Transformational leadership: 8 ways to keep teams moving

Is your team pursuing big change but  getting bogged down in daily demands? Here's how to make more progress
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You and your employees are excited and motivated to transform your organization, and you get off to a great start. But as the days and weeks go by, you find yourselves drifting back to old habits and old ways of doing things.

Sound familiar? To avoid getting bogged down in day-to-day deadlines and work demands, you need to live your transformation every working day, according to Lars Sudmann, leadership consultant to Fortune 500 companies and former CFO of Procter & Gamble in Belgium. Here, Sudmann shares advice for leaders on how to keep transformation alive and make change a reality.

1. Look for the story your organization tells itself

“Before starting a true transformation, it is often useful to identify the story that teams are telling themselves,” Sudmann says. Assumptions and implicit rules will likely hold you back. “For example, we need to have XYZ to have a secure infrastructure. This can be right, but it can also stem from old habits, practices, and strategies that have no use anymore in a changed world.”

Work with the entire organization to identify the stories all employees tell themselves. That will help your team think through what it truly needs, and what is being done only because it has always been done that way.

[ For more insight on overcoming legacy processes, read When process thwarts agile development, turn the ship. ]

2. Tell a new story

If storytelling can block transformation, it can also enable it. “Be sure that the ‘why’ for transformation is 100 percent clear,” Sudmann advises. “Make sure your whole leadership team can share the reason in two minutes or less.”

This is a lot harder than it sounds, according to Sudmann, and it will likely require a lot of practice and review for the senior leadership team. But it’s worth the effort.

“One of the most common mistakes I see is the ‘curse of knowledge,’” Sudmann says. “Leaders have been in workshops for days and weeks discussing the need for transformational change. The organization has not, and it does not know all the background.”

3. Match your incentives to your goals

Whatever you may tell your employees about priorities and new directions, they will tailor their behavior according to the incentives and disincentives leadership creates. “One of the key things to look out for is what we encourage and what we just let happen,” Sudmann notes.

“Who do we fire, who do we promote? These decisions can set the right tone for any transformation. If we promote the people who genuinely live the new desired status quo, all members of the organization will quickly realize it.”

4. Apply UX expertise to internal process

Sudmann offers this example: "How do you install a new SIM card into your smartphone? It’s easy because the SIM card as an edge on one side. It’s clear that there’s basically only one way to put the card into the holder."

"The key is to make the new process, the new system, or the new tool so simple that using it becomes no hassle. CIOs can benefit greatly from investing in UX experts for their internal processes."

5. Have users write their own manuals

“Many CIOs and IT teams write enormous handbooks and how-to manuals,” Sudmann says. “There is just one issue: Not a lot of people read them.” A better approach is to encourage “best practices” sessions on a departmental level, he says.

“Let people share what they’ve learned from a personal perspective once per week, in a self-organized fashion. After some time, each team will have created their own set of personalized strategies, which are much more likely to stick.”

6. Look for pockets of excellence

“Become a seeker of departments, people, and teams who are on the transformation track, or who are already living what you want to achieve,” Sudmann advises. “Try to highlight these pockets and distill lessons learned from them.”

Once you figure out what factors help these teams succeed, you can expand those approaches to the rest of the organization.

7. Catch people doing something right

"It is the transformational leader’s role to find the new normal and reward it."

“Very often we look for bad behaviors, where things are not going well,” Sudmann notes. Yet psychological research – and even parenting – tell us that it’s much more effective to encourage the behaviors you want than to discourage the ones you don’t.

“We also need to identify what is going well," he says. "It is the transformational leader’s role to find the new normal and reward it.”

8. Focus on what you can measure and observe

“The key thing I recommend for living a true transformation is to focus on observable behaviors,” Sudmann says. “Very often a true transformation is focused also on a culture change. This tends to stay on the fluffy level: 'We will be agile.' "

Instead, identify and track two or three truly observable and measurable behaviors – for instance, the number of decisions taken in a meeting. If you reward the specific behaviors you want, you will likely see them more often, he says.

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and columnist for She is co-author of "The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive," as well as several other books. She lives in Snohomish, Washington.