Changing leadership: anarchy or opportunity in digital transformation projects?

Managers come and go, bureaucrats seem to stick around forever – but losing an effective leader can cause anarchy.

This is especially true in long-term transformation programmes where over the course of the journey many individual contributors may ‘roll on and roll off’ along the way, but there is always an emphasis on continuity of leadership at the highest levels so as to ensure successful outcomes while maintaining acceptable risk levels at all times.

By definition, transformation leaders define the mission and vision of the programme and then take a hands-on approach to its successful realisation.

Most leaders are subordinate to a more senior authority (CEO, board, civil service exec, cabinet minister, etc) who are typically more political and subject to greater volatility in their oversight role.

>See also: Leadership in the age of digital transformation

Friction at this level or a change in the direction of the programme can force even the strongest leaders to re-evaluate their role and its longevity.

This is when leadership changes can be precipitated either voluntarily or via a very public sacking, and typifies the high-wire act that all transformational leaders undertake each day.

The recent events at the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS) programme are classic in terms of this scenario and may play out similarly in the US and Australia’s nascent digital transformation endeavours as well.

Transformation leadership is like war. You must consider yourself already dead in order to fight on to the finish without consideration of your own survival. A harsh analogy, but a true one from my observations.

However, anarchy and disruption do not need to be the norm. Changes in leadership can be very cathartic events allowing for a detailed and transparent examination of the mission, vision and progress to date, such that lessons can be learned and strategic realignment activities can be undertaken in near real time, while the new leaders are brought in and acclimatised to both the culture and the plan for the programme.

Speed bumps

This may disrupt some of the momentum that had been built up prior to the leadership change, but that is a small price to pay compared with the potential catastrophe that can result from everyone taking the attitude that ‘it is business as usual until I am told otherwise’.

It will not be business as usual until the plan, its leaders and all contributors are re-synced and moving forward on a common plan once again. Additionally, there must be time allotted to mourn the leaders who have left, to celebrate all accomplishments to date and to build a bond of trust amongst those who will continue the journey to a successful conclusion.

Much is said in the startup and consulting communities about the notion of effective leadership. Many these days believe that it can be ‘learned’ as part of an MBA curriculum or in venture capital-sponsored workshops. I find both of these efforts laughable given the scarcity of true leaders around us. The mantle of leadership is earned, not learned, in my experience.

>See also: The CEOs of Thomson Reuters and Target show how to be true data leaders

Needless to say, vetting and selecting a new transformation leader is a critical task once there has been a change in the current leadership. This person cannot be a clone of the previous leader, nor should they be expected to simply ‘carry on’ in respect to the current plan.

They must be allowed to examine all programme-related factors and create an updated plan that reflects their leadership approach and the new business as usual going forward.

This process will allow for updates in mission, vision, scope and budgetary realities so that a successful outcome can be achieved and everyone who contributes has had a say in the matter.

No matter the strength or background of the new leader, there must be a process of reflection and collaboration so that an initial level of trust can be built and then nurtured by a healthy group dynamic going forward. If not, the organisation will be looking for a new transformation leader or oversight executive in short order.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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