Transformation is a big word. When we think of transformation in business, we also think in big images, like forces of nature. Business transformation is like a metaphorical earthquake that’s supposed to shake a company from head to toe and where colleagues, like the prophets of old, will suddenly come out renewed and with flames of burning inspiration above each other’s heads.
The reality of business transformation, however, is subtle and long-term. Like all change, it starts from the head of the company: either the entrepreneur(s) in charge, in the case of startups and smaller teams, or CEOs and senior leaders, in the case of bigger companies. This kind of subtle transformation is what shapes the team on a daily basis and fosters incredible growth.
Here is what companies that are investing in their future today can teach us about the process of transformational business leadership, and where it can take your business.
1. Build emotional intelligence
Since its breakthrough as a term thirty years ago, emotional intelligence, or EQ, has taken its place not only as the runner-up, but as the indispensable partner of IQ — intellectual quotient or intellectual intelligence. However, you’ll find its power of transformation still a lot more discussed in personal and intra-team environments and relationships than in leadership practices.
For Joel Knutson, a Customer Experience Executive at global entertainment company EA, and a team leader with over two decades of experience in the entertainment software industry, one of the staples of building transformational leadership has been implementing insightful psychological practices to build emotional intelligence within leadership.
“We have the team from Trilogy Effect help us focus on how we lead as a team [which] includes Enneagram work for every leader,” Knutson says. “The impact has been profound. It was amazing to hear from every person about their Enneagram type, and what they’ve learned about themselves through this exercise.”
The goal of using the Enneagram framework for leaders may be defined in paraphrasing the ancient Delphic maxim: Know thyself before you can lead others.
By exploring and understanding their own psychological foundations, leaders understand how their beliefs and views influence team and company growth.
“Now we’re stronger because we understand where each other is coming from, understand each other’s fears and underlying motivations and behavior patterns,” Knutson says. “Based on this success, we’re rolling this EQ training out to my extended leadership team.”
According to Knutson, the result is precious self-awareness that creates “a new sense of empathy for each other”, and enhances the ability to lead the company through the pandemic and its aftermath.
2. Help every employee identify their special talent
Employee loyalty and retention are still some of the biggest challenges for businesses. Based on industry fluctuations, you will find that a turnover rate above 10%-15% usually means bad news. And that bad news is usually rooted in bad leadership.
However, transformational leadership isn’t just about cutting employee fluctuation rates. It’s about cultivating the sort of talent in the organization that will in turn become a motivation and a transformation for the team and the company.
The answer, says Jim Pendergast, SVP for AltLINE Sobanco, isn’t just to grab the hottest talent out of the talent pool. It’s to constantly cultivate the ground under the feet of your existing talent.
“Even leaders who offer the best benefits and compensation will see frequent fluctuation in their employee lists if they don’t encourage people to seek their special skills and act on them,” Pendergast says. “Everyone is good at something, but forcing people to stay in a box you create will leave them feeling drained more easily.”
Transformational leaders are always on the lookout for a hidden skill, initiative, or growth opportunity for their team members. They approach each colleague not as easily replaceable parts but see each of their skills in telescopic view of how they can transform the company.
The result, says Pendergast, will be beneficial for both parties. Employees will see their skills and initiative prized, thus becoming emotionally — not just financially involved in their work, and leaders will see an absolutely organic boost of team loyalty, productivity, and overall company growth.
3. Address colleagues’ special needs
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic has switched every leader’s (and simply every human’s) world upside down. As businesses struggled and teams had gone remote, leadership practices switched to a place of background importance for many businesses with a focus on “making it through” the worst of the pandemic and surviving remote mode.
While the above is still relevant, we may find how transformational leadership practices do not interfere with a business’s main goals of survival and growth during the pandemic. Martin Orefice, founder of Rent To Own Labs proves a case in point.
“It’s important to understand that the dynamics of work have changed in response to the pandemic,” Orefice says. “It’s all about making your team feel at ease. By embracing flexibility and informality, you’re able to give the much-needed breathing space to your employees, which contributes to better productivity. Since they’re not governed by strict rules, individuals work at schedules that suit them best and this is something that has really helped me create a cohesive and responsive workforce.”
“Embracing flexibility” is something that comes naturally to a leader that is best defined as “compassionate”. Someone who sees people first, even in light of deadlines, struggling customers, and a future that’s still far from normal.
“COVID-19 has produced a strong psychological impact on people and we’ve all been emotionally vulnerable,” Orefice says. “These trying times call for compassion and empathy to infuse positive emotions. I reflect the same in my business and it works like magic.”
The magic is the compassion itself. It’s the reason why a transformational leader like Orefice is able to achieve things that skills, talent, and hard work alone can’t nail.
“My team appreciates that I value their emotions and offer care. It makes them feel at ease and motivates them to contribute better to the growth of the company. This stems from the power of compassion which sketches genuine bonds between people.”
Paying attention to the personalized needs of team members, leaders aren’t just making work easier and more productive for everyone. They’re setting off a chain reaction of compassionate care that transforms their companies inside out.
4. Redefine authority within your team
Paradoxically, the challenge of authority doesn’t come up within teams that implement transformational methodologies, like the horizontal leadership model or other so-called ‘democratic’ types of leadership. Authority is the “stumbling stone” precisely for leaders who are wary of their organization skipping autocracy for a “Parliamentary state” republic where the respective parties may well end up (in their view), involved in a revolution. And who wants a revolution in times of a pandemic, right?
Yet the only kind of uprising that happens in teams governed by transformational leadership is the “up-rising” of growth. If your team or organization is experiencing chaos after embracing open, democratic leadership ideals, you’re not yet a transformative leader, notes Peter Vlasov, Head of Software Development at MightyCall.
“Authority in horizontal leadership is based not on corporate status but on the team leader’s personal example.” — Peter Vlasov
“Horizontal leadership is not so much a management style as the lifestyle that turns your business from a ‘structure’ into a living, creative, unified organism,” Vlasov says. “If a leader does not have sufficient respect or there is a chaos of opinions within the team, the problem isn’t the horizontal leadership model. It’s the leader’s lack of attention and inability to be a role model for their team.”
In transformative teams, a leader’s authority and respect aren’t “default” — they’re “earned.” Both are natural offsprings of personal example. Vlasov is keen to point out that unless a leader is constantly involved in personal growth, it won’t be long until the whole team comes to a standstill.
“Based on our team’s experience, I would say that any kind of transformational leadership is only possible when leaders are proactive, open to ideas, and constantly learning new things — both hard and soft skills,” he says. “A stagnant leader will never be successful in encouraging team potential. In contrast, a proactive leader drives the development of the entire team with their example.”
By definition, being a leader is about putting yourself out there — in the lead, in the head of change. It’s not about being first in the line of special privilege. It’s about being first in line to solve challenges, identify opportunities, and inspire trust. The resulting respect is the most precious kind of authority any leader can hope for.
Transformational business leadership is a very subtle organizational process, but one that brings on a revolution more powerful than any sudden yet unrooted force. Primarily, business transformation is a team process built on responsibility, trust, and caring leaders that are exceptional role models for their team. A process that begins at the very top and spreads across the whole business. Built around these principles, you can be certain that your startup or growing company is built on a rock that will not be shaken by either the pandemic or any other force of nature or business.
Angela Yurchenko is a business journalist and classical musician. In her personal writing, she shares stories of the human experience through the lens of emotional intelligence, philosophy, arts & culture. Find more of Angela’s writing on Medium and on her blog, Birdsong.
Image courtesy of fauxels.