Stay strong. Change takes time, it takes courage, it takes a huge amount of energy and it can be hugely frustrating. It will test your resilience and so you need to plan and take steps to protect that resilience. All of the leaders of change that I've met have a structured approach to re-booting their energy and mental capacity. Everyone is different; it could be running, cycling, long walks in the countryside, time with friends or family, walking the dog, riding your horse, or warm sunny long weekends. Whatever it is that allows you to recharge, that is what you must build into your change programme and be disciplined in embracing it.
One CEO of a public sector body always finished “early”, with a strict 5pm on a Friday cut-off, to ensure he/she got all of Friday night and Saturday off before starting work at noon on Sunday. Another ensured that every weekend they had a Munro to climb, organised weeks in advance and regardless of the weather. I once worked with a Finance Director who ran ultra marathons and was never contactable on a Sunday, as he was usually running anywhere between 32 and 48 miles across mountainous terrain in Scotland.
These are extreme examples but whatever gets that recharge; be disciplined in making time for it. Always!
Every leader worth their salt understands the value in having time to think, reflect and dwell on their actions, achievements, successes and failures. Leonardo Da Vinci famously wrote: "Men of lofty genius, when they are doing the least work are most active", in other words, thinking and reflecting is always productive if structured in the right way. The best leaders I've met have been rigorous in their scheduling of reflection time. Some ring-fenced the same time every week, some every month. Personally, I try and work from home at least one day a month so I get space to reflect on the weeks prior, to run over activities, actions and decisions; analyse the good, the bad, and the downright ugly, so I can work on continuing the good, starting new habits to combat the ugly and to outright stop the bad ones.
What I learned from the myriad of conversations I've had, was that great change leaders were very honest with themselves, though in a very realistic but positive way. They analysed their own performance. They defined areas for improvement and then put in place a plan to action them. It was a constant and iterative improvement process. There was never any resting on laurels. Indeed, they were often deeply self-deprecating, assigning the project success to their team, to their being surrounded by talented individuals and basked in reflected glory rather than assuming all of the plaudits themselves. They could always be better, always.
Interestingly, once they had their personal improvement plan in place, they then figured out how to hone their new skills in a safe environment. Which neatly leads onto their third activity...
There is a reason why the cliche “practice makes perfect” is a cliche. Arnold Palmer famously replied to a comment on how lucky he was on the golf course: “It’s funny how the harder I practice the luckier I get!”
As a musician, from the age of six, I knew that practice was the one thing that you must do daily. Even if you know a piece of music by heart, you still need to practice it to keep it tight, rhythmical and on point, nevermind to retain the strength of your musical muscles. To be complacent is to court disaster on stage, and you don’t want to crash and burn in front of an audience.
Choose a safe environment to try stuff out. Make it easy to make mistakes. Innovate in a secure place. Pick low-risk situations to try out new management techniques and ensure that when you fall, there’s a safety net beneath you. Choose your peer groups, practice with your closest team members, even telegraph what you are doing, so they are supportive and offer constructive feedback.
Once you no longer need the safety net, then you can roll the new approaches/ ideas / set ups, out into the wider team or workplace, confident that you are practised and that the new activity is tried and tested.
Any change is hard, but digital transformation forces so many people to leave their comfort zone, to adopt new technology and skill sets, to speak new languages and be exposed to customers like never before. It can be a daunting and uncomfortable place for the majority, so follow these three activities and nurture your resilience, reflect on your successes and your failures and practice, practice, practice, to ensure you are as ready as you can be. Then get your team to do the same.