I’ve written a few times lately about the obstacle that traditional management philosophies represent to transformation. It seems to be a hot topic right now and rightly so.

Movements, tribes or brands, call them what you like, they are all essential to change.

Last week I highlighted Greg Satell’s new book “Cascades” that highlights the essential role of communities in any kind of transformation (Geoff calls them Movements). Brands, of course, are communities and, in effect, what Greg is pointing to is how successful business transformation depends on the organisation concerned having a strong brand.

This week I’ve come across another complementary perspective. This time it’s that of the ex-professional sportsman, journalist, broadcaster and author Matthew Syed. In his book, Rebel Ideas – The power of cognitive diversity, Matthew explores the way that traditional management will neutralise an organisation’s efforts to change and builds a case for facilitation.

It’s not a new thought, of course. I’ve written extensively about the subject of traditional business leaders and their often good intentions inadvertently accelerating their organisation’s demise. Matthew, Greg and I all agree, change is driven by communities – in Greg’s terms “movements” – and these communities are founded on mutual cooperation rather than the command and control associated with traditional management.

The legacy of traditional management philosophy

There are numerous manifestations of “command and control”, but, one thing is for sure, our education system has historically supported and promoted the “alpha manager” phenomenon, which is never far away when traditional management is in play. However, success in the digital age is largely dependent on innovation. Today, you are only as good as your NEXT big idea and to keep the innovations coming demands a different approach to leadership. 

To succeed in the digital economy leaders need to adopt a more facilitatory approach. One where everyone’s ideas have value and the course of the business could be influenced by any one and every one of the stakeholders or community. Alpha business leaders see this as a challenge to their “authority, which explains why they so often resist transformation. Their instinctive response, even though they may talk the transformation talk, is often to, directly or indirectly, defend the status quo.

Matthew Syed comes at this issue from a different angle, but his premise is fundamentally the same as Geoff’s and mine – change is only possible if you unify people, behind a single objective. My belief is, this is the essence of a brand.

Transformation and your brand community

Brands aren’t logos, products, culture, nor any of the oft-quoted definitions. These things may be the accoutrement of a brand, but the brand itself is a community of people who share values and beliefs. Brands provide the focus that any kind of enterprise needs to succeed and I’ve often written about the influence they have on transformation. The trick traditional managers so often lack is the ability to manage them.

My message to today’s business leaders is stop trying to be infallible. Infalibility has never been attainable. In fact, the complexities of business in the new paradigm are such that you are increasingly unlikely to achieve the omniscience you are striving for. Don’t waste valuable time chasing rainbows.

This doesn’t mean that traditional management skills and experience have no value in the digital economy, so relax, you are not redundant. You just need to apply your assets in a different way.

Why you can’t command transformation

One of the many weaknesses of a command and control culture is that it is self-perpetuating. I have seen first hand businesses with a top-down culture, where employees turn up for work every day, but have stopped participating. The ability to constantly innovate lies at the heart of a digital business, but having often unearthed great ideas among an organisation’s workforce, when I’ve encouraged the people concerned to table their ideas the suggestion has often been rebuffed with “the boss wouldn’t like it”. 

This “not invented here” philosophy is a worrying indicator of an organisation that’s destined to failure. To make matters worse though, such organisations breed a hiring culture that discriminates against innovators, even though, in the digital economy, these are the most valuable employees you can have. Businesses that do this become static. They are by definition unable to innovate because, in their world, the idea has to come from the boardroom.

Meanwhile, the likelihood of boardroom innovation is decreasing too. It certainly isn’t reaching the level required by the digital marketplace. The reasons for this are a fact of generational transmutation. The average age of business directors is sixty-three. They are not digital natives and any attempt by them to think like one is at best contrived. We know the instincts of digital natives contrast in many ways to those of preceding generations so the best people to understand them are their look-alikes among your workforce. Sixty per cent of your workforce are probably digital natives, reflecting the makeup of any market these days. This makes them far better placed to recognise a customer need? Discouraging their contribution is a serious abdication of leadership responsibilities.

Harnessing the real value of seniority

Seniority – in both its positional and age context  – does have advantages though, and business leaders who recognise this can be a real asset to their organisation. Once you get over the ego thing you can become the leader your organisation needs.

The process of brand development often provides the catalyst senior executives need to settle into the facilitatory role required of them. Senior executives have to participate in the brand development process and my Brand Discovery leverages that engagement. The workshop and interview approach sets participants mining for the real constituents of their brand. While the primary purpose of this stage in the brand development process is to identify the coordinates that define the brand – including the essential “brand promise” – the exercise provides those involved with a new perspective on their brand and their organisation, and, more importantly, spotlights the role they need to adopt.

Mindset mentoring

Sometimes it helps to introduce mentoring sessions to the process, just to grease the wheels. I’m a believer that mentoring isn’t a process of giving the subject instructions or solutions, but assisting them as they discover them for themselves. In this context, once they have gone through the workshop phase, you can have a one-to-one around the question “What do my skills and experience equip me to contribute to the delivery of our brand promise?” However, I build this process into my Brand-Led Business Transformation programme by challenging my workshop delegates to identify changes they could make to the way they work, that would enable them to contribute more. I then incorporate a reporting process that ensures they walk the talk.

There are few things more satisfying for an advisor than to witness the epiphany that often takes place at this point. You can actually watch as the business slips into gear and accelerates away with rejuvenated leadership playing their invaluable role.

Phil Darby
September 17, 2019