Andrew White: “To deliver any kind of transformation, you need to put people at the heart of the process.”


4 min read

Andrew White is a senior fellow in management practice at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, and a fellow of Green Templeton College. He also leads the flagship Oxford Advanced Management and Leadership Programme, and has extensive experience in executive coaching. Here, Andrew shares his thoughts on how leaders can better equip themselves to thrive in an uncertain environment, and the ingredients required for a successful business transformation.

What kind of business leader do you think thrives in today’s environment?

Over the past 50 years, most of the leaders who rose to the top of their companies typically did so by delivering performance — financial results, projects, etc. — in a reasonably linear and predictable way. And it was all about shareholders. That’s not the whole picture today — it is necessary but not sufficient. Delivering for shareholders is still crucial, but today’s successful leader is able to do so in an intensely uncertain environment while also delivering for other stakeholders too.

Many of our current leaders weren’t trained for the world we’re now in. They think of organisations as machines, and prioritise efficiency, predictability, and stability. Add to this the layers of bureaucracy that have emerged as a result of regulation — and a deep-rooted lack of trust — and organisations are finding themselves constrained. What the leaders of these organisations must do is see their business not as a machine, but as a living organism — fluid and able to readily adapt to its environment.

I don’t agree with all that Elon Musk is doing at Twitter but there is something in it — fighting back against these layers of bureaucracy and the common view of how things should be done, and running an organisation in a much more active, fluid, and dynamic way.

“I don't agree with all that Elon Musk is doing at Twitter, but there is something in it.”

How are modern leaders able to cope with so much uncertainty?

When I started researching disruption for my PhD 20 years ago, it was a rare event and plenty of leaders and organisations got it wrong. Polaroid is a classic example — with the people at the top stuck in fairly rigid cognitive models and unable to think differently about what determined success. They could shift their technology, but not their mental model of success.

Now, most businesses are either living through disruption or have disruption on the near-term horizon. Leaders experienced the 2008 financial crisis, they’ve been through Covid-19, and now we’re in the midst of another crisis. And what I found in my recent research was that successful leaders are those who lean into that sustained state of disruption.

By this I mean they’re approaching it with a very different mindset. They’re thinking more entrepreneurially — testing, probing, failing, learning quickly, and recognising that it’s better to make five bets than one. For many, particularly leaders of large organisations, this is more difficult to do, with shareholders wanting a steady four or five per cent return — but it is possible.

How can boards help, and what questions should directors be asking right now?

From what I have seen, few board agendas create enough space for the type of conversation that’s needed. They’re driven by “busyness” and regulation, with management writing the papers and controlling the agenda. As a result, there are fundamental questions going unasked in boardrooms — and I shared my thoughts on what these questions might be in a paper for the Harvard Business Review last year.

There are ways to tackle this. For example, when I’m working with boards, I like to use a collaboration tool called Mentimeter to ask two of those rarely discussed “big” questions:

  1. What is it that you’re not talking about that you need to talk about?
  2. What is it that you always talk about but never resolve?

Non-executive directors can share their views anonymously — and, as a result, they really engage with the questions. It helps to cut through the “busyness” and shift the balance of power in the room, teasing out the issues that directors really want to tackle. We may not conclude these conversations in that meeting, but they will go away with a deep dive pencilled in to explore the questions raised more fully.

“There are fundamental questions going unasked in boardrooms.”

What are the key success factors in successfully implementing a decentralised decision-making model?

Lots of organisations talk about wanting to move away from command-and-control systems towards more decentralised models in which decision-making is more widely distributed. Few have successfully followed through and built structures and cultures supportive of this “disciplined freedom”.

To do this, and indeed to deliver any kind of transformation, you need to put people at the heart of the process. Our recent research with 2,000 leaders and workforce members found that putting people at the centre of a transformation process made it 2.6 times more likely to succeed.

In practice, this means creating an “emotional plan” alongside your project plan — considering how people will feel throughout the transformation, alongside the activities, timescales, and resources required to deliver it. To build this plan you ask questions like: “Where are people now?”, “Where might they get to?”, “What measures are we going to use, and how are we going to measure that at scale?”, and “What interventions will help us course-correct along the way?” Approaching transformations in this way turns “putting people at the centre” into more than just rhetoric — it becomes the difference between success and failure.

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