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The four leadership styles required to succeed as a transformation leader

There’s no doubt that business transformations are stressful experiences for employees. Unfortunately, many transformation leaders are ill-equipped and under-prepared to manage the end-to-end transformation experience for their own teams. Head of transformation at Colenso BDDO, Edwin Rozells, says leaders must evolve into multi-dimensional leaders and present different styles at different points of the employee transformation experience. Here, he shares a multi-dimensional leadership model that provides a practical guide to you and your company on how to complement existing transformation plans with a contextual leadership approach, designed to increase the odds of success.

Successful customer-obsessed transformations are practically unicorns.

Transformation leaders are often challenged to re-invent the customer experience and to re-design the organisation to deliver it. Unfortunately, only one out of eight will succeed. Even perfect-on-paper transformations can fail for three reasons:

1. Failure to acknowledge the stressful nature of transformation for employees.

Transformations are simultaneously positive and negative. For example, an employee might be motivated by new responsibilities or by the nature of the work, while at the same time feel challenged by administrative processes and being asked to do more for the same salary. Social psychology research in approach-avoidance conflict tells us that positive aspects are more salient at the start of a transformation and negative aspects become more prominent as transformations progress. If this rising negative stress is left unaddressed by CX leaders, employees become more indecisive and the transformation derails.

2. Not recognising transformation as an important employee experience.


Only 16 percent of transformation leaders are mapping the employee experience as they would for customer experiences. With all its complexity, it is surprising that so few leaders consider transformation to include managing the employee experience, with many failing to put it on par with other employee experiences such as the hiring process, onboarding and benefits. Having a consistent transformation story and being clear about the implications of transformation to employees’ day-to-day work is important. Transformations are four times more likely to succeed if CX leaders manage the employee transformation experience.

3. Most leaders have a style and stick to it through the transformation.


While they clearly do not have all the details, leaders intuitively know that they play a big role in managing the transformation experience for employees. For example, one leadership model has identified five behaviours that leaders of successful transformations display, such as ‘walking the talk’, recognising customer obsession when it happens and making resources available for customer obsession. However, models like these suggest a one-size-fits-all approach regardless of how strong the positive and negative aspects of transformation are in the minds of employees. Research on leadership styles show that only a small proportion of leaders adjust their styles to suit the situation. Fifty-four percent of leaders tend to use only one style; 10 percent tend to use three styles and only one percent use four styles.

We believe that to be successful in your transformation, every leader will have to switch between these four styles, depending on where the company is in the transformation journey. They cannot be skipped, and all employees move through the same four stages in sequence, regardless of the delivery method or the context of transformation.

The four leadership styles are:

  1. Telling style

At the start of the transformation, employees are heavily reliant on the leader for direction. While employees are excited by the possibilities of career advancement and more responsibility, they are less productive – engaging in ‘pseudo-work’ and sharing personal stories not directly relevant to transformation goals to build relationships. At this stage, transformation leaders must clearly define the roles and responsibilities of the individual and provide strict direction without spending too much time discussing and debating.

  1. Selling style

With the direction set, leaders need to be able to switch to a selling style. At this stage of the transformation, negative aspects such as the impact of transformation on employees’ personal life and working conditions start to become more salient. Employees more frequently disagree among themselves about group goals and ways of working. The transformation leader must request input from employees before deciding on his or her own how conflict should be resolved. At the same time, the leader must clearly recognize the efforts of valued team members to build self-esteem.

  1. Participating style

The third stage of transformation is characterised by trust. At this stage, employees are committed to the group and co-operate willingly. They start to appreciate the quality of leadership and become secure in their jobs. The transformation leader must now become less directional and allow employees to take the lead in generating ideas and making decisions. Now, the transformation leader’s role becomes one of a coach and cheerleader – emphasizing the positive aspects of personal growth and career advancement so they outweigh the negative aspects.

  1. Active delegating style

At the final transformation stage, employees are at their most effective. The team is focused on hitting the goals of the transformation, and are productive and confident. They are appropriately compensated and are fulfilled personally and professionally. Rather than stepping away and letting the team run itself, transformation leaders need to be actively involved in the re-alignment of the strategic vision while they focus on re-orienting the transformation roadmap and on innovation.

How do I switch leadership styles today and how will I know what my employees need from me?

What are the benefits of multi-dimensional leadership at my company and how will it improve our odds of success?

How do I measure success and what sort of commercial results can I expect from becoming a multi-dimensional leader?

These are some of the questions that our clients are asking when we speak to them about managing the employee experience through multi-dimensional leadership. How well prepared are you for leading in transformation?

Edwin Rozells is head of transformation at Colenso BDDO.

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