Almost every organisation needs to adapt its operating model, either to function in a more efficient and effective way, or to get closer to customers – in many instances, it’s a mixture of the two. Delivering on this change, while maintaining the day-to-day running of the business, remains a huge challenge. 
At Criticaleye’s recent Asia Leadership Retreat, which was held in association with Cognizant, panellists discussed how to deliver high-impact transformation. They agreed that the single biggest factor in being successful when driving change is to have clarity about what needs to be achieved. 

Jihong He, International CEO at the Nasdaq-listed H World Group, told the audience that the company’s mission is to transform the hotel industry through its use of technology. Starting in China, the business has expanded internationally both organically and via acquisitions, including the buyout of the high-end European hotel group Deutsche Hospitality in 2019. 

She said: “Personally, I think it’s important to have a very clear outcome. You also have to bring people with you on the journey, which can be difficult because they can be afraid about what the changes mean for them, or they might feel uncomfortable about new ways of working. 

“You have to really communicate to help them to understand the longer-term goals.”

The strategic imperative for transformation may be clear, but the extra work involved still needs to be factored into the operational realities of running the day-to-day business. Rishi Mehra, CFO of Aon – Asia, explained: “The important thing is to also bring in transformative and innovative ideas, however, they have to be focused on what customers need and what’s tied into the business strategy. My goal is to find a balance between our business ideas and the shareholder value that it creates.”

The next step is to look at execution. “It’s essential to align your resources correctly when engaging in change because there will be conflicting priorities along the way,” said Rishi. “The risk is that you remove people or investment in your transformation and then it loses momentum and focus. It’s important to keep in mind, from a strategic perspective, why the changes need to happen and ensure you have internal alignment on the execution.”

Andrew Lim, Vice President for ASEAN & Greater China at Cognizant, picked up on this point, but emphasised that adaptability is also vital. “When conducting a transformation programme or project, you must have alignment on the business outcome, otherwise there is a high chance it will fail. Within that, you must accept that things can and do change and therefore you want to have a degree of flexibility.”

There is an added level of complexity when operating across different countries and regions. Andrew added: “Culturally, you have to try to understand how much change an organisation can adopt at any one time. You do have to reflect on how mature an organisation is and whether you have the right talent to execute on the transformation you’re looking to achieve. In many ways, I see that as one of the biggest challenges today.” 

Building on this point, Holly Carmichael, Head of Research & Market Development for APAC at Criticaleye, said: “Through this period of uncertainty, I do expect to see well-run businesses take the opportunity to innovate, conducting strategic M&A and ultimately making decisions that create stronger operating models.”

It means that the pace is going to pick up around the change agenda in many companies. Holly added: “Given the headwinds we’re all facing at present, it’s crucial that leaders are open with one another. Problems occur during transformation when there is a combination of mixed messages from the top team and a lack of accountability, as this often results in a loss of momentum and confusion over competing priorities.” 

Continuous Disruption 

During the Retreat, which was held in Singapore, attendees responded to a poll which asked whether
they saw cracks appearing in the resilience of their senior leadership team – 72 percent answered ‘yes’. This compares to a 50/50 split when the same question was asked at our previous Asia Leadership Retreat held in April. 

Rishi noted that leaders should be aware of the pressure people are under. “A softer touch is very much required and so you do need to keep ‘checking in’. When you’re asking colleagues to deliver on transformation, you have to appreciate the extra effort that is needed. So, as a leader, you must ask: ‘How do you feel about things today?’ Otherwise, you risk losing people as there is a real danger they will burn out.” 

In many ways, employee engagement is the main priority for leaders as they realise that without the right levels of commitment and passion from staff, productivity and performance are going to wane. “Change fatigue and burnout are huge risks at present and it’s up to senior executives and Boards to ensure this doesn’t become a bigger issue,” said Holly

“There needs to be greater openness around this topic to ensure that leaders aren’t pushing both themselves and others too far.”

By Marc Barber, Director of Content, Criticaleye 

Listen to our latest Criticaleye Asia Podcast, Talking Talent  with Wesley Payne McClendon, Chair of the Board at The GROW Project Foundation, Non-Executive Director at Vortex Innovations, and Independent NED & Chair, People & Culture Committee, at the Australian Institute of Architects, plus a Criticaleye Board Mentor.