Participants at Changeboard's second Future Talent Leaders' Club discussed how to lead and manage change effectively.
With change the only constant in the modern world of work, Changeboard’s future talent agenda aims to explore the impact of major disruptors – from globalisation to the growth of the gig economy and the impact of artificial intelligence and machine learning.
“We’re interested in making these subjects accessible, not by being futurologists, but by touching on themes that are affecting our everyday work,” said Changeboard CEO Jim Carrick-Birtwell, introducing the theme of the second Future Talent Leaders' Club event: “mobilising all your people for continuous change”.
Taking place at The Hospital Club in London’s Covent Garden, the session was attended by more than 60 senior members of the HR community and designed to be interactive, encouraging discussion and peer-to-peer learning.
It was chaired by business management consultant Atif Sheikh, CEO of buisnessthreezero – ‘in conversation’ with panellists Ashok Vaswani, CEO of Barclays UK and City & Guilds CEO Chris Jones.
Sheihk referenced his own work on “getting businesses set up for continuous change”.
“A change is hard enough,” he admitted. “But continuous change is something else. And none of us has all the answers. Which brings me to my first question. Let’s start, in the spirit of humility, with our biggest cock-ups in terms of getting change going and trying to mobilise your people around it.”
Jones confessed to his own “George Bush moment” at a previous organisation, “declaring victory too early” during a significant integration of an acquisition, which involved complex cultural and technological change.
“That plan looked as if it had landed perfectly, at which point the market changed, our largest competitor innovated on their business model and within seven months we were faced with almost having to re-engineer a business that was three times larger than the one we had started with,” he admitted.
“We’d become very inward focused and had forgotten what was happening in the market.”
“How long do you have,” joked Vaswani, deliberating on his own biggest mistake around change. “Five or six years ago, we realised that tech was going to change our entire business model; naively, I thought that if we could get the tech aspects of it done, the rest would fall into place. We built a mobile banking app and thought it was the best thing since sliced bread. But it just didn’t take off.
“What struck us was how we had missed the ‘complete people element’ of it. I’ve come to believe that in a digital business, getting the people dimension and the timing right is absolutely critical.”
Reflecting on these anecdotes, Sheikh commented: “I think that thing about declaring victory too early is fascinating. Because you could argue that in the modern world, you basically can’t. We’re in an endless forward motion.
“Also it’s true that fundamentally, the more you think about tech, the more you should be thinking about people.”
His own ‘cock up’ boiled down to “committing that basic leader mistake” of articulating his own clear vision at a time of deep uncertainty within a small team and having it rejected virulently.
“It wasn't really a rejection of the thinking but of being told the answer,” he explained. “People wanted to think about the question and to be engaged in the answer. It was a lesson in a small team, but often in big businesses, you don’t get a rebellion, you get indifference.”
The important of purpose in uncertain times
So how do you create clarity in times of continuous change, Sheikh postured?
For Vaswani, clarity is created through an organisation’s mission and purpose – which must be made authentic for all employees, including flexible and freelance workers.
“If you treat societal purpose as true north, a lot of other things will fall into place,” he stressed. “This is not about CSR, purpose has to be integrated into your business model.
“For example, Apple’s purpose was about making the use of technology intuitive. It has changed the way we live over the past 10 years. And look at Apple’s valuation. Defining the purpose of the company set the tone.”
Jones agreed, outlining City and Guild’s purpose as a not-for-profit organisation: “Everything we do helps somebody into a job, helps them on the job or helps them on to their next job,” he explained. “And wrapped around that is the context of impact; for every pound we invest, what is the absolute return we generate for society as a whole?
“I don’t know exactly what my business will look like in three years, but I do know that we’re still going to be delivering on our purpose and the purpose doesn’t change.”
Exploring cynicism around ‘purpose’ as ‘the latest management fad’, Sheikh called on the audience to offer up their views.
“There’s a lot of push back on purpose because we’re now in the world of purpose washing,” argued one attendee, referring to the gap between what many companies say they are doing and what they are actually doing. “How do you make sure that those great purposes you’ve described live every day in your organisation?”
“Ultimately, it’s a matter of sincere belief and making sure that comes to life every single day; getting the narrative right and working out how purpose translates through the whole business strategy,” replied Vaswani. “Everything needs to stand aligned. What is society? It’s customers plus prospects. So if you’re solving a societal problem, it’s actually a business model.”
“The test is, how authentic is the leadership around the purpose,” added Jones. “At what point does the purpose override that ultimate goal that might be driven by shareholder return?”
“How do you reward your executives for delivering on your purpose, not your financial results?” a delegate quizzed Vaswani.
“I never said that having a purpose shouldn’t lead to good financial results,” he replied.” In fact, if you fully deliver on your purpose, you should get outstanding financial results, because you’re really serving a need for your customers. If you truly deliver purpose, you will deliver profits.”
Sheikh summed up: “What we’re really talking about is integrity, in the architectural sense of the word. The key, I think, is that purpose has to create an innovation imperative.”
Capabilities for continuous change
When it comes to where leaders should focus their efforts in mobilising their people for continuous change, Vaswani emphasised the importance of moving mindsets by linking personal and professional priorities.
For example, [with tech change] “we need to get it down to ‘what does this mean for every single person in the organisation?’’’ he said. “Why is it relevant for you as a person? Do you know what your son or daughter is doing on social media? Isn’t it in your interests to learn about this?”
Sheikh added that senior leaders must model acceptance of change, while Jones stressed the importance of “encouraging people to re-engage with learning”.
“That is not an easy thing to do,” he admitted. “But it’s one of the biggest single challenges for the HR and L&D community. How do we create learning environments and encourage people to learn and learn again repeatedly? How do we redefine learning? That’s critical. It’s the future agenda.”
Sheikh put these questions to the audience.
“It’s important to reimagine learning, personalising it, connecting it to purpose and articulating what that means,” said an attendee from financial services. “It’s about inviting people to go on a journey with the company. It takes a lot of effort so you need HR and learning people who are prepared to reimagine their own roles.”
Another harked back to the earlier discussion of business ‘cock ups’ (“I think we need to rethink failure as learning; as the fuel to drive innovation and change”), while a fellow delegate stressed the value of creating “an environment where people feel comfortable learning something new” and can do this at their own pace.
Other priorities discussed included understanding that “a performance culture drives a learning culture” and using data to ensure learning is being used to achieve a business-relevant outcome.
Drawing the debate to a close, Sheikh asked participants to articulate the key responsibility of leaders in mobilising people for continuous change.
“Getting the right team,” responded Vaswani, while Jones was quick to highlight “sustainability”.
“Leaders just need to listen more,” suggested an audience member, while another highlighted the value of “synthesising information into something that’s meaningful.”
While there was no definitive answer, there was clear consensus that HR must be prepared to model agility and adaptability.
“Be the change you want to see,” concluded a delegate.
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