While nothing fully prepares you for becoming a business leader for the first time, you can stack the odds in your favour. Career transition expert Michael Watkins believes you need to make seven ‘seismic shifts’ in mindset and focus to make your upwards trajectory easier.
The first three of these shifts involve making the move from Specialist to Generalist, Analyst to Integrator and Tactician to Strategist. The fourth is what he describes as the evolution from ‘Bricklayer to Architect’.
BRICKLAYER VS ARCHITECT
Within Watkins’ metaphor, the Bricklayer is the expert technician. Brick by brick, with the specialist knowledge that this requires, they play a specific part in delivering on the Architect’s plan and vision. But their sense of the whole structure is limited to the part that they understand, are trained in and can see in front of them.
The Architect sees the whole structure and understands how all the different elements work together — the bricks are just one aspect. Translate this to a business scenario and the Architect is the one who understands how the organisation functions as a whole and how all its interconnected parts fit together effectively and efficiently.
Organisations are systems, explains Watkins. They have different elements to them, including structure, strategy, processes, and skill bases. ‘If you change one piece of it you have to change multiple pieces of it because they really are linked together in fairly intricate and important ways.’ This means that a fundamental skill of the Architect is to understand organisational design (OD) and the principles of change management. These terms mean different things to different people — as OD expert Barbara Watkinson says, it’s an area of business that’s still ‘in its infancy’. However, she describes it as the ‘people strategy’ of a business.
‘Rather than allowing the organisation to drift from one year to another, I help them choose their future and determine how their people act, behave and think about the company,’ she says.
And this highlights a further step that you must make as an Architect. Rather than simply responding to the changes in wind direction, you’re now the one who must identify and plan change across the business, when and where it’s needed. You’re a changemaker and responsible for creating the organisational context for your business to thrive.
The challenge is that formal training in these skills can be hard to come by.
‘Unlike project management for example, OD and the notion of architects that change manage culture to be ready for the next challenge are not well-formed disciplines,’ Watkinson says.
But according to the author and speaker Lin Coughlin, it’s a role that women might just be made for. We are, she says, ‘Change Masters’, natural relationship builders and results-focused collaborators.
‘Women are oriented to playing the role of change maker, comfortably and nimbly shifting contexts while reconciling paradoxes at the individual, organisational, community and societal levels. And they embrace change not as a matter of course, but in the interest of producing model-shattering, breakthrough results.’
So, are you ready to embrace the architectural potential of your new role? The three points below will help you find your feet.
1. WHAT NOT TO DO
In a bid to make their mark on the business and secure a ‘quick win’, new leaders are often guilty of what Watkins calls ‘organisational design malpractice’. They target areas that seem relatively easy to change, like structure or strategy, without really understanding how the business works or the profound impact of their actions.
A period of taking stock and information gathering is essential. Focus on understanding how the organisation works, getting to grips with the business model and soaking in the culture. According to Harvard Business Review, these are three areas that executives are most likely to fall down on in the first 100 days of their new role.
This gives credence to the idea of giving yourself about three months to focus solely on the essential day-to-day business before you take any big steps towards change. Although, according to McKinsey, most new leaders — 92% of external hires and 72% percent of internal hires — take far more than 90 days to get up to full speed.
With that in mind, this advice from top CEOs gathered by the Boston Consulting Group is even more valuable: ‘Take notes, then prioritise and act. Understand that as the head person, you have only three topics: people, strategy, and values. Everything else is secondary. Find people you trust and use them for problem solving.’
2. EVALUATE THE NEED FOR CHANGE
Rather than requiring a major structural or strategic overhaul, your organisation may simply need to cement its position in the market. Organisational change is only needed if the current set-up isn’t delivering.
Evaluating the need for change involves taking both internal and external factors into consideration, which could represent either opportunities for growth or change being forced upon you.
Internal factors might include the introduction of new technology within the company, a merger or acquisition, a new CEO or the failure of existing processes. External factors could include evolving customer needs, new market trends, competitors’ activity, laws and regulations, and economic conditions.
The speed of implementation is another key consideration. For example, is this a crisis situation that calls for immediate action or a non-urgent requirement that perhaps represents more of an ideal than an absolute necessity?
And there are tools that can help you take that essential bird’s eye view of your organisation. Strategist, changemaker and CEO of Spark, Kyle Brost recommends using STEEPLE alongside the familiar Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis. STEEPLE stands for Socio-cultural, Technological, Economic, Environmental, Political, Legal and Ethical and, as Brost explains, ‘It gets people thinking not only about how STEEPLE factors will play into organisational success but also what impact the organisation is having or will have in those areas.’
He believes that these social and global factors are critical in creating sustainable organisational strategies, but also that you can gain a significant advantage by consistently enabling three specific types of change within your organisation: behavioural, process and technological.
‘You don’t have to change, but you have to compete with those who do,’ he says. ‘I believe, and the market continues to prove, that organisations that are good at change succeed.’
3. LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP
In other words, if you make the change, how will it impact on the rest of the business? This is where it’s essential to understand how all the different elements of the organisation work together — and there are various models that can help you. The McKinsey 7-S Framework is one example.
This dynamic model places shared values at the centre of a circle that includes the interconnected systems of structure, strategy, systems, style (the way things are done), staff and skills. It’s designed to help you ask the important questions before you launch a change initiative, as well as planning the optimal organisational design and identifying the areas that aren’t effectively aligned.
For example, if new technology is introduced into your company, how will it impact the Structure in terms of how activities are managed, the Strategy and how objectives will now be achieved, and the Systems that are already in place? These are the Hard S’s of the framework.
And do the Staff have the Skills required to use the new tech and does it suit their Style of working? It’s also essential that it’s in alignment with the company’s Shared Values. These are the Soft S’s, which are constantly evolving and harder to define. Change in these areas also often takes longer.
The Shared Values reflect the culture of the organisation. As an Architect, you need to understand the principles that determine your organisation’s behaviour. And it’s worth remembering that even if your company’s culture hasn’t been recognised and documented, it will have one.
Writing for Fast Company, Christine Fruechte, CEO of creative agency Colle McVoy, notes that in 2020, one in five Americans left a job due to poor company culture. This turnover cost an estimated $223 billion. And according to another study by recruiters Glassdoor, 77% of people would consider a company’s culture before applying for a job, while over half see it as more important than salary when it comes to job satisfaction.
‘Culture is a differentiator,’ says Fruechte, and when it feeds into every aspect of your business, you ignore it at your peril. Equally, if organisational development is your people strategy for the future, ensuring you attract and keep the best people for your business is a foundation of its success.