This true story, so far untold, shows that technology does not transform an organization, but leaders do. If you don't address your leader's fear and insecurity, if you don't invest in their self-transformation, you risk going down with them.
Some years ago, I reached out to a newly appointed CIO of a large international company that I've previously served. I knew that he was hired to conduct a large scale digital transformation for that company, which he confirmed. I offered my help for achieving the impressive goals he had for the company. After several exchanges, he informed me when he'd be in Brussels as he was traveling and invited me for an interview at the head office.
A week later, I walked into the company entry hall and announced myself to the receptionists. Soon, the CIO came to meet, and he was warm but acting uncomfortable and hurried. He shook my hand, look at me in the eyes, and said apologetically, let's walk to the coffee machine and have a drink.
He continues. My secretary has been trying to reach you during the last hour or so. There is a problem.
In my head, I am asking what in the world could make that confident man acting so uncomfortable and embarrassed? What has happened between our last exchange? He is trying to tell me something that makes him very uncomfortable and has difficulty finding the words to say it. As I walk with him to the coffee machine on another side of the building hall, he is so apologetic that I almost feel sorry for him though I don't know what's wrong yet. Let pause this segment here.
About three years before, I led one of the most challenging and the most extensive digital transformation initiatives of my career. It was a transformation that nobody in the company wanted to happen due to the complete shift that the company was to take from being a national company to a global company. As usual, employees focused on what they would lose, so several of them made a barrier against the transformation.
One day, as a result of multiple conflicts between the program manager and his superior, overwhelmed, the program manager openly says on the plateau that his superior is noncollaborative and is causing the failure of the transformation program. The superior, touched in his ego, fought back angrily, and fired the program manager on the spot. He asked the program manager to leave right away while everyone watched in disbelief.
From that moment, I went from holding one role to two functions at once. I was an external consultant, and though I had no access to the top executive, this initiative would hurt him badly if I fail. I hold on for months with false promises from that never materialized, but something had to change, or we would go straight to the wall.
My superior in my consulting firm was the CEO, an open leader, a good listener, and someone I could count on his help, so I had a meeting with him where I asked for his help to reach higher. He managed to secure a meeting at a higher level with several company leaders, and I was able to show the risks they were taking and the consequences that will surely follow if they don't take action. The top executives took actions right away, and as a result, I had the necessary resources and program priority essential to drive and implement the transformation. One of the main actions was the assignment of a new program manager to facilitate the initiative.
Carl B (a pseudo name), a reserved young man, politely introduced himself to me as the new program manager. He came from another division of the company. Carl was low energy from the start, and though he would politely do what is necessary, there was no enthusiasm, no excitement, and did not fully own his role. I was not surprised considering that the whole organization dreads that transformation program, and nobody wanted the program manager role. He indeed was not happy about that position.
For a couple of months, I collaborated with Carl, but basically, he would generally tell me, here is the situation, what do you think, what would you do? How would you do it? I would give my suggestions, and Carl would say ok, let's do it that way, and officialize it. I supported Carl as much as needed, and our collaboration was pleasant and respectful. I was glad to have him taking over the program manager role. There were not many talks or discussions, and by the way, the work was so intense, and I was solicited everywhere that there was little time for anything else.
Less than two months after taking the role, Carl announced his resignation and left the company soon. I continued the initiative with another brilliant program manager, an engaged, empathetic leader, and we successfully delivered the transformation.
Years later, I would cross paths with Carl in his new company, where I then worked. We'll exchange salutations, respectfully, without anything more. While I have had lunch with most of my colleagues at my level or other close collaborators, it is never something that came with Carl and not even something that came to my mind. At the new company, We did not work in the same department, and I never even have a small conversation with him, like asking him about his role or what he is doing, him neither. It was bare, cordial, and respectful salutations and no small talk. He seems such a reserved person that it never came to me to discuss more with him, and I was not curious to know more about him neither. Carl was not a people person for sure. Cordial and respectful salutations were enough until I finished my mission in that company and left.
Back to where I paused earlier, I am now at this same company that I previously served twice, where Carl still works, to meet with the CIO for supporting his digital transformation goals that we have already spoken. The CIO is acting embarrassed, apologetic and is about to tell me why.
As we arrive at the coffee machine, he asked me about my coffee preference and fetched me a cup of coffee, then one for himself. We are having a stand-up conversation that I had not expected.
- Do you know Carl B.?
- Yes, I do, we worked together in company X, and I know that he works here.
- How was it when you worked together?
- Good! We had a good work relationship, though he left soon after we started, and I've seen him here several times in the last years when I worked here too, and we always exchanged cordial salutations.
Why these questions? I asked.
The CIO continued speaking inquiringly. Something strange happened! You would collaborate with him in the function, so I told him I am interviewing you for the position and that he could join me. I handed him your CV, and the moment he looks at it, his attitude changed. I asked him what's wrong, and he said no, he does not want to work with you. I asked him why, and he does not want to tell me, but I can see the panic in him.
In disbelief, I repeated "He said he does not want to work with me???
The CIO answer, "Yes, He said he won't collaborate with you and walked away. His behavior is so strange that I don't want to take any risk. He is a grown man; if he does not want to collaborate with you, I can do nothing."
Surprised, I am trying to learn more about the situation and making sense of it.
The CIO continues, I can see you are surprised and while you are positive about him; it is not the case for him and I don't know why. I can see though that the idea of collaborating with you disturbs him. I don't know what it is about, but it seems serious for him. So I am sorry that you had to come for nothing. I won't have the interview because I don't want any conflict in an already challenging situation.
If I had to guess, I would think that Carl would recommend me instead, knowing how I helped him when he needed and that we were cordial. I stood in the vast and empty hall, facing this apologetic man, embarrassed by a situation beyond his control, and myself shocked and confused.
Two years later, the transformation did not succeed, and both Carl B. and the CIO were out of the company.
All the leaders involved here are part of my LinkedIn connections and I respect each regardless. I would not want any destructive remark against any and this is not about me. This is a case to show how leaders at every level can contribute to the success of their organization's transformation. I hope you can learn from it and especially that you should not ignore insecurity and fears in any form because soon or later, it will hurt you. The disruption is real. Invest in your leaders' self-transformation.