The secrets to successful organisational change

Written by
Mary Appleton

16 Jul 2018

16 Jul 2018 • by Mary Appleton

To become ‘superaccelerators’, organisations must mobilise, execute and transform with agility, advises Heidrick Consulting’s Alice Breeden.

Alice Breeden knows a thing or two about organisational change. Following a 12-year stint at  McKinsey, she joined Google to head its people operations division.

“At Google, there was an expectation that change was constant,” she recalls. “We went from desktop to mobile to artificial intelligence – and I was only there three years. Agility is the big thing.”

Since 2017, Breeden has been a partner at Heidrick Consulting, leading its team acceleration service line offering. She confesses that it was not until she became a practitioner that she recognised the extent of an HR leader’s challenges.

“At Google, I realised how different it is in the hot seat. You have to implement performance and talent management, compensation and so on, while trying to be a strategic partner to the business.”

However, this insight helped her at Heidrick Consulting where clients are grappling with how to create organisations fit for the future. “A lot of organisations are complex and bureaucratic, so it’s hard to get things done,” Breeden observes. “Often, leaders put in more stuff than they take out – complicated processes and teams. It takes courage to remove things and do things differently.”

Organisations are concerned with digital innovation, but unsure what this means from a skills perspective. “We hear a lot about futureproofing leaders,” she says. “Do we have the right leaders for tomorrow? What will I need in the next 5-10 years, and how do I build that?”

Research for Accelerating Performance, a book co-authored by Breeden’s colleagues Colin Price and Sharon Toye, found that the best firms have a fast yet low-risk way of responding to change.

“We talk about leaders who can mobilise, execute and transform with agility,” explains Breeden. “Increasingly, we see people can do the first two, but find agility tricky.”

Price and Toye’s study of these factors, based on decades of work, included a survey of 20,000 global leaders, investigation into the performance of 3,000 teams and deep research into the Fortune 500, including interviews with senior executives at 23 ‘superaccelerators’.

Competitive advantage

Organisations are keen to change, but don’t know how to, says Breeden. “It’s a challenge in creating human systems that can change – meanwhile you have to deliver numbers and set pieces – sometimes it’s hard to look up. It’s working out the how that proves challenging.”

Price and Toye’s research involved examining the top and bottom players from 22 industries, to identify how the best-performing companies create competitive advantage.

They found that, in each industry, the top companies were doing the same things as those at the bottom – just more quickly. They simply had a swifter pace of execution, reducing time to value. The characteristics of the ‘superaccelerator’ companies were their ability to mobilise, execute and transform with agility (META).

When leading change, you cannot consider an organisation as one entity, advises Breeden. “To shift a big group, you require systems thinking, doing lots of little things and getting feedback. You need to get into the action, get feedback, build a coalition and build energy.”

While some changes, such as in performance management, lend themselves to traditional approaches, starting small is key when trying to shift culture or mindset. “Experiment, gain feedback, and build your story from there,” she advises. For her, successful change requires three main elements: top leader commitment; a clear purpose and story, and a focus on key leaders in pivotal roles.

Transforming Aviva

At the Changeboard Future Talent Conference, Colin Price interviewed Sarah Morris, chief people officer at Aviva. The insurance giant exemplifies an organisation that has harnessed the power of META through its ambitious and holistic transformation programme, spearheaded by CEO Mark Wilson.

“Aviva began with a strong story, which is important when you’re trying to turn a large ship,” Breeden explains. “A lot of work has been done around helping its leaders develop a shared language; to identify what’s going on, what’s complicated, where they need to focus, and where to simplify.”

She believes that being able to manage paradoxes is a key leadership skill – which translates to managing the ‘and’; for Aviva, that’s managing cost-cutting and growth.

“It could be the status quo plus the new; internal and external; traditional and chaotic – think about how you can do both,” clarifies Breeden.

“Change has always been fast; don’t panic – stay true to core beliefs about what you know, learn what’s happening and adjust accordingly,” she says.