A CFO’s perspective on the personal toll of leading change

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Leading change can feel stressful and isolating. We recently commissioned research into how leaders can minimise stress and make their transformation programmes more successful. Here a CFO shares his views on the personal toll of leading change.

The stress of making the right decision

When you’re leading change and making the initial decision you have to get involved in the detail and really challenge the process. If you’re putting a project forward, you would expect your colleagues to challenge it and say, “what happens if…” and “in my experience…” and ask damn good questions. If people raise those in the right way, you’re going to get a better outcome if it goes forward.

If it’s not my project but is brought to the board – my job is to challenge, ask the questions that I’m concerned about, raise issues. The challenge process is being honest with your views and concerns, and making sure that you ask the right questions.

When the stakes are particularly high, the ‘challenge’ process becomes longer and harder. It’s a lot harder to get people’s buy-in as well. Your approval processes, by definition are much longer and more torturous.

In high-stakes programmes, you can get multiple ‘challenge’ stages. So after year two, people ask “should we carry on, or should we stop?” And that becomes really hard because you’re invested something, and are thinking, “should we throw this all away, abandon ship? Or we should we carry on?” Those become tough conversations.

Channelling the positive side of stress

Are you nervous before you give a speech? Yes, you should be, otherwise you won’t do a good job. So before you do anything on a major initiative, if you’re not nervous and concerned, it probably means you’re not doing your job well enough, or have not taken enough risk.

You should be nervous if you’re doing something that’s important, because it matters to you.

The stress of the implementation

If you are doing a really large initiative, you are undoubtedly putting yours and the team’s integrity on the line. Because, if you spend millions for nothing, people are going to look at you a little bit differently and go, “good call that, well done you, you’re clearly a genius!”

There is no doubt there’s an element of personal risk that goes with those things, but isn’t that true on anything?
You can get yourself into a position where you become very over-focused on a project. You actually live and breathe the whole thing yourself. When it’s going badly, you’re going badly, and when it’s going well, you’re going well. You take on the personality of the stage of the project you’re in. That’s the hardest part because you’re very wrapped up in something that’s very large. You can get to a point where, even though your colleagues are trying to help you through it, you don’t recognise help for hindrance, or hindrance for help. That makes it very, very tough.

On one huge transformation, I can remember a number of times we celebrated small wins. Because you have to just get yourself out of that whole, ‘this is large and this is serious’ discussion.

You can take a lot of abuse during large change initiatives as well. Because you’re doing stuff that is impacting lots of people around you, and people can have quite strong views. They can be very negative in terms of dealing with you, and with the problem.

You need resilience, stamina, and an ability to remind yourself why you’re doing something. You also have to actually ‘sell’ things along the way as well. On one programme, the first day we started to be able to get real data that was consistent across a couple of organisations and start delivering daily information to everyone – was a huge win. It was something we’d never had before and to be able to show people that was just amazing.

I would love to say that I have never let stress get the better of me, but there are occasions when it does. Because if something goes wrong, it brings in an immediate focus to the problem. The skill is actually can you step back from it relatively quickly and say “right, what do we do about it?”

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