Neil Hayward is a non-executive director, board advisor, consultant, mentor, and investor. He has over 25 years’ board and executive leadership experience working for large private and public sector companies including High Speed Two (HS2), BT, the Post Office, and the Ministry of Justice. Neil’s track record in agile transformation has resulted in significant step changes to workforce and organisational performance.
Where do you start in making an organisation more agile?
There are usually clear signs that an organisation is unhealthy, static, or stuck. There’s generally little to no enthusiasm, a pervasive fear of failure, dysfunction and confusion from the top, never-ending gossip and drama, high employee turnover, and of course poor results.
My first step would be to start with your team and the way it works. As a new CEO, it’s the one thing that’s immediately within your control, and given the average tenure of a CEO is about three years, you need to quickly signal the difference you bring. You need to clearly define the way you want people to behave, and what happens when they either do or don’t do what you want.
“You’ve no time to lose — three to six months to complete your assessment, and no more than a year to make these changes before it becomes too late.”
You also have to quickly get the right mixture of skills around you for the challenges ahead. Set the behavioural standards first, and then review your skills inheritance before hiring what you are missing based on your strategy. You’ve no time to lose — three to six months to complete your assessment, and no more than a year to make these changes before it becomes too late.
There’s a saying that CEOs must disrupt within 100 days — how do you go about that?
Even as you are changing your team, you should be thinking about how and where to disrupt what you’ve inherited. I have never worked in an organisation where the CEO wasn’t complaining about people working in silos, so seeking opportunities to foster collaboration is an obvious area for disruption. Typically this might include setting up cross-functional projects that encourage people from different departments to work together. Or creating incubators that not only promote collaboration but give space for innovation to flourish. At HS2, my last employer, we gave our innovation teams license to roam and look at absolutely anything within the organisation.
“I have never worked in an organisation where the CEO wasn’t complaining about people working in silos.”
Whatever initiatives you choose, you’ll probably need to reinforce the importance of cross-functional collaboration — possibly even knock a few proverbial heads together! — in order to implement and speed up the pace of change. Innovation shouldn’t need to seek permission…
The other disrupter is of course your strategy. If you are changing the direction of travel for a business, then everything else is up for grabs anyway.
At what stage should you do a full structural review?
Once you’ve made those rapid, high-impact changes, and you’ve confirmed or reset your strategy, then you should review how your business works. Structure, accountabilities, governance, essential behaviours, as well as how you integrate people, processes and technology to deliver on your priorities — all of these need to be explicitly designed.
“You need to look at your delegations and governance framework overall and decide how much responsibility you can give people lower down to make those decisions. The answer is almost always more.”
Changing structures alone won’t make you more agile, flexible or adaptable. What frustrates most people is that they can’t get decisions through because they need so many other layers to agree to something. You need to look at your delegations and governance framework overall and decide how much responsibility you can give people lower down to make those decisions. The answer is almost always more. Streamlining decision-making, along with making structural simplifications, can go a long way to building a faster, more agile business.
Decentralised v centralized model — which works best for an agile company?
Power and authority are somewhat determined by your place in the economic cycle, and the problems you’ve been hired to solve:
- If you’re a CEO that’s been hired because the previous incumbent left the business in a really difficult trading situation, in the short term you’ll need to take an iron grip on everything as part of your turnaround.
- If, however, you’re in an upswing in the economic cycle, and the business is trading well, this is the time to disperse decision-making authority. You should be in the bigger picture now — you need that pot of ideas bubbling away inside the business to create your next big innovation. You should be fostering that culture rather than sweating the small stuff.
What longer-term changes can you make to support agility?
A company must have scalable systems for information sharing. Without this, people can’t work efficiently.
When I started my career, there were no computers, just an electronic typing pool and a fax machine — if you were lucky! There wasn’t the same capacity to access information as there is today so the pace of change was very slow. Those systems exist now — we should be able to access and share the information we need to do our jobs much more easily today — but many companies still haven’t got it right.
“Beware of CIOs bringing you their solutions! Look for the technology issues that your people think need solving first.”
As with reinforcing company culture, technology is a longer-term transformation opportunity that will play out successfully over several years provided you stick to a plan — and invest time at the outset in understanding what information your people need in order to make your business zing. Beware of CIOs bringing you their solutions! Look for the technology issues that your people think need solving first.
To what extent does company culture impact agility?
Innovation, transparency, creativity, diversity, and collaboration are the five shared values that move the needle the most in terms of agility. Companies with deep-rooted and visible commitments to one or more of these values are going to be more agile than not.
And this is only going to become more important — with a skills shortage across Western labour markets, and a demographic time bomb as the workforce shrinks and the population ages. The right culture is what persuades people to join and stay with your business, and how you win versus your competitors.
Creating this sort of culture is a deliberate act. At the end of my tenure at HS2, 97% of our people used the word “inclusive” to describe our organisation. Employee engagement sat at 76%, compared with 57% four years earlier. We had also increased female representation in our workforce from 31% to 37%, and BAME representation from 16 to 23%, both far ahead of sector norms, whilst reducing sickness and absence, and involuntary churn. HS2 also became the first employer in the country to achieve a Platinum Clear Assured accreditation using The Clear Company EDI framework.
There’s no doubt in my mind that all of this helped us to attract and retain staff. People like working with a shared purpose, where there’s a chance to make a difference, learn something, and be alongside people that they respect and trust. They work harder, faster, and more flexibly if that’s what they’ve been promised, and that’s what you are giving them.