Transformation is currently dominating the thoughts of corporate leaders like never before, creating a wave of multi-million-dollar organizational change programs. I see this as a good thing. After all, for nearly two decades, I’ve been immersed in the business of designing and executing organizational change. And after building my career upon the adrenaline of running towards — rather than away from — big companies with big challenges, it’s exciting to see the surging interest in organizational transformation. But as more and more companies decide to radically rewrite their business and operating models, not to mention inject critical change into their underlying business, technology and people strategies, the results are less inspiring.
Countless studies chart the success rate of company transformation projects at less than 40 per cent. And when it comes to having a longer-term, lasting impact, under 40 per cent of those success stories actually garner positive assessments. As Forbes pointed out a few years ago, a Towers Watson study found that while 55 per cent of employers felt their projects met their initial objectives, only 25 per cent believed the gains were sustained over time. More recently, a McKinsey Global Survey found that just 26 per cent of its executive respondents felt that transformation programs had improved company performance or prepared the organization for sustainable improvement. These findings mirror my own observations.
As a veteran change strategist, I’m often asked: “What are the true drivers of successful organizational reinvention?” The answer I offer is based on my own personal “Blueprint for Change,” which I developed over time to serve as my roadmap for each change assignment I tackle. Put simply, while there are always many factors in play, the essential elements for impactful transformation are effective leadership, vision and implementation. The purpose of this article is to bring these principles to life by describing them in terms of my most recent change engagement with McCarthy Tétrault LLP.
There is no question that McCarthy Tétrault put my transformation road map to the test. Indeed, after signing on to help the firm pursue its ambitious change goals, I quickly discovered that the legal sector presents some distinct challenges. For example, traditional law firms had not demonstrated significant innovation, business processes or technology. As well, their partnership structures can create very hierarchical, cloistered decision-making, which preserves a workplace culture that reflects these values.
Fortunately, while highly regarded for providing exceptional-quality integrated business law, litigation services, tax law, real property law, labour law and employment law, the firm’s partners understood that radical change was required in terms of how they served clients in order to create a world-class delivery team for the future.
Why was change needed? Like many established law firms, McCarthy Tétrault faced new competitive pressures as global law conglomerates, legal process outsourcers and professional service firms began to woo corporate clients, who were becoming increasingly price-sensitive and demanded clear deliverables from the legal firms they retained.
Furthermore, while McCarthy Tétrault was well known for delivering “white glove” customer-centric service for nearly 160 years, client expectations were changing. Large companies had started to invest in their internal legal departments and, being tasked to manage budgets, corporate counsel were discussing fixed fees, and legal process outsourcing.
In the midst of this evolving business landscape, McCarthy Tétrault was experiencing lower employee engagement levels within its operations team. The firm needed its entire team, from partners to support staff, to adapt to the client-driven changes and to determine how to satisfy their new expectations and create an innovative delivery approach.
McCarthy Tétrault needed operational process reform and technology investment to enable better service execution. They needed to usher in technology innovation, both to meet client expectations and to streamline operations and lower costs.
The transformation that occurred at McCarthy Tétrault over the past four years is remarkable. Now a recognized market leader in innovation and enhancing employee satisfaction, industry observers describe the firm as a trailblazer in the Canadian and North American legal sector. Among other achievements, the firm has increased productivity and achieved significant annual cost savings through tactics such as eliminating the traditional one lawyer/one assistant model in favour of specialized, shared support departments while moving to a collaborative hybrid work environment.
From a client perspective, increased satisfaction has been attributed in part to our new service delivery model, which consists of Dialogue Project Management, fixed fees, innovative staffing models and providing clients with certainty and transparency. The firm now maintains a Client Service Innovation Team to address emerging client needs and develop innovative new services.
Despite head count reduction and considerable role and workflow changes, McCarthy Tétrault’s employee engagement scores have also remarkably increased across the services team by three per cent, with two teams reporting double-digit increases in satisfaction. Further evidence of the firm’s warmly-received culture change is the fact that McCarthy Tétrault has been recognized with a Top 100 Employers award for the past four years (it was the only law firm to win in 2015) as well as being named Canada’s Best Diversity Employer.
How was this achieved? While the firm’s road to successful change involved a comprehensive and lengthy transformation program, along with serious commitment from all concerned, the program elements were straightforward. We beat the low success rates of most company transformation initiatives by focusing on the key pillars of change management, specifically leadership, vision and implementation.
Because others have penned volumes of management books on the elements of great leadership, I’ll focus on the following aspects of leadership that I believe proved imperative at McCarthy Tétrault.
- Quiet leadership
- Strong and supportive leadership
- Leadership that’s set up for success
- Leadership that’s united as a team
Quiet leadership is critical to the success of any transformation program, as leaders will face resistance to change that demands sensitivity to a company’s people factors. This means that quiet leadership traits — including the ability to listen, communicate and build consensus, as well as the qualities of patience, open-mindedness, modesty and approachability — are invaluable. Put plainly, quiet leaders tend to drive change without feeling the need to bulldoze their own big ideas through the program. By encouraging collaboration and transparency, they are able to convert opposition into support, while developing respect and trust among stakeholders.
When I started at McCarthy Tétrault, I was both an outsider and a non-lawyer entering a culture where reverence for established relationships and partner viewpoints was deeply engrained. So I met with each of the firm’s 200 partners to explain the need for a new vision and to receive their feedback. By doing this, I identified a number of pro-change allies who could help build internal momentum and increase program buy-in across the organization.
After the careful development of a new high-level vision for the services group, my next step was to build the right leadership team to flesh out and lead the change strategies. This involved evaluating existing leaders to identify change champions and separate them from leaders with abilities and interests that did not complement our future vision. The review of the firm’s bench strength was a multi-pronged process, including careful examination of each team’s past performance and in-depth conversations with each leader to understand their current team vision, business plans and management style. This direct approach helped reveal each executive’s strengths and goals. Although my interviewees were often initially hesitant, they quickly warmed to the process and often self-identified their willingness (or lack thereof in some cases) to be part of the new McCarthy Tétrault vision.
When fresh talent was needed, the new leaders were given the support and tools required to succeed. Instead of expecting new executives to begin implementing change plans within a few months of joining the firm, they were given time to acclimatize and build internal credibility and trust. I established an extensive onboarding process, as well as a realistic schedule for each new leader to settle into their new roles. And I played an active part by introducing each new executive to key contacts, while ensuring they had the support to develop critical relationships, including the ability to travel and meet with team members scattered across the country.
Whenever a new senior management group is constructed with a mix of veteran executives and new hires, it’s important to unite the group into a team that can effectively work together. Otherwise, management team members will lack the rapport and relationships required to collaborate on a change initiative. At McCarthy Tétrault, I brought the entire leadership team together as soon as we had all the new roles filled. In addition to helping them connect via typical team-building activities, I hosted a national leadership conference to present our broad new vision to the group and encourage everyone in management to contribute to its development. Breakout sessions of small, multi-disciplinary teams enabled newly acquainted executives to spontaneously brainstorm on specific elements of the vision. This helped the new leadership group forge relationships, understand one another’s perspectives, and collectively, subtly gain support for the unfolding new vision. Building upon this activity, I mandated that, going forward, every project team must include representation from all functional groups to ensure that normally autonomous departments engage in more inclusive planning and emphasize firm-wide benefits.
It’s remarkable how often I see a company’s attempt to implement massive transformation programs without a clear vision to guide the change team’s efforts. Even more often, of course, I witness programs with a solid transformation vision mapped out by a CEO who fails to share it with the company ranks. This is regrettable because effective transformation definitely depends in large measure on establishing — and communicating — a strong vision. That is how you get the ball rolling and keep the momentum going, not to mention inspire, shape and control the flurry of transformation work sparked by the call to action issued from the c-suite.
Effectively establishing and communicating a new vision can be broken down into the following three key steps:
- Balancing data and human insights
- Driving vision down to the details
- Creating a new vision-supporting culture
The first step in setting a new vision for McCarthy Tétrault’s services team involved assessing the state of the organization by gathering broad guidance from the senior executive group, while analyzing mountains of performance data. After sketching out a high-level draft vision, my next step was less conventional — I walked the halls to gain direct, cross-organizational employee input.
More often than not, executive committees and consultants operate in a vacuum. Although research departments and extensive data analytics usually validate their recommendations, they are seldom tested against frontline opinion. When it comes to change programs, this creates the potential for disconnects, putting a company’s new vision at serious risk of not addressing the real challenges that should be confronted.
At McCarthy Tétrault, my assessment encompassed many weeks of scheduled interviews and informal discussions with hundreds of lawyers, managers and staff. This human input provided me with a strong pulse of the organization, in order to strengthen our draft vision and reveal planning gaps that could have been overlooked. This was important because any all-encompassing visionary statement is typically unlikely to translate into meaningful guidance across a large, dispersed or diversified organization.
This was true at McCarthy Tétrault, where specialized, client-facing lawyers experienced very distinct realities from the internally focused support or functional groups. So as to ensure that the new vision was relevant to all groups, we facilitated a gathering of business leaders to test and evolve the draft. Once a polished vision was developed, team leaders were assigned the task of taking the vision back to their work groups to develop localized “sub-visions,” along with proposed support strategies and priorities for the upcoming year. These executives later returned to a subsequent leadership forum to present each group’s individual vision statements and proposals. The entire leadership team was encouraged to comment on the presentations, helping each leader refine their plans to ensure consistency with the firm-wide vision as well as alignment with other sub-visions and strategies.
Successfully rolling out a new vision, of course, also requires enhancements to the culture. Unfortunately, it is common to see an enthusiastic CEO or executive team fail to grasp the need for corresponding internal culture change when eagerly introducing a newly approved vision. For some reason, they forget that it took months of study to finalize the new vision, and simply assume employees will instantly grasp the mandated change, not to mention adopt the necessary behaviours to make the new vision a success. Nevertheless, the reality is that considerable effort must be dedicated to shifting or refocusing employee culture and values.
When I presented the new services vision, I also outlined a plan to remake the internal culture. Entitled the “Engaged Change Roadmap,” this document explained the new service principles, shared values and skill-set requirements for the leadership team and staff, including a new performance management program to refocus behaviours and develop their skills along with a roll-out and communication plan to introduce this deep culture change.
With a well-defined vision in place, you would think that implementation of any transformation program would be the easy part for major companies, especially seasoned ones experienced at the smooth execution of strategic plans. However, even major companies with well-developed visions often perform poorly when it comes to the execution of transformation programs. And lackluster results often lead to scaled back or cancelled transformation programs before change initiatives have a chance to take root.
The following three implementation best practices were key to making a difference at McCarthy Tétrault:
- Define accountability and responsibility
- Introduce project management disciplines
- Plan to communicate and celebrate
Pushback is to be expected whenever significant change is proposed (especially when implementation gets difficult or risks escalate), so it’s critical to ensure everyone knows what is expected of them. Setting clear accountability for individuals and teams includes outlining consequences for missed deliverables and the steps that will be taken to get an initiative back on track. Everyone must appreciate that setbacks are likely, and contingency plans to mitigate risks should be created in advance of execution by identifying high-probability road bumps. Agreement with transformation leaders should also be reached on how you will support and defend their actions when challenges arise. Pledging to protect your team if issues or failures occur builds trust and overcomes resistance to the change program.
Strong project management skills are essential to lead and execute complex transformation initiatives. And yet, they are often not present when needed. Like most legal service providers, McCarthy Tétrault lacked internal project management capabilities, so one of my first actions was to open a project management and vendor management office. Certified project managers served as a training resource for the entire firm in order to help develop these skills internally.
It’s astounding to me how often major transformation programs get underway without a detailed communication plan, which is critical to consistent messaging; raising awareness and understanding of program goals; and effectively spotlighting project progress and results. Planned two-way communication is also required to effectively respond to unfolding challenges.
At McCarthy Tétrault, we applied a variety of communication vehicles to accommodate the diverse communication preferences of our audiences. They included scheduled email and voicemail messages for high-level program news, website bulletins for detailed project reporting, and town hall-style meetings for interactive program updates delivered by senior leaders. We also inaugurated national video conference meetings for all 900 employees across the firm’s six offices as a forum for presenting the vision, outlining program stages and hosting project celebrations.
Finally, in addition to the communication plan, successful corporate transformations require a detailed celebration and recognition program to ensure that significant individual and team efforts are acknowledged. Too often, in the midst of a hectic implementation, a change program’s most dedicated contributors go unrecognized along with project milestones.
My principles for effective transformation are pretty elementary. But they work because they essentially ask the following big three basic questions:
- What exactly do you want to accomplish?
- Who will lead the change program and how will they do it?
- How will you keep everything on track?
Based on my experience, there is no question that the success rate of change programs can be dramatically improved if more time and energy is directed to answering these questions before companies plunge into massive, disruptive and costly transformation projects.