BEST Practices In Transformational Leadership

On a recent safari to Kenya, my wife and I saw some incredible sights. We asked our guides, “Which is the most powerful animal?” In the Masai Mara, they said it was the Lion for their ability to hunt together in prides in a highly organized and efficient manner.

In Amboseli, near the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro with the largest herds of elephants in the country, they pointed to all the uprooted trees. So many had been knocked down, that electrified fences were built to protect surviving forests from the power of “Tembo”.


In Samburu, the guides told us who they feared more than any other animal. They laughed and said, “The Leopard – because he will drag your a#$ up a tree and eat you a day later!”


But the most powerful animals we saw might be enormous flocks of tiny birds (each weighs about 1.5 ounces or 40 grams) called Quelea. They rolled through fields like giant waves kicking up huge clouds of dust – six or seven thousand of them at a time. Farmers across Africa are frightened at the sight of as many as two million at a time which can devastate entire regions of grain crops in a matter of days. As I watched them, I thought about how unstoppable these tiny birds were when they flew together.


As we look back on 2012, we also saw some truly catalytic transformational leadership efforts from organizations that were able to quickly unleash the power of working together.

In his great book “Leadership” (1978), James MacGregor Burns (Yes, I was named after him and no, he’s not related to me) defined Transformational Leadership as:

“…occur[ing] when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality.”

Given the challenges of major organization transformation (70% of such efforts usually fail), we discovered a few BEST Practices in Transformational Leadership that you might find interesting.

We worked with a Fortune 150 Financial Services leader who was looking to grow into new market segments. We were engaged by a new CIO to dramatically alter the IT Leadership Engagement model and Management skill set.

We were fortunate that this charismatic CIO had worked with John Kotter before and had great success with his methodology. He understood the power of effective change management. He knew he needed to have his managers lead change with a great level of expertise, if their pending organization realignment was going to have a chance to succeed and set the foundation for future IT success. We recognized that with his level of sophistication and strong support, we could try to bend the curve on the usual 1-3 year culture transformation timetable with some innovative consulting techniques.


One of the first things we did was to get a deep understanding of the IT organization’s immediate challenges. After many conversations, it became clear that the CIO was trying to change a culture that had some significant execution, accountability, innovation and business partnership issues.

We tried a new methodology that I had first heard about in the Columbia Coaching Certification Program when I went through their program. We leveraged an idea that is called “coachsulting”. Traditional consulting brings in experts to tell you about best practices and present ideas and plans about what you should do from their perspective. A simplified view of executive coaching is founded on the idea that the client is best suited to solve and act on their problems, if only someone who is trusted would listen without judgment, ask them the right questions at the right time in the right way and help them to commit.

Our version of “customized coachsulting” leveraged the power of our “true believer” CIO, a senior IT team that was hungry to learn and our team of experts who had 75 years of senior executive leadership experience in learning and development, talent, HR and organizational capability with Fortune 50 companies such as Citigroup, Pepsi, Siemens and Pfizer. We listened to their needs and then tried some new tactics. Our GBA “coachsulting” mindset for all of our working sessions was:

  1. Leave our egos at the door” – we may be experts at transformational leadership, but no one knows the culture, people, challenges and business like our clients do.
  2. Present our best efforts, but understand that “with your help, we can make this even better" in joint work sessions.
  3. We also taught them some of what others have called “your Jedi Mind tricks” for getting the best out of the sessions. (More on some extremely effective tactics we used in future blogs)
  4. And most importantly, ask great questions of the group and listen without judgment.

The result was that we built the foundation for a very successful initiative. From day one, the CIO helped build a new and much more collaborative, accountable, positive and productive senior team.


The first action we took was to work collaboratively on a very clear vision for the future that set an urgent and inspirational tone. The process that we used to create that vision got the senior team to think very deeply about what it really meant to them as a group. We took the time to surface their doubts and concerns in a very transparent and positive manner. As a result they were able to be much more effective role models from the very beginning of the initiative.

We then designed and developed an interactive “all hands” kickoff conference for over 500 employees as part of a yearlong transformation roadmap plan. We presented a script and walked the entire senior team through it. They edited it and made it even better. We designed the conference with a very different basic premise. In the past, conferences like these had been one way data dumps of information from a few senior managers. We all decided that every senior leader should be involved and even more importantly, that the employees should have the chance for very active participation and dialogue about the transformation with each other and then the senior leadership team.

We leveraged some neuroscience techniques to help create a very safe environment where employees felt they could be heard. We gave them many chances to tell us publicly how they were feeling throughout the day with interactive voting on key topics. By the end of the meeting, the employees were so energized that they were fighting to grab the microphones and ask questions or make comments about the new vision, alignment and plans for the future. The senior team executed one of the best transformation conferences that we had ever witnessed. Less than 24 hours after reorganization announcement meetings, the IT organization had created tremendous positive momentum for the future.

We continued to monitor results with a variety of diagnostics to find out what employees were really thinking. We conducted a Manager Transformation Readiness Assessment before training them to see where they stood. We also designed quarterly employee and business partner follow up survey and communication processes.

Finally, we designed and facilitated a “Transformation Leadership Program” for all managers based on cutting edge research in neuroscience, human performance, psychology, and change leadership. The reaction from the managers was overwhelmingly positive as they believed that it positioned them to focus on what they needed to do to make this initiative work.


  • Within 24 hours after a major reorganization, 85% of the employees reported feeling “optimistic about the future direction of the organization.”
  • After a month, they conducted a pulse survey to assess progress – 75% of employees reported feeling "Very Satisfied" with the transformation.
  • Within six months, the organization was cited by a major business magazine on their “Top 50 Best Places To Work for IT” list.

Unstoppable waves of change are not the norm but they are possible with great transformational leadership which inspires your employees to work together. The CIO and his managers who transformed their organization were truly able to “raise one another to higher levels” by tapping into their potential in an innovative and engaging manner.

For a confidential discussion about your transformation needs, please contact us at the address below or click the Contact Us button below.

G Burns & Associates | 40 Ingram Street | Forest Hills, NY 11375

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