Adam Alonso is the Chief Executive Officer of BUILD Chicago Inc. BUILD Chicago’s mission is to engage at-risk youth in schools and on the streets to help them realize their potential and contribute to our communities. Recently I had the opportunity to talk with Adam about leading transformationally.

Steve: What does it mean to you to be a transformational leader?

Adam: To me it means to bring people together through a shared vision. Leading by example, rolling up your sleeves and visibly following through on your action. It also means to have empathy, be humble, be honest, and be confident. Regarding humility – this is important. Don’t believe your own press. Don’t promote yourself to the team. Let your work speak for itself.

Steve: Tell me about a time when this was particularly challenging or rewarding for you.

Adam: When I first arrived at BUILD, I was not wanted here. There was a large group of employees who would have preferred another leader. I started by talking with every employee. We jointly discovered opportunities for improvement. We put much-needed discipline in place – such as being in the office for eight hours every day. This wasn’t popular, but we did it. Other basics included dressing professionally and keeping the place clean. I learned who my allies were, and we worked together to drive these basic elements of discipline. I was very clear and held them to these higher standards. We lost several employees who couldn’t adjust to the increased discipline. As new employees came in, we set the foundation for the new culture.

Steve: How did you clarify the purpose of this transformation?

Adam: It was ultra-chaotic around me. I determined not to become sucked into this. I experienced all of this and as an outsider had limited insight but great perspective. We needed to drive greater discipline and structure. I listened to suggestions and gave people the chance to engage. I went into this with 100% trust in them and gave them a 100% benefit of the doubt, even though there was a large group of dissidents. Slowly we moved them out and built the new organization and culture.

Steve: In what ways did you experience cross-functional dysfunction, and how did you address this?

Adam: Early on we had a youth conference at a local high school that drew more than 100 attendees. I learned that the employee in charge of the event, Rick, was doing this all by himself. No one assisted him in setting this up. He established all the speakers, logistics, refreshments, everything. Other leaders did not help. People were in silos and did not speak with each other. To remedy this, I used this example and was quite clear with the leadership team that this behavior was not acceptable. We need to help one another prepare and host these large events. I set clear expectations and we performed postmortems on these. Over time, this improved greatly.

Steve: Were there cultural attributes that made the transformation easier or more difficult?

Adam: This organization was siloed with a great deal of mistrust, even within a team. People threw each other under the bus. We talked a great deal about changing it, but in the beginning, it was grueling. It had become so ingrained. There was an informal power structure that was untouchable. The good news was that everyone had enthusiasm for the mission and over time their passion outweighed the negative behavior. As we shared our positive experiences, it grabbed their heart and gave me a platform to move forward.

Steve: How did you enroll others in the transformation?

Adam: Much of this was done by clarifying the need for greater structure and discipline. There was also some negative reinforcement that worked in our favor: when people began leaving the organization some of those who remained were alarmed. The realized they either needed to engage or leave. They had to choose. It worked. People who stayed determined for themselves that the new culture was good for them and good for the organization for which they had so much passion.

Steve: How did you become more of a coach?

Adam: This is a more recent development. I’ve learned to ask the right questions. I’m moving from the role of manager to become more of a coach. I am holding people accountable by asking them about what they did and how they can learn from it – both best practices and lessons learned.

Steve: If you could give one piece of advice, what would it be?

Adam: To me, it’s all about humility. Yes, you have position and power, but don’t let this go to your head. Don’t believe your own press. Humility and kindness will take you far. It doesn’t mean being weak – you still need to hold people accountable.

Endnote: At the beginning of Adam’s tenure at BUILD, he was met with a great deal of resistance. As with most other organizations, people resist when culture is threatened. It is often the senior managers who become unseen detractors. Therefore, organizational transformation rarely follows a straightforward path. Instead, it is a social movement that spreads commitment.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,


I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article. Please join the discussion on LinkedIn to add your comments.

Would you like to contribute to a fantastic cause? Your contribution will go to efforts to work with at-risk youth across Chicagoland. You can donate to BUILD here.

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