Launching major transformation efforts is a common way that business leaders try to get a leg up on the competition, or just keep their heads above water. But too many of these efforts fail. Change is difficult, and many people not only resist it but seek to undermine it. Unsurprisingly, then, a McKinsey study found that merely 26% of transformation initiatives succeed. Most successful transformations have one thing in common: Change is driven through empowerment, not mandated from the top.
All too often we associate any large-scale change with a single charismatic leader. The U.S. civil rights and Indian independence movements will always be associated Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi, respectively. In much the same way, turnarounds at major companies like IBM and Alcoa are credited to their CEOs at the time, Lou Gerstner and Paul O’Neill.
The truth is more complicated. King, for example, was just one of the “big six” of U.S. civil rights leaders. Gerstner gained allies by refocusing the company around customers. O’Neill won over labor unions by making a serious commitment to workplace safety. These examples show why, in his book Leaders: Myth and Reality, General Stanley McChrystal defines effective leadership as “a complex system of relationships between leaders and followers, in a particular context, that provides meaning to its members.”
Every large-scale change requires both leadership at the top and the widening and deepening of connections through wooing — not coercing — an ecosystem of stakeholders.
Consider the case of Talia Milgrom-Elcott, cofounder of 100Kin10. When she set out to start a movement to recruit and retain 100,000 STEM teachers in 10 years, she knew there was no shortage of capable groups working to improve education. In fact, she had worked with many people who were building myriad approaches to the issue. But they had never met one another. And so she created a platform for collaboration that brings together nearly 300 partner organizations through conferences, working groups, and networking. Today 100Kin10 is ahead of schedule to meet its goal.
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