How To Climb The Mountain Of Corporate Transformation

Post written by

Kevin O'Neill

Managing partner of Acertitude, the executive search firm finding leaders for private equity firms and companies worldwide.

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Driving a complex corporate transformation is a tough, intimidating challenge that is not unlike climbing a mountain. Summiting Mount Everest, for example, takes months (if not years) of planning, intensive training and acclimatization. Once that preparation is done, there’s still a grueling 29,000-foot vertical climb to the peak.

Like climbing Everest, transforming a company doesn’t happen overnight; it’s done one step at a time. And even with the right preparation and planning, you need to stay focused to survive the inevitable crevasses and avalanches that threaten to knock you and your team off course.

Whether you’re gearing up for a business turnaround, meteoric growth or digital transformation, you’re facing big challenges and changes that often come very fast. This is the norm in our digital era. What once took months or years now happens in days or even seconds. Keeping your business ahead of these changes can easily start to feel overwhelming.

To lead your team on a successful climb (and avoid any avalanches along the way), employ the same tools and techniques as mountaineers.

1. Visualize success and failure.

The most capable senior executives I know have a clear vision for the future. They also have an unrelenting belief that they will succeed. As you think about your “climb,” visualize your destination, and communicate it to your team. Ensure your team members are crystal clear on what ultimate success looks like and what roles they will play in achieving it. There will be times when snow blindness causes the team to lose sight of the goal, but it’s your job to remind the team of where you’re heading.

Conversely, leaders must also ensure that their teams are prepared for things that can go wrong by helping them practice the appropriate responses before failures become catastrophic. By building these muscles before you reach the mountain, your team will be better prepared for inevitable pitfalls and be in a far better place to respond effectively.

2. Build a detailed road map.

Visualizing where you are going is the first step, but determining your path is equally important. Great leaders have a playbook outlining step-by-step execution. By simplifying transformation goals and getting them on paper, brilliant leaders are able to reach various milestones without becoming lost in chaos, details or the clouds.

Break your road map down into the steps you need to take to reach your final destination. Along the way to the summit, climbing teams establish camps where they can safely rest and plan the next legs of their journeys. Establish your own camps along the way so you can quickly celebrate your incremental success and refocus on your next goal as you make your way to the top.

3. Get a belay partner.

Belaying is a technique used to exert tension on a climbing rope to catch climbers who might fall. You don’t need a belay when you are close to the ground, but only when you get to more challenging terrain or unfamiliar territory. Your belay partner gives you the confidence to push further and climb higher.

As you think about executing your transformation, find a “climbing partner” who can help you belay potential falls. This could be another CEO, a friend, an outside consultant or a coach. The encouragement, straight talk, objectivity and wisdom that an objective advisor can offer you will be indispensable. This trusted advisor can be the lifeline that helps you reach seemingly impossible milestones, especially as you encounter new situations and setbacks.

4. Secure the right gear.

You would never summit Everest without knowing that you have the right equipment to make the climb. Similarly, achieving your company’s transformation goals requires you to ask yourself whether you have what it takes before you get started.

Is your company capable of achieving your goal, or do you need to get additional resources or capabilities? Is your product or service giving the market something it craves? Is there a disruptive potential for it? Do you have the talent in place to commercialize it? If you don’t ensure that you have the gear to handle your journey before you get started, you’re bound to get stuck halfway up the mountain.

5. Pick your expedition team.

There’s a good reason most Everest expeditions stay below a 4-to-1 climber-to-guide ratio. Climbing the tallest mountain on Earth demands highly specific expertise — no different than companies taking on a major transformation.

Superstar leaders embarking on transformations will need to amass the right team with the right capabilities and culture fit. A good team will have members of varying abilities, but everyone should be willing to give 100% of what they have. Focus on bringing together collaborative individuals who are eager to empower those around and under them. In a recent study, more than 75% of managers felt that transparent trust fosters stronger bonds than pure control.

6. Be flexible.

Mountain climbing requires as much flexibility as it does strength. The same is true in business. Keep your transformation directions flexible, which enables everyone to pivot in real time. You will undoubtedly be rerouted at some point, so expect known unknowns and unknown unknowns to pop up along the way. As long as you remain nimble, you can adjust course without wavering on your destination.

If you are in any type of leadership position, you know that transformation is not optional. While it may feel like you’re scaling the tallest mountain in the world, remember that even the highest peaks can be reached. View this experience as an odyssey, enjoying the tales you and your team weave along the way. These stories will someday become part of your lasting legacy, and this lore will inspire others to climb their own seemingly impassable mountains.

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Acertitude, which advises boards and CEOs of notable private equity firms and companies globally. Read Kevin O'Neill's full executi...">Managing partner and co-founder of Acertitude, which advises boards and CEOs of notable private equity firms and companies globally. Read Kevin O'Neill's full executi...

Forbes New York Business Council is an invitation-only, fee-based organization for successful entrepreneurs and business leaders in Greater New York. Find out if you qua...