You Can’t Delegate Transformation: The Case for Leaders To Lead
BY Kristin Reagle and Marc Watrous, PhD
April 4, 2022
April 4, 2022

Organizations can’t transform until their leaders do. For better or worse, organizations mirror their leaders’ words, attitudes, and behaviors. So if leaders are resistant to change, ambivalent about it, or simply unable to envision a future that looks different than “business as usual,” their organizations will fall prey to an invisible and insidious threat: the status quo. 

Oftentimes, the inability to take decisive action is far more perilous than any potential misstep might be. An imperfect action can always be course-corrected, but complacency in the face of opportunity comes with long-term risks, costs, and consequences. Truly innovative organizations that outperform others in their industries didn’t get to the top by sticking to the status quo—they left their comfort zone and stepped into the unknown of tomorrow. And that first step was taken by leadership.  

Because change has to start from the top. Period. Leaders have to assess what’s working and what isn’t, change what needs changing, and model the behaviors necessary to evolve the organization into the future. Leaders can’t ask their organizations to change if they are not willing to do so themselves.  

As uncomfortable as it may feel at first, leaders on the brink of transformation should think of their role as the “Chief Inertia Officer”—the force that rallies the organization and keeps efforts moving forward even when it creates discomfort. Successful transformations cannot be delegated; leaders need to own and realize that successful change comes down to aligning teams around a shared purpose. When everyone is aligned, the chances of success are far greater.  

And if you look at the stats, it’s clear that success is the exception, not the rule: Harvard Business Review’s oft-cited enterprise transformation study, for example, found that more than 70% of transformation efforts fail. While there are hundreds of possible reasons why transformation might not stick, it’s important to focus on what you as a leader must do to increase your odds for success: Dedicate time and energy to leading, driving, and modeling change.  

If It Ain’t Broke, It May Still Need Fixing 

We often think of evolution as something that happens naturally; that one fine day, it will become abundantly clear to all members of your organization that the time for change is now. But the truth is that transformation is a choice—a choice to heed the headwinds of change before they make landfall, or to pursue progress even when you’re hitting your targets. Sometimes transformation is necessary despite recent financial or operational performance. In these scenarios, leaders need to make a case for their chosen path to change, especially if members of the organization are content with things the way they are. Nothing impedes organizational inertia like a workforce that hasn’t bought into leadership’s vision for the future.  

Committing to change also requires leaders to fight not only their fear of failure, but of admitting that they might be part of the problem. Unexamined biases and behaviors hinder progress and will prevent the organization’s ability to operate in new ways. Most leaders don’t get the benefit of feedback, nor do they explore the barriers they might be creating within their business.  

To accelerate change, leaders should: 

  1. Look within at their own behaviors that need to change 
  2. Set a clear vision and case for change 
  3. Accept that things won’t always be perfect—mistakes will be made along the way, but experimentation and discovery are natural parts of the process 

In the life sciences industry, “failure” is common; even expected. After all, roughly nine in 10 drugs fail to make it to market, but do we penalize life sciences organizations when their efforts don’t always produce the desired results? We don’t because we accept that progress isn’t possible without risk.  

Even when leaders know transformation is necessary, they might struggle to put the proverbial brush to paper and paint a picture of their desired future state. They need to spend the time—with themselves and their teams—to seek out stimuli that will spur change and decide on a new direction, working independently and collaboratively to set the vision, bring it to life, and evangelize the case for change. Once the canvas is no longer blank, it’s also up to leaders to share and communicate their vision in a way that resonates with everyone across the organization. When employees feel authentically connected to the transformation, there’s a higher chance of widespread adoption.  

Picking the Right Battle: True Transformation Vs. Incremental Change 

Although they might seem synonymous on the surface, change and transformation are not one and the same. Incremental change is about doing things better, while transformation entails doing things fundamentally differently. 

Making the distinction between incremental growth and total transformation, and committing to one or the other, is the first step toward ensuring your efforts land. This will get you much closer to the coveted alignment that solid change and transformation initiatives are built upon. It’s also an indicator of how bold or ambitious you are as a leader. You will ultimately build the ceiling of what’s possible, so it’s critical to aim high and challenge employees to reach for the stars.  

Whichever path you choose, all key stakeholders must commit themselves to the cause, full stop. That means dedicating a significant chunk of time—sometimes upwards of 50% or 75% of your day—to these efforts. While such a large commitment may seem drastic or unsustainable, the company will carry on as long as you have a trusted team in place to steer the ship. To undertake a large-scale transformation, leaders need to have a bold, ambitious vision that’s backed by their team; otherwise, employees will inevitably be sucked back into the status quo. 

Transformation offices serve as useful resources and can keep things humming along, but these offices cannot be responsible for doing all of the legwork. Without the initial vision and support from leadership, transformation officers find themselves pushing forward an agenda that leaders aren’t actively and consistently backing.  

Uprooting from the Past with Purpose 

When transformation outcomes are tied to a larger purpose, it gives employees something to grab onto as they uproot from old ways of working. Every company’s purpose will differ from the next, and each one needs to be specific, special, and touted at all levels of the organization. This purpose also needs to be tethered directly to individual goals; otherwise, employees won’t feel connected to it or be compelled to see it through.  

Tapping into a shared purpose is one way to gain alignment among your workforce. When everyone is aligned, organizations are better equipped to change mindsets and behaviors to change the business, and transformation efforts are far more likely to be effective.  

In the end, all leaders have a choice: to be an anchor to the past or to push toward the future. Step one is to look within and identify the biases and behaviors that are holding you back—leaders need to change themselves before they can ask others to do the same.  

Consider the following questions:  

  1. What internal and external factors lead you to believe your organization needs to transform?  
  2. What goals do you want to achieve with your transformation? 
  3. How do you need to change, or what behaviors do you need to model to enable the organization to follow your lead?

If you want to start down the path of transformation but don’t know how to answer these questions, drop us a line. We can help you turn your company’s blank canvas into a picture of success.