What would you have liked to know before embarking on the Poult Group’s transformation project?
“There are two elements of the transformation that we underestimated and that I would have approached differently in hindsight. The first is the impact of the transformation on managers and executives in particular. As the organisation becomes more collaborative, it challenges the power, influence and comfort zone of managers in general. This has posed real problems in the transformation process. I would have liked to have anticipated this better.
The second is the training of employees. We started the project without really knowing the extent to which the training was going to take place to help people understand and apply their new responsibilities. Giving decision-making and arbitration power to people who are not used to it without giving them the necessary keys to help them manage it would be a poisoned gift”.
What would you do differently?
“As far as the supervision of managers is concerned, we should have done more pedagogy upstream, explaining the why and how in a way. We could also have worked on what was undoubtedly the most important point: to address, in an operational way, their role and function after the transformation.
It is essential that everyone understands why the organisation is transforming, but also their role in all this: a role that is more that of a leader than a manager in the classical sense of the term. We should have talked to each of them about this, one by one, in order to build their new function together so that they can start the adventure more serenely by saying to themselves “I have my place in this project and that place counts” “.
What challenges emerged during the transformation?
“Some resistance, either from employees or trade union representatives, strongly disrupted the general atmosphere in the company. These resistances had to be dealt with and were difficult to manage. We had taken the plunge, there was no question of going back. As CEO, my role was to stay the course, to be firm while remaining open to changing the modus operandi of what we were doing. I was the guarantor of the transformation and as such, I had to accept the idea that such an adventure has its ups and downs.
I spent a lot of time doing what we call walking management to talk to people in the field, answer questions and sometimes unblock tricky situations. One of the other roles of the CEO is also to be tolerant and open to failure. When an experience did not go as planned because of misunderstandings, mistakes or organisational problems, we would talk about it as a team.
Every fortnight, we would meet to take stock, to share the mistakes made in order to desacralise them, to correct them, but also to play down certain situations. Free speech and capitalizing on collective intelligence are key. When we move forward, we must leave room for uncertainty. We didn’t leave with a precise roadmap, it seemed important to us to let the organisation breathe in order to invent its own path.”
If we encountered reluctance at the management level, we also sensed a very quick response from the employees and workers in the field. This gave rise to a very positive change, a kind of tsunami that took everyone on board. I didn’t expect so much support from all the field workers (nearly 70%) and, in the end, the pedagogy around the transformation came through the conversations that the employees had among themselves“.
What did this imply for you as CEO?
“There are points of vigilance to watch out for and, in particular, to quickly identify people who are holding back or even going against the tide of the transformation project. In any case, you have to be very reactive. The actions to be taken can go as far as dismissal if there is no other solution at the risk of weakening the overall project.
Relations with external stakeholders is also a significant point of attention. At the beginning, I did not talk much about the transformation project to our shareholders. We were then navigating in a dual system in which the budget was no longer a tool for measuring performance internally, while remaining a key indicator for our investors. It may seem a bit paradoxical, but as the results started to bear fruit, we increasingly communicated what we were doing. It depends on the shareholder, his profile and personality. When your shareholders are close to your values and your state of mind, I think you have to involve them from the start.
For other stakeholders, such as customers or suppliers, we very quickly demonstrated transparency. We wanted to create a new relationship, based on collective intelligence. The transformation of an organisation can become a lever in the way you interact with your customers and suppliers. Some of them sought to understand our approach and came to see us, which strengthened our relationship”.
What advice would you give to CEOs who today want/need to change their organisational model and don’t know where to start?
“I would tell them to start small. To go and test the project in a department with a manager who believes in the approach, who understands it and who will be ready to let the experience go through to the end, even if it means surrounding it with a protective cordon sanitaire if necessary (cf – experience of the Montauban factory at Poult).
The company’s managers must avoid intervening by dictating to the rest of the organisation what it must do to transform itself and how it must do it. Leadership in transformation must involve clear and transparent communication about the objectives of the approach and the process itself.
In choosing to move towards a more collaborative model, one must accept the fact that we have to let go and that we do not always have the right information at the right time. Corrections will be made in the field without your knowledge, but you must stay the course. Especially when you are managing an organisation that employs thousands of people.
Finally, I would say that leading the transformation of an organisation cannot be done without a certain exemplarity on the part of the top management, which implies assuming and correcting one’s own mistakes”.