Michael Robinson recently concluded his role as a senior executive for a major pharmaceutical company. I had the chance to interview Michael about a massive transformational change that he led.

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

Michael: It’s three things. One, building a leadership team that aligns on creating a clear and concise vision for the transformation. This vision is used to develop engagement throughout the entire organization. The leadership team must be aligned and committed. Second, an engagement strategy to inspire and align the organization for the transformation. Finally, execution must be realistic, staged and thoughtfully monitored and measured.

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

Michael: I lead the creation of a US Medical Affairs team of about 400 employees throughout the United States. About half were located at corporate headquarters, the other half were in the field and mostly working from home. The field medical team was in critical condition as indicated by disastrously low organizational engagement scores. We had to work to rebuild the confidence of this team, and simultaneously demonstrate their value to the rest of the company. Within the first year of this project, we managed to improve engagement scores from 22 to 77 (out of 100). This kind of improvement in employee engagement is remarkable and was extremely rewarding. Unfavorable attrition plummeted from 16% to 2% in two short years.

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

Michael: The purpose of the transformation was clarified by strategic leadership engagement and a communication plan. Early on, I sat down with every field medical team member to discuss issues and opportunities for the new organization. Through the balance of the first year, I met with most employees. During these meetings I asked open-ended questions and actively listened for feedback. The communication plan strategically linked and reinforced every key message in the vision. In summary, we “lived” the change in every layer of the organization and fostered broad listening and engagement.

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

Michael: The most significant manifestation of this occurred in the alignment of the purpose and value of the field medical team throughout my organization and with the commercial team. We met with cross functional colleagues at all levels to understand current and future state, embracing the value of the field team, and giving leaders and employees alike a platform for expressing opinions.

Steve: What cultural attributes made this transformation easier or more difficult?

Michael: We started this project with low employee engagement scores particularly in the category of Trust and Transparency – “can you trust your leader?” When this is your starting point, one first must gain back the trust of the employees. Therefore, we put much effort into our leadership engagement and communication plan. This included multiple channels to listen and communicate WITH employees – leadership forums, group lunches with the leader, employee of the month program, change agent network of employees, newsletters and all employee meetings were live.

Steve: How did you enroll the team into the transformation?

Michael: Employees must first be able to trust leadership to steer them in the right direction. They must also be able to identify with the stated vision for the transformation and understand the “why” behind the work. This begins with the leadership team traveling throughout the various locations of the organization. Once we had the leadership team in place, we took the first six months to develop trust and buy-in. The leadership team gradually came together around a common vision, and we practiced healthy conflict to achieve solid buy-in and alignment to the vision. This was critical to the success of the transformation and was time well spent. We also developed a Change Agent Network of selected U.S. employees that independently identified and developed projects that were in line with the overall vision and were important to the employees. Organized in this manner, employees collectively shared feedback and identified workstreams to execute at the front-line to drive the transformation.

Steve: Outside of your immediate function, what other organizational challenges did you face?

Michael: Medical Affairs was new to the company. Therefore, the value the Medical Affairs team could bring was poorly understood. To address this, the project began with top senior cross-functional leadership aligned to the vision and goals for the transformation. We reviewed progress frequently, and cross-functional teams were brought together to understand each other’s roles and the ways they work together. This was done in large group and small group settings with senior leadership observing the progress firsthand.

Steve: How did you become more of a coach?

Michael: The most significant way in which I became more of a coach was in encouraging and managing healthy conflict. The leadership team must come together as a team and align as a team. In order to successfully do that, we had to engage in healthy conflict and disagreement. This took several months to accomplish and was frequently re-visited. Also, I am a firm believer in the visibility of the leader. I had to be approachable and listen to all employees. I made myself available to engage employees at all levels.

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

Michael: Listen. Listen. And listen. Any successful transformation project must have the trust and engagement of the employees in the organization. Trust only begins if the leader is willing to actively listen. The leader must bring the organization along in the transformation. Pushing out a vision that the leader wants to accomplish without first having listened to and engaged with the employees extensively, is doomed to fail or not stick long-term. Take the time upfront, listen to the needs of the organization.

Dedicated to your profitable transformation,

Steve

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