Andrew Ramwell co-founded Know and Do – a business coaching and consultancy service – with Bernard Clarke over a decade ago. Together, they help businesses flourish by solving the problems that their leaders face. We managed to catch up with Andrew and capture some of his thoughts on the topic of business transformation from the perspective of a specialist in sales, marketing and negotiation.
What does transformation mean to you?
In the world of business, transformation is one of those words that gets used a lot but too many people never stop to really understand what it means to them. At a basic level, I suspect that most people think it denotes some process of change. I personally would use ‘transformation’ to indicate a significant, fundamental and lasting level of planned change within a business. This might involve whole scale transformation across a business or changes to specific functions such as technology, logistics or sales.
In writing this article though, I was mindful of the rapid and forced transformation that many of my clients and countless businesses have had to make in response to the global covid-19 pandemic. I recall a quote by the boss at Tesco who said they have transformed more in the first 10 weeks than they had in the last 10 years in response to unprecedented demand for food and household supplies. I do think that people will view transformation in a different light post-pandemic. Businesses have all been forced in some way to transform because of the emergency measures. Marketplaces will have changed and continue to change over the forthcoming months, meaning continued transformation and evolution or extinction for some businesses.
Describe your own expertise and involvement in the space of business transformation.
As a business coach I work a lot with owners and senior leadership teams of businesses. It’s interesting as most times business transformation also requires personal transformation from those leaders. The two go hand in hand and other coaches I speak with confirm this as well. It’s worth remembering that business transformation can be driven by many different reasons. Sometimes it’s because a business is not performing or has suddenly lost market share, other times it’s because the business wants to scale or prepare for exit, and other times it’s because the owner wants to create a better work/life balance.
Whatever the driver, there’s a big difference working with a business on planned transformation projects as opposed to forced transformation in response to a crisis. I’ve experience of working with both scenarios. In either scenario, the businesses that had good processes in place generally performed better. I believe this echoes the sentiment from the Greek poet Archilochus who stated “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations; we fall to the level of our training.” During periods of change, good process helps by giving people a focus and clear instructions to guide them during uncertainty.
Over the last 25 years I’ve worked with hundreds of businesses and organisations across the public, private and voluntary sectors most of whom were experiencing some form of transformation. I’ve driven transformation programmes for example; I led a piece of research across 600+ community organisations that identified issues around sustainable leadership. In response, I co-wrote and delivered a bespoke 7 day Inspiring Leaders programme to over 300 community groups to provide them with the necessary leadership skills to transform their organisations through the deepest austerity cuts these organisations had ever experienced.
I’ve worked on large scale transformation projects as an advisor for several government departments. I also worked for over 2 years on the original obesity report (CG43) for the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). NICE provides national guidance and advice to improve health and social care. I worked on the Commonwealth Games 2002 as an advisor to Manchester City Council as it prepared for the games and after the games ensuring that they delivered a lasting legacy. I helped establish a physical activity based project in local schools linked to the games that tracked 10,000+ children over 10 years and assessed 1m hours of physical education (PE). This project transformed the way PE was taught and won a Times Education Award – most importantly it changed many of the children’s lives for the better.
For the past 10 years, I’ve been working directly with business owners taking this large-scale transformation experience and supporting them to make measured change in themselves and their businesses. This support is delivered in a variety of ways from longer term project work (min 12 months) through to shorter term interventions or training to help refocus a team and build new processes. The focus is always on ensuring that businesses have a clear vision, solid values and the right processes and strategies to drive transformation. With these foundational building blocks it’s much easier to engage staff in delivering a successful transformation outcome.
What I find interesting is many smaller businesses bring me in to work with some aspect of change such as to develop their teams or managers, or help them review their marketing and sales strategy but I end up working on more strategic transformation as lots of the issues are connected. Poor sales is not normally a single issue around sales knowledge per se, but an interlinked problem across the business linked to factors such as a changing marketplace, evolving customer needs, weak lead generation, poor closing skills, lack of product technical knowledge, confusing customer experience, and poor product and/or service fulfilment.
I also find that many SME businesses start well, grow and then need to significantly change and evolve around 3-4 years in – or in other words transform. This can be difficult as this can mean the need to fundamentally change processes and many times people to ensure the business is successful. Many owners or leaders struggle with this level of transformation the first time around, which probably explains the high rate of failure of start-ups during the first 5 years.
How and when should a transformation programme begin?
Before it’s needed is the simple answer. We live in a global connected 24-7 society. Businesses need to sense check their marketplace more frequently than before. The Covid-19 crisis exposed many businesses as not having effective contingency plans and many businesses were slow to respond and transform at the speed and/or scale needed. Businesses should always be thinking about transforming as markets and customers’ needs are constantly changing. There needs to be a balance of working in the business (delivering the day to day) and on the business (strategy setting). I believe that businesses should undertake better analysis of their marketplaces and potential customers – what you don’t know will kill you in business.
Unfortunately, most individuals think about transforming their health when they fall ill and it’s the same with many businesses. A more proactive approach is needed with regular business health checks. The great thing is that success leaves clues and plenty of others have achieved what we are setting out to do and left quite clear instructions if we choose to look for them.
It never ceases to amaze me how little many businesses or senior managers really know at the granular level about what’s going on in the marketplace. Much of this data is freely available, yet it needs converting into information and knowledge through filtering it. This is relevant for small and large businesses and there are plenty of case studies such as Blockbuster, Comet and Woolworths who didn’t pay heed to the data and the changing markets. Others such as white goods and electrical wholesaler, AO.com (est in 2000) and fitness apparel brand, Gymshark (est in 2012) have thrived by targeting specific customers and using data to drive the businesses forward.
Transformation is an ongoing process and the traditional 5 year plan is potentially too long a time to stay fixed in the modern world. After all in the Origin of the Species, Charles Darwin reminds us that “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, not the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”
What are the risks of transforming a business model?
There are plenty of risks to transformation but most can be managed if effectively planned beforehand. There are likely bigger risks associated with not transforming a business than with transformation. That said transformation done wrong, can be costly. There are plenty of large scale examples from the NHS, education, British Airways, and the justice system that have been subjected to countless transformations that haven’t delivered the significant results promised. Too much dabbling in change, without a real understanding of what’s needed, is perhaps the biggest risk to most large scale change projects. Large scale transformation is highly complex and many leaders expect change too quickly, have unrealistic expectations of digital transformation and integrated operations, and make decisions based on delivering quick wins to appease markets.
I see it the same as a physical body transformation. If someone who is overweight wants to lose weight then through a crash diet rapid weight loss can be achieved, but it’s rarely sustained and done repeatedly it damages the body. Working with someone to look at the emotional, physical and psycho-social aspects of body transformation encompasses many more measures and interventions than weight loss alone. Done right, this provides the framework for someone to understand and sustain a healthy vibrant body over their lifespan. Done wrong, it leads to a life of misery, ill health and long-term damage to a person’s physical and mental health.
Nobody necessarily likes change, and staff and customers may be confused and frustrated at the start of any transformation process. Some of the biggest risks are not adequately planning the transformation and bringing people along with you. I’ve seen a senior leader tell his 2,500 strong workforce about an enforced change and he summed up with – “if you don’t like it, there’s the door”. Not exactly inspirational stuff and I know that last statement, disengaged many of the workforce at a time they needed to be more engaged than ever.
As a coach, I get to see business transformation is delivered most effectively through developing new business processes, whilst also understanding how to best engage staff and other stakeholders in the transformation process. One will not work without the other.
Describe a successful business transformation you’ve been involved with?
I’ve several businesses that I’ve worked with over an extended period of time to help guide their transformation. One transformation journey that stands out in particular is helping an early SME client, Clever IT in Horwich achieve its first £1m in turnover. I helped them go from ~£300K to £1m+.
I first started working with the business when they had 4 employees and were looking to grow. They were busy but stretched, and the MD was working flat out and regularly working 6-7 long days a week.
The business had the potential for growth but my biggest fear was that any growth would exact a toll on the MD, who was the conduit for too many decisions in the business. I worked with him to get a clear vision, values and 2-3 year plan for the business. This took time and several false starts, as the business got busy and the MD got sucked into being too hands on. The business knew it could be a £1m+ business and this was a core driver to keep them focused on implementing the transformation. Slowly, but surely we were able to get clearer on the vision beyond just the finances and add values and begin to define the brand attributes which in turn set out what customers they wanted.
Processes and strategies were developed in line with the values and expectations of the business. As each process or strategy from sales, marketing, operations, IT, human resources, health and safety and so on was outlined it could be delegated or outsourced with clear KPIs and roles and responsibilities. We began to rebalance the efforts of the MD to be more strategic and less hands on with the day to day. With MDs that love what they do, this can be a real challenge. The breakthrough came as the MD began to undergo a personal as well as professional transformation. Better work life balance fed into better business results.
Their best customers were attracted and stayed with them due to the standards that the MD set and delivered. He cared and wanted to meet as many customers and ensure that they were receiving a high standard. As the business grew though, he realised that he had to trust the staff to adopt and deliver to these standards and values – known as the Clever Way. By working on building these standards into the processes and systems we worked to embed these into the wider and by now expanding team. The more we did this, the more time he got back that allowed him to further develop the processes and systems that supported the customers and grew new business.
The MD started to work on himself and develop better practices to maintain his energy, configure a better work life balance, and refine the brand and mission for the business. The business refreshed its brand and broke through the £1m+ barrier around the same time. Clever IT have successfully navigated their way through the initial phase of the covid lockdown as they had strong processes in place and a team of people who responded to the necessary transformation. We worked hard to sense check the basics and prepare a series of potential options in the first 2 weeks of lockdown. Decisions were made and actions implemented with regular check-ins to guide the way forward. Alongside serving existing customers, they are currently preparing for a new marketing push to target new customers as they come out of lockdown.
This transformation was planned, methodical and ongoing. We weren’t aiming for massive turn around but ensuring that all aspects of the business were transformed at a pace that worked for the business and the customers. There were highs and lows along the way but setting a clear vision and values and mapping the transformation process helped us to learn and reflect. The transformation embraced where necessary technology solutions, we also worked with the team and developed their learning and thinking, and finally we worked on the wider business processes and strategies. We balanced risk and reward with the transformation and the business has emerged with a strong foundation, engaged staff, happy customers and an understanding of the need to keep striving and developing its transformation using the Clever Way.
What are the key attributes of a successful transformational leader?
The same as any good leader. All leaders must be transformational as all businesses are constantly transforming whether they want to or not. No business can stand still in what is for most a 24-7 global marketplace.
Leaders must set the vision, values and tone of the business. They need to lead the delivery of the vision and be accountable, build the right team, be strategic and measured in their approach, ethical and honest, be open to learning and development, manage their energy, be reflective and show gratitude. This is not an exhaustive list and anyone new to leadership should seek out biographies and business books that explore leadership.
I think one area that’s important for a successful leader is character. Unfortunately, we seem to be living in the age of personality, where we elect leaders of dubious character or without real depth of experience. Anyone can steer a boat in calm seas, but not everyone can captain a boat in rough seas. The covid-pandemic has exposed many leaders as lacking the skills, knowledge and attitude to effectively transform their businesses during the lockdown, whilst taking decisions and actions that fully represent the values of the business.
I like James Allen’s famous quote “Circumstances don’t make a man, they reveal him”. I use this to remind myself from time to time about what is being revealed about me at different times. This requires me to reflect, measure and challenge my thinking or perspective to ensure I’m not stuck. I use a coach, mentor or peer to remove any confirmation bias I might have.
It’s worth noting that some businesses will bring in a short-term leader with specialist turnaround experience at key times to lead a particularly significant transition. These people’s roles are normally short-term and they bring with them a potentially different perspective. They are paid and rewarded for performance and achieving the bottom line and market recognition. They have a distinct function and role but may operate differently from a leader in it for the long haul.
Business leaders in it for the long haul will experience their fair share of transformation and must be prepared for this. A great book on this area is The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons in Creative Leadership from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company by Robert Igor. The book charts the highs and the lows and the many tough decisions made along the way. As a society we tend to look at the outcome of a business like Disney and forget the decisions that have been made to get there. The book explores how Disney lost its way but was able to transform its fortunes by expanding into different markets. The author shares his thinking behind the decisions and his learnings and reflections on the journey.
Peter Drucker famously said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. What’s your view?
Both are important, both are dynamic and both can be good or bad. I think I understand where Drucker was coming from – culture is heart, whereas strategy is head. Sometimes you need culture to drive you forward to provide the passion, the will to go beyond the ordinary, and to do what’s right, even if it’s not the easy thing to do. Strategy is the logical, rational game plan, it can be replicated and followed easily.
Culture has to be real and not manufactured. I’ve seen lots of companies that play at building culture – they go on an away day in nature; they install bright pods, table tennis and pool tables, free coffee or Friday beers in the office and think that will promote a culture they’ve seen elsewhere. It’s about how a company engages with its employees and customers on a day-by-day basis and through the good times and the bad. The lived experience makes the culture more than the fancy office.
I think nowadays we also need to get all people in the business to understand and better define culture and strategy and their individual roles in maintaining and delivering both. Many customers are driven to stay loyal to businesses who they believe have the right culture. I think people’s views on business culture are changing and will continue to evolve due to breaches in confidence and continued inequalities.
What role does brand play in transformation?
Brand, culture and strategy are more important than ever for businesses as many buyers and shareholders are starting to hold more companies to account. Values are not words on a wall, they must be consistently felt in a company’s actions to realise their value. In a global connected world, brands must ensure that their actions and words align.
In 2009, I attended a leadership conference where I saw a host of big name speakers provide their insights. Two speakers stood out for me though, Professor Bill George, a businessman, academic and author, and Professor Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel Prize winning academic. Both talked about the importance of values and culture in effective and sustained business transformation.
Bill George was a high flying senior executive for large multi-nationals, who felt the need to reconsider his options after feeling that his values were being sacrificed in the pursuit of profit. He described joining a ‘small business’ called Medtronic, that was turning over $1Bn and taking it to sales of $60Bn using a values led approach to steer the growth. He wrote a book called True North to encourage others to do the same and to help people understand that good values can be profitable. The title refers to the fact that your values are your true north (a reference that is considered stable when compared with magnetic north) and should be used to steer the direction and actions of the business.
Muhammad Yunus was a Professor of Economics, who started Grameen bank to help impoverished individuals to gain access to micro-credit to start businesses and ventures that would support them, their families and local communities. Grameen bank now has operations around the world and has served some 9 million users who traditionally would be excluded from accessing loans due to having no collateral. Muhammad Yunus talked about the importance of values and culture alongside good strategy. The bank helped people to understand what they needed and how to develop full economic cost models and business plans. With millions of users and lending to the poorest of the poor, the business employed no lawyers and sealed decisions on trust and a handshake.
There is obviously more to each story, but the essence of what they shared was to develop a clear purpose, strong vision, and core values that guide the business in all it does internally and externally. A company may have to transform to evolve its products and services in an ever changing market but its values should remain and guide the brand and the business providing continuity.
What final advice would you offer a CEO or founder about to embark on a significant transformation project?
Learn from what others have done. Success leaves clues and there is plenty of good information available from others about what worked and what didn’t. This goes for whether it’s a planned or reactive need for transformation. There are some books that are found in most leaders libraries. Classics such as Sun Tzu, The Art of War (6th Century BC), Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989) and more recent additions such as L. David Marquet, Turn The Ship Around (2013).
Be a good story teller. Stories have inspired and captivated us for millennia. The best leaders can frame a transformation in a story that is engaging to those involved. It helps people to buy into a narrative, acknowledging levels of uncertainty, whilst painting a positive outcome. There are frameworks for helping to craft good stories with the most famous being Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey. The author Stephen King stated that stories and metaphors are a great way to enable people “see an old thing in a new and vivid way.”
If you can, engage a coach or a mentor or someone who’s been through the same experience, they can help you understand what you and the business are going through. It can feel lonely at the top and a good coach or mentor can help sense check your ideas ahead of sharing them with the team.
It’s important to walk the floor from time to time, there’s a difference between explicit and tacit knowledge. A data sheet gives you the raw numbers; people will give you the context, you need to draw together the two elements to form a more complete picture. I think this has to be done in-house with staff teams and with our customers as well. We can learn a lot by getting out and about and getting a real felt sense of what’s going on.
Finally, something my late dad taught me in doing DIY with him – “measure twice, cut once”. As simple as it sounds it’s too easy when we’re busy to assume our first measure or assessment is correct. Always make time to measure twice.
About Andrew Ramwell
Andrew Ramwell is a Director at Know and Do – a business coaching and consultancy services company. Andrew co-founded Know and Do with Bernard Clarke, over a decade ago. Prior to that, he spent almost 15 years running a multi-million pound self-funding research unit at the Manchester Metropolitan University. The unit developed and maintained a strong positive reputation for influencing national public policy, supporting practitioners through evidence-based approaches and practical research. He has experience of working on large-scale Government projects, running European funding, and delivering results. His first role was at McDonalds UK, where he became a junior manager helping to open the first drive-thru in the UK.