A CFO’s perspective on the personal toll of leading change and how to avoid it

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Leading change can be stressful and isolating. We recently commissioned research into how leaders can minimize stress and make their transformation programs 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 pithy questions. If people raise those in the right way, you’re going to get a better outcome if the project 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 all about 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 programs, 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 already invested in something, and are thinking, “should we throw this all away, abandon ship? Or should we carry on?” Those become tough conversations.

Channeling 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 your and the team’s integrity on the line. If you spend millions for nothing, people are going to look at you a little bit differently and say, “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 everything?
You can get yourself into a position where you over-focus on a project. You actually live and breathe the whole thing yourself. When it’s going badly, you’re doing badly, and when it’s going well, you’re doing 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 recognize the difference between help and hindrance. 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 the ability to constantly remind yourself why you’re doing this. You also have to actually ‘sell’ things along the way as well. On one program, the first day we got real data that was consistent across a couple of organizations and started delivering daily information to everyone –  that was a huge win. It was something we’d never had before and to be able to show that to 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 an immediate focus to the problem. The skill lies in  stepping back from it relatively quickly and saying “right, what do we do about it?”

Featured Resource

Download our research ‘Overcome the human challenges of business transformation’  and learn from personal experiences of 120 senior executives scoring their most significant transformation initiative against the leadership framework.

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