Focus on people

By Susan Schuman, Executive Chair at SYPartners. 


For more than 25 years, I’ve played an active role in the transformation of many organisations—from Fortune 100 companies to startups to non-profits—as a board member, founder, CEO, and advisor to C-suite executives. 

Very few patterns from those years of experience have prepared us leaders for transformation of the type we’ve experienced since 2020. The pandemic has sparked change at unprecedented scale and velocity, with systemic impact. 

And of course, ready or not, digital transformation has been forced upon us. As Accenture CEO Julie Sweet was recently quoted, “We are no longer spending time talking about, is technology good or bad and what are the risks. Tech [has become] the lifeline for individuals, societies, business and government.”

Digital transformation means different things to different people. At SYPartners, we see that while the conversation often veers toward technology, digitisation is rarely the complicating factor. The real challenge is that there’s not enough focus on the human element—the people leading and experiencing the change in an organisation. 

Digital transformation, like all transformations, is grounded in a common truth: humans are at its centre. They feel its effects, and they affect its outcomes. Data is interpreted by people. The algorithms that collect data are written by, and therefore biased by, people. The tech tools and the ways we use them—meeting times, how teams work and collaborate, modes of communication—are established by people. 

Of course, all of this affects your customers, clients, and employees. That’s why it’s the role of leaders to tend to and activate the humanity of their organisations, as a critical component of digital transformation, in order to both survive and thrive.

Many executives have expressed relief at how their companies have pivoted to completely virtual operations. But the work doesn’t end there. Enabling teams of people to feel confident, supported, and even energised in this moment of digital transformation requires leaders to focus on culture. Consider intensifying some of your leadership practices to encourage a strong, humanity-fuelled culture, in these ways:

  • Rally around purpose. Maintaining a strong connection to the company’s core reason for being is harder when everyone is dispersed and you are facing urgent decisions and trade-offs at every turn. Reminding people of your purpose is a key way to align decision-making and foster unity across the organisation. For example, consider making your strategy or visioning process deeply co-creative, including employees from all disciplines and levels of the company, and creating a shared sense of ownership in the company’s future.

  • Address bias. In an era of infinite data, neural nets, and everimproving AI, human leadership is as crucial as ever. With a human-centred approach—focusing on the impact on people—technology works for all of us, not just some. Inherent biases in tech practices can become insidious if left unchecked. (This has been well-documented in everything from recruiting to end products, and in who we select for stretch roles to who is doing the interpretation of the data.) At a higher level, philosophical and ethical grey areas abound with our increasing access to data and technical capabilities. Leaders must wrestle with their beliefs about the role of tech in people’s lives and address the bias in their systems before problems arise, and work toward a future that serves everyone.

  • Unleash creativity. It’s not enough to do the same things we did before, just virtually. In the inflection point of this moment, most leaders are prototyping things that they had not even conceived of before. Each of us also needs to give our teams the permission, or at least encouragement, to similarly prototype new ways of working and unlocking value instead of strictly adhering to the norms of the past. Not only should leaders unlock people’s passions, energy, and knowledge, they also need to create pathways and drive to surface diverse ideas, new collaboration methods, and innovation in a hybrid world.

  • Over-communicate. Inevitably, confusion and anxiety are heightened in the face of disruption and ambiguity. Make yourself seen and available to people. WW (formerly Weight Watchers) CEO Mindy Grossman has spoken about becoming the Chief Crisis Officer during the pandemic. In a way, everything being digital allows leaders to be in more conversations and places at once. Take advantage of the channels available to you, and expect to need to reinforce messages more than you’re used to. As one CEO we work with asserted recently, “If you’re not sick of hearing yourself repeat the same messages these days, you haven’t repeated them enough.”

  • Hold empathy and aspiration. The abrupt switch to indefinite remote working affects everyone differently. For some, it has been helpful for their productivity, while others are simply trying to stay afloat. On top of this, some employees are taking care of children, anxious about covid-19, struggling to focus amid racial reckoning, feeling politically demoralised, or worried about their jobs. Some are feeling all of this, every day.

When we’re not seeing each other in an office, it can be harder to tell what’s really going on. Leaders must make an intentional effort to check in with people, both to listen and encourage. Only when you know how people feel can you design ways to support them. Here at SYPartners, we redesigned our mid-year review process to meet each employee where they are (growth mode versus barely-making-it mode). We’re having hackathons for those who want to channel their energy into making new ways forward, and excusing everyone else from social pressure to participate. It’s all about empathy and aspiration—meeting them where they are, while holding optimism about the future.

We’ve always believed that transformation, digital or otherwise, is not an initiative with a budget and a completion date. It’s a state of being, and a constant pursuit. As technology and the world continue to transform at an increasing pace, organisations need to build cultures and communities that can constantly transform, too. This is particularly important right now because in the covidless future—one day soon—companies are unlikely to go back to the way they worked before. Not completely, at least. For most, having undergone the shift to becoming totally virtual, the future of work will be a hybrid situation with some employees together in an office and others working remotely. Savvy business leaders are already innovating ways of working (collaboration, policies, logistics, management, offerings) and company culture–building (shared purpose, equity, employee experiences, leadership models) to constantly adapt as they meet the challenges and opportunities of this future.

The greatest truth we know about successful transformation is that it needs to happen through the people who will live it. With humanity at the core of every decision, organisations can build the capability and capacity to transform, constantly, in order to achieve their ambitions and make an impact—in 2021 and beyond.

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