A new CEO is at the helm of a global company, a very big ship with many years of significant history behind it. Spread across all inhabited continents, with thousands of employees, and with some highly adaptive and skilled teams based in some of the most obscure regions in the world, it is an organization with the potential to make a major impact.
The past few years haven’t been so good. A deep rift has developed between the frontline business divisions and the support services in headquarters, creating relational tension and operational sluggishness. The organization is in fact characterized by silos, and senior executives work in isolation from one another. In some quarters there are pockets of collaboration and entrepreneurial dynamism. In too many teams, however, there is fear and toxicity. These realities pose tremendous challenges to the new CEO: can the culture be transformed? can leaders learn to lead in a substantially different way? can more efficient systems be implemented? can a big ship be turned?
To turn a big ship is in fact possible. It requires tremendous patience and putting the right building blocks in place. When a CEO does so, the changes come slowly at first, then quickly, then comprehensively. We started a twelve-month strategic planning process by gathering the senior executive, some two-dozen regional executives and other key stakeholders in a three-day consultative meeting. The group examined history and performance and then identified strategic priorities, including internal cultural and structural changes required for performance. Crucial to these discussions was an initial full-day to foster an environment of safety and transparency.
Divisions were then tasked with sketching out business models shaped by these strategic priorities. Divisional business models were then reconfigured to reflect a new future of organizational integration and collaboration. Out of this work emerged a robust strategic plan charting a twelve year course of revitalization and anticipating an incremental-to-exponential increase in performance and effectiveness.
In addition to strategic planning, we ran a number of additional capacity-building and culture-shifting initiatives: with regards to operational culture, service centre culture, leadership effectiveness, and board governance.
In less than two years, the organization made monumental shifts that positioned it to execute a truly ambitious strategy:
- in vision, with a revitalized commitment to what the company does best — break into new markets.
- in ethos and culture — from silos, fear and conflict towards collaboration and innovation. Months into the process, strained divisional relationships transformed into proactive cooperation and problem-solving initiative. At one point the CEO remarked to the Soul Systems consultant, “This is incredible. We are having discussions on topics that should be bombs going off. But they’re not, and our discussions are rational and constructive.”
- in operational alignment, with all divisions, including the service centre, becoming focused wholly on the value created for the customer in the new market. As the CEO articulated his new vision in front of regional leaders, he was met time and again with “if this is where we’re headed, I’m all in.”
- in leadership, from a command-and-control style to a consultative and interdependent style of leadership that is more easily distributed across the organization and that supports the entrepreneurial ethos of the organization. An observer from a Fortune 500 company remarked, “I have never seen a group of senior leaders so committed to their own change as well as to the organization’s.”
At the time of writing, this strategy major ten-year global strategy is five years in: and fully on track. The senior team has further iterated and refined what was built in the initial two years. Because the outcomes and the causal assumptions of the strategy are crystal clear, with robust metrics, and because the organization is united around the rationale for the strategy, it has steadily and successfully executed its way through a major change process.