Navigating Change: Is HR an Enabler or Blocker to Transformation?

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Sullivan & Stanley recently hosted an intimate gathering of senior HR professionals to explore the evolving role of HR in driving transformative change in an increasingly challenging economic landscape. The attendees included leaders from various organisations across industries from the likes of Alpha Bank, Axa Health UK, Activision Blizzard (Microsoft), Knight Frank LLP, Sainsbury’s, Trifast and UCL, to name a few.

The evening began with Stuart Williamson, Partner at Sullivan & Stanley facilitating a relaxed, free-flowing conversation made even more enjoyable by a seasoned sommelier who served exquisite wine selections. Participants were encouraged to share their insights, challenges and successes, the fruits of which have been summarised in this blog.

Defining ‘Transformation’

One of the first topics tackled was the definition of ‘transformation’. Stuart shared experiences with different interpretations of ‘transformation’, ranging from growth and cost reduction to system overhauls. This set the stage for a lively debate on what transformation truly means for different organisations.

Several attendees pointed out that transformation is often misunderstood and can mean various things depending on the context. For some, it is about implementing new technologies and processes to drive efficiency, while for others, it involves a complete cultural shift within the organisation. This diversity in understanding highlighted the need for a unified definition and approach to transformation.

HR’s role in Transformation: Leader, enabler, or blocker?

The discussion on HR’s role in transformation revealed its multifaceted nature, encompassing leadership, enabling, and at times, acting as a blocker. HR professionals must navigate these roles effectively to drive successful change.

One HR leader shared her experience of HR being perceived as a blocker, particularly in heavily regulated industries like financial services where HR teams could use regulations as an excuse to slow down or stop initiatives.

However, the conversation also highlighted scenarios where being a blocker is beneficial. When leadership rushes into changes without fully considering the impact on employees, HR’s role in steadying the ship becomes vital. One participant recounted instances where rapid transformations led to significant employee disengagement and turnover. In such cases, HR intervened to slow down the process, ensuring that employees’ concerns were addressed and that they felt valued and included in the transformation journey. This deliberate pacing helped maintain morale and productivity, ultimately contributing to the long-term success of the change initiative.

Participants agreed that HR’s role is multifaceted, requiring a balance between leading change initiatives and enabling other departments to drive transformation. They discussed the need for HR professionals to be adaptable, understanding both the strategic and operational aspects of change. This adaptability allows HR to support and guide the business through various phases of transformation.

Challenges and opportunities

Leaders from various industries shared their unique challenges and success stories. One Chief HR Officer discussed their experience with multiple layers of transformation within a rapidly changing industry. They emphasised the importance of managing the emotional and human aspects of change, alongside the operational shifts.

Another participant raised an interesting point about the growing size and complexity of transformation functions within organisations. They questioned whether these functions should be part of business-as-usual (BAU) operations or treated as distinct entities. This sparked a discussion on the need for clear boundaries and responsibilities within transformation efforts.

A Chief People Officer in the retail sector reflected on the massive transformation triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced their company to rapidly expand its online capabilities. They pointed out the need for clear communication to manage employee perceptions and fears about transformation. This highlighted the critical role of HR in ensuring that employees feel supported and informed throughout the transformation process.

The importance of a unified approach

A recurring theme during the event was the critical need for alignment across leadership teams on the definition and objectives of transformation. HR leaders emphasised fostering a culture of adaptability and change readiness. They shared strategies such as investing in leadership development, creating cross-functional teams, and leveraging data to drive decision-making.

    A particularly significant point discussed was the importance of having a clear vision for the future and ensuring that all employees understand and buy into this vision. Achieving this involves several key steps:

Define and communicate the vision:

  • Clearly articulate the long-term goals and purpose of the transformation
  • Use simple, straightforward language to ensure everyone understands the vision
  • Communicate the vision consistently across all channels and platforms within the organisation

Engage leadership:

  • Ensure that senior leaders are fully aligned and committed to the vision
  • Leaders should be visible champions of the vision, modelling behaviours and attitudes that support the change

Foster employee involvement:

  • Involve employees in shaping the vision to create a sense of ownership
  • Encourage open dialogue and feedback, allowing employees to voice their concerns and suggestions

Develop a comprehensive communication plan:

  • Use various communication methods to reach different audiences within the organisation
  • Regularly update employees on progress and milestones related to the vision

Provide training and resources:

  • Offer training programmes that help employees understand the vision and how they can contribute
  • Ensure managers have the skills to guide their teams through the transformation

Monitor and adjust:

  • Regularly monitor progress towards the vision and make adjustments as necessary
  • Use data and feedback to assess whether the vision is being effectively communicated and embraced

By emphasising these strategies, organisations can ensure that their vision for the future is clear, compelling, and embraced by all employees. This unified approach is essential for driving successful and sustainable transformation.

Technology and transformation: A double-edged sword

The role of technology in transformation was another critical area of discussion. While technology can drive efficiency and innovation, it also poses challenges. One participant shared their experience with a large-scale technology implementation that led to a broader transformation of the company’s operating model. They highlighted the need for careful planning and alignment to ensure that technology investments deliver the expected benefits.

Another attendee discussed the impact of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and automation on HR functions. They pointed out that while these technologies offer significant potential for improving efficiency, they also require a shift in skills and mindsets within the HR team. This underscores the need for ongoing training and development to ensure that HR professionals can effectively leverage new technologies.

Cultural transformation: A delicate balance

The cultural aspects of transformation were also a significant focus of the discussion. In organisations with deeply entrenched cultures and decentralised structures, driving change requires a nuanced approach. Participants stressed the importance of engaging employees at all levels, addressing their concerns, and fostering a sense of ownership over the change process.

One leader shared their experience of implementing a cultural transformation within a highly decentralised organisation. They discussed the challenges of aligning different departments and stakeholders around a common vision and the strategies they used to overcome these challenges. They emphasised the importance of consistent communication, involving key stakeholders in the decision-making process, and creating cross-functional teams to foster collaboration and ensure everyone was aligned with the overall goals.

Building a resilient future

As the evening drew to a close, it was clear that the role of HR in transformation is both complex and critical. HR leaders must navigate a delicate balance between leading and enabling change, while also addressing the emotional and cultural dimensions of transformation. The key takeaway from the event was the importance of collaboration, adaptability, and a clear, shared vision for the future.

Participants emphasised that HR professionals must be willing to embrace change, take risks, and put the customer at the centre of everything they do. The event highlighted that transformation is an ongoing journey rather than a one-time project. HR leaders must continuously adapt to changing circumstances and be prepared to lead their organisations through various phases of change. This requires a commitment to lifelong learning, a willingness to experiment, and a focus on building resilient organisational cultures.

At Sullivan & Stanley, we are committed to helping businesses navigate the complexities of their industries. Our award-winning transformations have empowered brands to achieve operational excellence, foster innovation, and stay ahead of the technology curve. Our expertise in customer centricity, people empowerment, technology exploitation, and modern implementation can help you secure a competitive edge in complex business landscape.

Listen to the highlights of the event in the video below: