How one word helped an ambitious new CEO reinvent his strategy, transform his team and set his business on a path to a €1bn target
When an ambitious young CEO was appointed to lead a global financial services firm with €700m revenues, a significant division of a listed corporation, he knew he had to take a radically different approach to his predecessor to achieve his aims.
After a bruising period of transformation, he had inherited a fearful and blame-driven culture and a Leadership Team overwhelmed with conflicting priorities. This combination of personal and strategic uncertainty meant the business lacked the confidence, velocity and agility to seize the emerging opportunities that the new CEO could so clearly see ahead of them.
The CEO wanted to make a clear statement of a change of both tone and direction. He knew he wanted to clarify strategy. But he also needed to completely transform the beliefs and behaviours of his senior team and their direct reports and drive a more entrepreneurial culture of clarity, agility and trust. He asked Contexis to advise him and to support his Leadership Team to make this transformation.
“We could see this was a truly great business” comments John Rosling “but it had a fairly dysfunctional and toxic culture. What inspired us to want to work with them, however, was our belief in the new CEO and his vision of what this business could be. To achieve this it was clear that what was needed was both a laser-like focus and a transformation in the beliefs in the business, starting at the top”.
The first job was to clarify strategy and agree a common set of priorities that could be easily and engagingly communicated. That process would also serve to begin to align and create trust in the leadership team. The team arrived for a 2 day Retreat carrying a great deal of scepticism and defensiveness – and a combined list of 120 strategic objectives. They left with absolute clarity of the ‘why’ that stood behind the strategy and just four clear strategic pillars, with one person taking responsibility for each.
“That first away-day was transformational” commented one of the more seasoned directors. “We thought we were there to talk about strategy and we had each come prepared to fight our corner and defend our projects. Instead we talked about purpose and context and, in doing so, achieved a level of clarity and a belief in our common goals that I have rarely experienced. We also had some fairly personal conversations and a lot of fun and developed a lot of trust in each other. We left with a really clear ‘why’, just four key strategic aims, someone responsible for each, and a passionate desire to see them achieved as a team”.
The next step was to support the team to take those strategic goals into actionable reality. That involved a combination of communications training, particularly for the CEO, and one-on-one coaching and strategic mentoring for him and each of the team.
When the CEO delivered his new strategy to the entire global business in a televised address, it took everyone by surprise. “Everyone remembers that” says one manager “ and still talks about it. It was a complete change from anything we’ve seen before; just the CEO, without any slides, talking about purpose and vision and just four simple things we needed to achieve. It was inspiring”.
The new CEO now had a galvanised Leadership Team with a simple and commonly held strategy that they could talk to employees and analysts about with confidence – and a workforce with very high expectations of change!
“That’s just half the battle” says John Rosling “however competent the people, strategy always fails in implementation not in creation. It’s the human behaviours that get in the way. It’s so easy for competing agendas and old patterns of a lack of trust to reemerge and for the pressures of ‘business as usual’ to derail the train. We needed to work with each of the Leadership Team over some months through the complexity of delivering a strategy across multiple product areas, division and jurisdictions. We had to keep them on track, keep coming back to context – to the ‘why’ not the ‘how’ – and in doing so build their confidence and skills as people and as leaders”.
The second time the leadership team went away, 2 months after that first Retreat, they worked on trust and responsibility, developing awareness of themselves and each other and building a new skill-set for managing conflict and achieving buy-in and ownership at every level in the organisation. This was not a theoretical exercise but based on real issues that had come up as the result of implementing the strategic framework and on strategies for creating engagement through ownership right down the organisation to free up the senior team for continued growth.
“The retreats have been great for us. They have given us the skills to drive decision-making right down the organisation and get us out of the detail and into the future. But what makes this experience stand out is the one-on-one sessions over many months. That is where both real clarity and a drive to perform has been achieved – keeping us to context and allowing us to see a way forward with clarity. Contexis is always challenging us to get to ‘one word’ – it’s incredibly challenging but it gives you unbelievable clarity. We really see them as partners in our business. In a very entrepreneurial way, as our confidence and ambition grows as a team, their role has changed and adapted to what we need, not ‘what they do’. My team is transformed and we are are excited for the future and confident we can achieve things that 12 months ago they would not have believed possible”.