ICF Next: Business transformation must start from a shared purpose

Laurent Lejeune and James Wilkins from ICF Next explain how to get buy-in for transformation projects


ICF Next is the new marketing and engagement network from ICF Consulting. Launched in January 2019, it united dozens of offices around the world, to help organisations understand their stakeholders, collaborate across silos, and transform the way they work. Laurent Lejeune and James Wilkins are its joint managing partners; they discuss why it’s so important today for organisations to understand and engage with their stakeholders, and then dive deep into the best ways to deliver the kinds of transformation that can achieve those results. In the second part of this interview they also discuss the most common transformation mistakes, and how to avoid them.

European CEO: Laurent, why is it so important today that organisations really understand and engage with their stakeholders?

Laurent Lejeune: You know, the world is becoming every day more complex. I mean, we receive tonnes of new messages, information, news; there are brands popping up everywhere, every day. So I really believe that in this world of complexity, it’s very important for organisations to understand deeply the customers, because it helps determining their needs, it helps defining the proper messages, and that’s the only way – according to me! – that the brands will survive, and stand out from the crowd.

The more you engage with your customers, or with your citizens, or with your colleagues, the more likely it will be to create long-term relationships with those customers; to have at the end of the day loyal customers, advocate customers. So it’s being really on the day-to-day basis on top of what customers need.

European CEO: So James, how does ICF Next help organisations on that transformational journey?

James Wilkins: Well, I think transformation is hard. And I think transformation is costly. So when we work with organisations, what we’re trying to do is to help them accelerate the change.

And the way we can do that is that we go right from the beginning: getting to the heart of the organisation around, what’s really going on? What is the ambition that we’re truly trying to achieve here?

Most businesses start for a reason other than money. So we often go right back, in that: why do you even exist? What is the very reason that you’re actually here?

But equally, what are we trying to do, from a positive place? One of the things you have to be very careful of with transformation is that it’s not coming from a negative place, and that what you’re saying is with integrity. What you’re saying is with authenticity.

And the work we do is around saying, how do you think about that? How do you join up often the silos that exist in large organisations, between strategy, between communications, between marketing, between HR. Where often the CEO is the only person that may have a view of the whole organisation, and say: how do you actually combine these various areas and elements that are fundamental to your success, when you’ve got phenomenal commercial pressures to keep the day-to-day going, yet you’ve got to build the medium and the long-term.

And you’ve also got to bring in things like purpose, and vision, and values. And our work I suppose takes us through the ability, through that whole chain. We start very often in the boardroom; it is about getting the alignment, it is about understanding what the strategy actually is, and how do you translate it. And then it’s about, how do you accelerate it?

And I think in every major sector we’ve got world-leading brands where we are demonstrating an ability to accelerate change through the organisation. That is transforming the business and making things better; be it for customers, for colleagues, or for citizens, picking up on Laurent’s point.

European CEO: How do you get buy-in for something like that?

James Wilkins: I think it plays back into this idea of authenticity and integrity. So what can you actually say from a positive place, and with true depth and meaning?

The second thing is about care and closeness. How do you bring trust? How do you actually demonstrate an environment where you go, actually I feel like I trust you, I want to do this with you. How do you create want in the organisation? And that’s the idea that you have to often lead with a level of emotion, and then support it with fact.

And equally, recognise: people don’t like change! And be okay with that. And what I mean by that is to say, you have to nudge. You have to find moments of truth along the way that get people, and demonstrate progress. One of the biggest things that we see is fatigue. And it’s because actually often the benefits of transformation are not clear, so it just ends up feeling hard. And it feels costly. And you’re not quite sure who’s winning.

And I think the last area is to bring recognition and reward. You have to be really clear what matters most in the organisation; and one of my favourite phrases is, ‘Keep the main thing, the main thing.’ Don’t be distracted. One of the challenges with transformation is, everything becomes important. Not everything is equally important. It can’t be. So we have to find the way in which we order this that makes sense for everybody – and again, not just for the people sitting around the boardroom table.

Laurent Lejeune: You know it’s interesting what James said, because basically it comes back to what we were saying a few minutes ago: it’s about understanding the needs of the different people. And when we understand the needs, the motivation, we can play with it. We can build on it. We can basically take the person by the hand, and try to make them evolve. And that to me is the success of change, of transformation.

If you don’t see why you are doing things, why the management is asking you to do things, I mean: it’s probably the best way to fail!

James Wilkins: Good point Laurent, and I think just building on that. The heart of that is the idea of participation. What would it be, from the difference of: you know something, to you want to do something about it, to you are actually doing something about it?

So one of the things we talk about a lot is, where are people on this participation curve? What are they actually doing? And therefore what’s the mindset, the beliefs, the feelings, the attitudes we need to have, or they need to have, to do what we need them to do? That’s how you drive transformation, and you get to do it at pace. You have to have participation as a very meaningful outcome.