Understanding the dynamics of business transformation: Why SVPs can't flunk the and/or test

Workfront CEO Alex Shootman's headshot

This article originally appeared on Forbes, where Alex Shootman is a guest author and member of the Forbes Technology Council.

There is no such thing as transformation that can be achieved in isolation: numbers must be met; clients must be served; the business must run — and change. And there is one job in the org chart that can’t hide behind the illusion of choice between keeping operations running and changing the company’s direction: the CEO’s direct reports.

The chiefs of technology, finance, operations, people, sales and marketing — a.k.a. the senior vice presidents (SVPs) — are paid to do the hard things. They don’t get to rest in the “or” when it comes to the run-or-change equation. Their job is to run and change.

In my previous article, I looked at the human dynamics of transformational change from the perspective of the CEO and three top-of-mind questions:

How do those dynamics look from the SVP’s office, when they are facing a big, hairy, audacious goal (to borrow Jim Collins’ phrase)?

In a recent conversation with an SVP, I said, “The CEO’s job is to ask you to do more than you can do. You can't delegate the 'or' decision back up the chain. You have to run your organization and figure out how to support strategic initiatives; you don't get the option to go back to the CEO and say, ‘OK boss, which one do you want?’ The SVP’s job is to make it happen.”

SVPs: The advocates and translators of strategy for the organization

If balancing run work versus change work is one challenge for SVPs, best-selling business writer and consultant Patrick Lencioni has defined another: a commitment to their peer executives as their “first team,” rather than the direct reports they lead.

As Lencioni puts it, “When every member of an [executive] team is prioritizing the team they lead over the team they're a member of, the executive team becomes like the United Nations or Congress where everybody is getting together to lobby for their constituents rather than to come together to make decisions that are for the good of the whole organization.”

Humans are tribal creatures. We find a lot of comfort in discovering the similarities between us and our small group of people and reinforcing those similarities by discussing the differences of other people. That’s the cheap and easy way to lead.

The responsibility falls on SVPs at moments of stress and challenge within an organization to break through that tribal mindset and become translators and advocates for what every team is trying to achieve. SVPs must internalize the organization’s strategic initiatives and translate them to their teams — painting that broader canvas of what other teams are doing — while keeping everyone focused on work that will hit existing targets.

How objectives and outcomes resolve the and/or

Collectively, SVPs needs to be the connective tissue of the business, or, put another way, champions of seamwork: collaboration across divisional lines. But that doesn’t mean being pulled in every direction and reacting to events rather than driving progress. It is vital to keep focused on strategic objectives and the “highest level of outcome” you want to deliver against. Sure, lean in where and when fellow SVPs need particular help, but ultimately, the most time and effort needs to be aligned to end goals.

Objectives make a powerful compass point for action. Focusing on strategic objectives and outcomes gives clarity of purpose and direction; the illusion of an “or” choice resolves into run  and  change. In leaning in toward peers at a point of need, we see SVPs playing out Lencioni’s “first team” principle means in practice: senior players supporting each other, not just their own direct reports, across the organization.

Dive deep into the org chart to track how strategy becomes action

So let’s dive deeper into the org chart and consider roles that  do have the right to ask their line manager what either/or choice to take on run-versus-change questions. When the call of transformation is sounded by the senior team, what are the top-of-mind questions for the most effective divisional directors? That’s where we’re heading next.