While organisations often benefit from external support to design and shape transformation efforts, it is leaders working collectively who do the heavy lifting to realise value.

Enterprise transformation needs to be leader led. Leadership in times of transformation is different and demands new and different choices and habits of your leadership team. So, what are these new leadership skills for a world where complex change is part of the everyday landscape?

A different kind of leadership

Successful transformation requires a clear articulation of, and alignment around, the purpose and promise of the organisation. There is value in leaders shaping the narrative aspiration of the organisation together, and regularly returning to that narrative with stakeholders, leaders and staff.

Leading in times of change is also about looking outward and forward to sense trends and disruptions in the business environment and setting this as an expectation and skillset for leaders at all levels. It is about helping people to embrace innovation and creating the conditions that enable a culture of continual adaptation.

A strong narrative for change that supports purpose and promise is a game-changer as leadership teams navigate through the inevitable ambiguity and challenges of shaping and steering transformation efforts.

Collective leadership in practice

Collective leadership can mean making conscious choices around factors such as, what does it look like to lead together to create the change that we're seeking? What decisions are we going to make as a collective group, and choices we make as individual leaders?

However, it is also more complex. Your organisation is a web of social interactions, decisions and networks. This means transformation is a social challenge as much as it is a technical one.


Mobilising social networks to help shape and steer the transformation means understanding and making overt a myriad of interdependencies that operate every day to make things happen (or not).

Using insights about how the social networks and decision systems are operating, and where power is ebbing and flowing, is an art and also a contemporary skillset for transformation leaders. It requires sharing of collective intelligence to inform decisions and drawing insights about how things ‘really’ work, to design interventions that unlock new habits and ways of working.

The social challenge of transformation

Enterprise transformation can disrupt the natural order of power, politics and ‘messiness’ in your organisation. Unchecked, the emotional and political disruption can become a barrier to realising the full potential of the transformation efforts. People may be silent on their concerns about the new direction of the business, or about their authority being taken away.

In our experience, the work of unlocking new potential is the heavy lifting that is required and it does demand new skillsets that recognise that organisations are not rational places, but are filled with emotion, social dynamics, conflict and politics that need to be managed in times of change.

In practical terms, leaders need to facilitate difficult or controversial conversations, and ask, what is the real issue at play? Where are the true roadblocks? What are the things that perhaps people aren’t talking about? This could require being comfortable with awkward silences, staying curious for longer, embracing complexity and ambiguity, navigating competing objectives, and working through the priorities of different individuals in pursuit of alignment.

In today’s volatile world, leaders will be transforming their enterprise at a time when they themselves and their people are experiencing fatigue, stress and heightened levels of anxiety and dissonance. Leading through transformation in this context is about understanding the experience and capacity of people to embrace more uncertainty and ambiguity in their workplaces.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders had to learn to employ different communication approaches, such as understanding emotional reactions, and listening for signs of distress or disengagement. In addition, personal values, mental health and challenges of social inclusion have all become much more prevalent in our workplaces – all changing the conversations leaders are having. In transformation, this is amplified.

Questions to test your leadership team

Some critical questions CEOs and boards can ask to test whether your leadership team is focused on the real challenges of transformation fall into two categories – the structural and functional aspects of your transformation, and the political, social and decision system aspects.

Consider these questions:

  • Do we have a shared view of what and why we are transforming?
  • Do we have the right combination of internal and external expertise to design and shape the process of transformation?
  • What are the specific drivers of our transformation?
  • Do we have a clear and sequenced plan for executing our transformation agenda?
  • What reporting and monitoring mechanisms have we put in place?
  • Is our project/program management approach fit for purpose?

  • Are we as leaders aligned around a clear and agreed purpose, and have we articulated our organisation’s refreshed promise to all of our stakeholders?
  • Have we consciously reset our approach to leadership and decision-making to reflect the pace and scale of the transformation agenda? Do we have an agreed approach to leading and adapting as this evolves?
  • Are there ‘undiscussables’ among the leadership team? Are we having the right conversations?
  • Will our transformation unsettle and put a spotlight on the exercise of power and politics across the system? How will we lead to ensure those dynamics don’t serve as a blocker to change?
  • Do we have alignment between our executive, our board and our people as to why and how we are embarking on transformation? How will we ensure we maintain alignment as things change and adapt over time? And in doing so, how do we embrace the ‘hard conversations’ (the ones that surface disagreement, conflict or misalignment)?
  • What do our positional and informal leaders need to see, hear and experience when they engage with us as leaders of leaders throughout this transformation journey?

Leaders of leaders – practical considerations

When embarking on transformation, leaders of leaders need to equip leaders at all levels (formal and informal) for these shifts in leadership practice. For example, it is important to:

  • Be conscious of the propensity to run fast to execute on transformation activities, even when you know the importance of ‘slowing down to speed up’. Resist the urge to react to the sense of urgency, even if it is uncomfortable or stressful (noting this is not advocating for procrastination, that is a different issue). Leaders who model the discipline of pausing, attending to the social challenges of transformation, and building alignment on the work ahead reap the benefits of collective wisdom, alignment and action.
  • model staying curious by asking questions and seeking out different perspectives, rather than feeling that you must know all the answers – particularly when you are in the midst of complex challenges and shaping a new future.
  • model and expect collaboration and active engagement with other leaders on transformation strategy, execution and problem solving.
  • facilitate new leadership conversations, unearth hidden truths, embrace and confront politics, and do not shy away from the hard conversations.
  • shape the narrative at all levels, clarify purpose and promise, and create meaningful engagement for the people involved in transformation. This is not about telling people what to do, but engaging with people and encouraging them to find their own reason to support the journey.
  • build adaptive awareness and capability in others. There will always be a new customer demand, emerging technology, or regulatory requirement to respond to. Therefore, leaders of leaders need to invest time and effort to create the conditions by which people throughout the organisation are capable of continuous adaptation.

Finding the influencers

The perfect people to lead through transformation may not always be sitting in senior roles. There is the possibility that within different departments or teams there are leaders and influencers well placed to steer change locally.

One way to find these people is through digital survey tools and mapping social networks. This can help to highlight who your influencers are at a micro level, who is connected to whom, so you can mobilise these natural leaders.

How KPMG can support your leadership transformation

At KPMG, we know that your transformation must be leader-led. We also know that leading complex and continuous change and reform requires collective effort.

In our experience, many leadership teams mistake positional authority for leadership. We know that positional authority is useful, but not sufficient to navigate the complexity inherent in transformation and reform. That is why we specifically work with executive leadership teams to shape and steer new leadership conversations and practices that are fit for purpose in complex transformation.

Specifically, we know that the work of ‘leaders of leaders’ in transformation requires different mindsets, skillsets and adoption of new habits. Those skillsets, mindsets and habits then need to be replicated and adapted by leaders at all levels, including those informal leaders that have the power to drive your transformation to realise the value you seek.

We can assist with leadership alignment activities, creating shared purpose and narrative, and work with you to shape and facilitate complex conversations. We also have tools to assist with identifying internal influencers, building relational and social awareness and competence, identifying and building new mindsets, skillsets and habits and measuring sentiment for your transformation agenda. Importantly, we can act as an external protagonist, facilitator and critical friend alongside your leadership team(s) to support the collective heavy lifting that will bring your transformation to life.

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