Lessons in Leadership: The meaning of transformation
A highly respected international board level director with governance, finance, operational risk, and change management expertise, and over 35 years’ experience delivering major transformation initiatives, Ann Mee discusses the meaning of transformation. Ann is a mentor on our multi-academy trust (MAT) CEO mentoring programme. You can express your interest in finding a mentor here.
Can you define what you mean by transformation in a business setting?
Transformation is just another name for change. We live in a world of constant change, and transformation is really about how to deal with this - how are you going to get from A to Z? Transformation is about identifying necessary changes and putting them into practice so that your organisation can move forward.
Why is transformation important to a business?
The purpose of transformation is to ensure an organisation can continue to thrive in an ever-changing environment. I think this is particularly important for MATs, which are relatively new and much of the sector is still growing or emerging. On top of this, how we educate our children will impact future generations. This is why MATs must be able to understand and adapt to changes.
When should a business undertake a transformation?
There is no real timeframe for transformation - it is ongoing. However, there may be instances where the need for transformation is more evident. Whilst at a Wholesale Bank in the emerging markets sector, I was involved in a merger. The bank needed to improve its financial services, with a focus on increasing the speed of payments throughout Africa. Recognising that we lacked the skillset and tools to deal with this change internally, we looked externally, acquired a technology firm, and were able to transform the financial services.
How might transformation apply to a MAT?
Transformation could apply to a MAT in many ways. An obvious one is growth - each time a trust grows it is transforming. When taking on a new school, a trust’s capacity may shrink, expand, or be redistributed. In some contexts, growth may lead to a more structural transformation, such as the centralisation of operations, or the establishment of an executive team.
We can also consider transformation at an individual level. Many MAT CEOs are new to the role, and have come from being Headteachers. These individuals bring plenty of educational expertise, but are likely to face new and unfamiliar challenges in the role of CEO. This is a huge transformation for the individual, and should be dealt with accordingly. In these instances, it’s important that their respective boards support them where possible.
How might a new CEO or trust manage this change?
People need to feel empowered to ask without fear of recrimination. It’s important that there is an open forum so that organisations and individuals can manage the transformation. It’s the responsibility of any organisation to equip its staff with training, to ensure that people are in the right roles, and that they are able fulfil that role. This applies at all levels.
How might those undertaking a transformation ensure they go forward and not backwards?
It is important to be clear about the approach being taken and the overall intended outcome in any transformation. To begin with, you should take your time assessing everything. For example, if the aim is to grow: how are you going to do this, how will this impact turnover, who are your target audiences, what are your targets and why? Once you have established targets, you should undertake a risk assessment and consider how feasible the targets are. In building a risk assessment you should always consider how to mitigate each risk. You should always have an idea of how you may handle any potential issues you have identified.
What is the biggest challenge in undertaking a business transformation?
People – they are often scared of transformation as it may come at the expense of jobs. When I was CEO of Philips Home Services in the US, I was asked to undertake a brokerage of the company. Naturally there were concerns from staff about this transformation. However, I ensured that everything was clearly communicated to everyone in the organisation. It is important to be transparent with people. I ensured that all employees were guaranteed three months’ notice, which is uncommon in the US. Because of the action I took to protect and inform the staff, I remember someone telling me: “We don’t always like what you’re doing, but we like and respect you because you keep us informed”.
Who should be involved in a transformation?
This depends on the scale of the transformation being undertaken. The CEO should set the core strategy and aims, and get buy-in from board and staff. However, in my experience transformation has worked best when the staff are able to feed into it. You’d be amazed by the suggestions I’ve received over the course of my career from just having a suggestion box. Another way to support a transformation is to establish a steering group for the overall strategy, with representation from different departments. This speaks to my previous point, that when undertaking any transformation, it is important to be transparent. People value honesty, and will feel empowered if they are involved in the transformation.
What differentiates a strong transformation from a weak one?
Communication is key to avoiding a weak transformation. You need complete buy-in, and people won’t get on board if communication is poor. Weak transformations often take place when words are spoken but no action is taken. You must “walk the talk”. Ultimately, the success of a transformation will depend on buy-in from those involved.
You must also keep your people’s expertise in mind – it’s important to involve the appropriate people where possible. This extends to acknowledging and identifying skills gaps. It is important that you take action to upskill staff or bring in new talent to fill gaps, as this may be critical to the transformation you are undertaking.
Have you ever been in a situation where you didn’t agree with a proposed transformation?
During my time in the Middle East, the bank I was with was encouraged to use a financial business academy for training. I disagreed with a proposed action to make it the sole source of education. I made my feelings known, as transparency works at all levels. I think that when challenging leadership, you must have clear evidence backing up your disagreements. You should not be afraid to challenge, but should always ensure that you can back up your statements and put your points across in a respectful manner.
What can a CEO who wants to take on a struggling school do if they receive pushback from board members?
I think the above point applies - you have to be confident in speaking up. People need to feel empowered to disagree and ask for evidence showing why a certain decision or action is being taken. Any CEO encountering this issue should be upfront and ask for evidence, as well as providing evidence to support their proposed plan.
Finally, what advice would you give to a peer trying to undertake a transformation?
Be confident! Don’t be afraid to ask questions and don’t worry about making mistakes. Ensure that you make the most of the skills and expertise on your board, and encourage open dialogue where possible.
- John Childress - Innovation and transformation
- Norman Vincent Peale - The power of positive thinking
Ann Mee is a NED at Model T Finance, an Advisor to Brexit Partners, and mentors a MAT CEO. Find out more about CEO mentoring here.