The essential ingredient for a successful transformation

Do your leaders expect their already over-stretched workforces to implement change whilst striving to meet their near term business goals?  If so, it is unrealistic. It sets up transformation for failure. Leaders must make sure they set up and support a dedicated team of transformation specialists whose day job is to convert the company’s vision into an executable program of work and support businesses in implementing the change.  

At DBS CEO, Piyush Gupta described the transformation team as his secret weapon.  He realised he needed a small team of people who had built up a capability in transformation to define executable programs of transformation, align the leaders, train the people and support the businesses in implementing new concepts.  This was my team’s role and we became pretty good at it simply because we built up over a decade of experience.  Many companies see such centralised resources as an overhead. However such a team is essential and if supported by leadership will pay for itself many times over.  Having a transformation team avoids the need to pick up the phone to a favourite and expensive management consultancy every time transformation work is required.  It builds corporate capability to allow new ideas to be adapted to suit the context. It helps provides a sounding board to the executive team as they evolve vision and strategy, it acts as an independent assessment of progress and most importantly provides the necessary resource to work along side business teams as the change is implemented.

I set up DBS’s transformation team up shortly after I joined DBS in 2009.  Initially the “team” was myself and one other person I had hired from my previous company. The two of us ran process improvement events or PIEs, but when Piyush Gupta joined and saw what we were doing, he got right behind the team and we grew the team to around 40 people (DBS was around 25,000 employees at the time).  We chose people from a variety of backgrounds avoiding traditional bankers.  We looked for people who had the courage to stand in the front of a room and get people excited by change.  People who could create psychologically safe environments and unlock passion.  As we became more successful we started to attract amazing talent from around the world as well as some of the best talent from within the company.  Over the 12 years I ran the team, we designed and executed roughly 10 bank-wide transformation programs that collectively delivered DBS’s renowned transformation.  If there had been no team there would not have been the success.

Internally there were inevitable pressures from businesses.  Although we did not charge out the team’s time there were the inevitable comments from businesses about the value of a central team. However when we adopted an approach of supporting the willing volunteers the most, those businesses that were most enthusiastic about the change got the most “free” help and the laggards got the least. This created a very healthy tension.  Piyush never swayed from his support. Once we agreed the approach he actively challenged business and support functions to embrace the change.

Leadership Lessons

  1. To be successful in your transformation you need to provide bandwidth within the company
  2. A central team creates capability, context and capacity
  3. Ongoing executive support for the transformation team is essential

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