Let's continue the series detailing my experience from 2010 to 2015, where I played the role of transformer for a stagnant IT organization. You can read the backstory in My Real Life Story of Digital Transformation.

When you read the backstory, you will see that I was initially targeted to come into an organization to solve a tactical application issue. This individual issue was a symptom of a much larger set of problems. I spent the next 5 years working inside the organization to make considerable transformation to the way we did business.

In this post, I am going to define what important characteristics of a transformer are.

First, what do I mean by a Transformer?

Transformer:
An individual that sees the current state of their organization, understands the need for significant change, builds an actionable plan for organizational transformation, and drives the execution of that plan.

Now lets walk through characteristics that make a great transformer.

Unrelenting Problem Solver

The number one characteristic that makes me a great transformer is the fact that when presented with a problem, I cannot rest until there is a viable solution. This is the quality that attracted me to software development in the first place.

With programming skills, an individual has an amazing capability at their fingertips to solve an infinite number of problems. Honestly, programming is extremely addictive to a native problem solver.

As a young problem solver, I believed that I was the one and only person that could solve a given problem. It was not necessarily arrogance, as much as it was naivety. I was just young. I needed to work through years of experience solving problems, particularly ones that required collaboration and the skill sets of others.

As I've matured with experience, knowledge and a larger network, the amount of problems I can solve with others is vastly larger than when I started.

A transformer must be a relentless problem solver to take a broken, stagnant organization through a dramatic transformation.

Vision Builder and/or Translator

During college and my early days as a developer, I would hear different executives at conferences or within my own organizations speaking about their "vision". Most of the time, as soon as I felt the vision pitch starting, I would zone out and go back to mentally solving my problem de jour.

However, there was a very specific moment when I finally understood the need for a vision and the need for a translator.

There was a system administrator working group meeting early on when I joined the organization in which our campus CTO was presenting on his high level campus vision for IT transformation. I noticed that on his first slide every attendee's eyes glazed over. None of them could associate what he was saying to their day job.

I walked up to the CTO as soon as he finished and said "you need a translator". The killer moment for me was that I actually got his vision. I could see it. It was sound. It did not matter that he did not know how it would all be accomplished. I knew he did not need to worry about that because I could. I remember how big my mind's universe felt at that moment. I remember the freedom I felt not having to tie each and every idea to an implementation plan.

I knew that if we turned around at the next system administrator working group session and took the same presentation translated, I could get them fired up about how this vision was actionable and relatable to their day jobs.

From that moment forward, I began to build my plan for how I could enable my customer CTO vision and completely transform our organization from being a money taking, stagnant IT provider, to a truly innovative IT service provider for our customer.

I will say, I do not think a transformer must be the visionary. However, they must absolutely be able to hear the vision of their leadership, and translate that to a strategic and tactical set of actions to achieve transformation.

The last thing I will say about vision is that you need to expose your vision and plan to others carefully. This is a very strategic activity. Some people will get lost in your vision. They just need an action to work on at the moment. Others will actually make attempts to stop or slow your vision. Make sure you have trust and support of your leadership, but outside of leadership and your team, keep your vision and plan close to your vest.

Ability to Collaborate with Others

Young in my career, I was told over and over how important my network was. I can say I did not fully understand the weight of my network until the second job I got through a connection of mine. I soon realized that the only position in my career I ever got by randomly applying to openings was the very first one. That one was the hardest to get.

As I worked through my career, I let my network organically grow at first, but over time I started working on specific skills to consciously build my network. Things like remembering names and high level details about people you meet become extremely useful.

As a transformer, one of the initial things you must do is to start identifying members of your team. You will build a transformation team whether you officially recognize that or not. You need to find peers that are forward thinking, thirsty to learn, possibly bored or frustrated. You get the point. You need to build a team. You cannot transform your organization alone.

This means you must be able to build trust. I have a natural ability to gain trust with others. Some things that make this easy are my honesty, integrity and empathy. People feel that very early when getting to know me.

The reason this is critical for a transformer, is that there are many individuals across your organization that you will need to build trust with. There will also be those that will oppose you. These are just as important (maybe more) as those that follow you.

As an example, our IT security team had the "no first" reputation when I started. I examined the relationships we had with their team members. I examined the processes in place. The largest problem I found was that their team was always brought in at the last minute to give a stamp of approval. They would always find something wrong and more than that, they were frustrated that they were not included from the start. This is the piece I sought to solve.

I made friends with a few of our IT security contractors mostly by asking questions about the challenges in their jobs and trying to understand what they do. I then would go hang out in their room and start white boarding a problem/solution that I was working on. This allowed me to quickly get IT security team members feeling as though they were part of the solution rather than evaluating the final solution. This also meant we solved the security roadblocks up front rather than at the end. This meant that they began to become a "yes, but" team rather than a "no first" team.

This collaboration with the IT security team also allowed me to convince the customer CISO that I needed a specific peer counterpart on his team dedicated to the transformation initiatives we were working toward.

Understanding who you need to collaborate with and how is critically important to your success as a transformer.

Path Finder

Since I was young, my father always disliked how I dealt with rules and authority. Sometimes this got me into trouble. He would always argue with me that it did not matter whether my reasoning was sound, a rule is a rule. Beyond that, there was a reason the rule was created that I may not know or understand.

I get this. I do.

However, when you are trying to transform an organization, you will hit process, policy and individuals that will prevent progress.

As I got older, I began to understand that you cannot just break a rule because you do not agree with it. You need to find out who is responsible for that rule and make a case to them that their rule needs to change or get eliminated.

This was never more clear when it came to trying to bring public cloud procurement as a capability to our campus. Governance, procurement, and operational policies that were in place did not apply to public cloud computing. Working through things like this for a transformer requires a tremendous amount of patience and empathy with those that enforce or manage existing rules and policies.

This characteristic is about having the creativity and patience to find a path to work with, get around or get through any given road block.

Mental Endurance

The last one I am going to speak to is a must. Strength of mind is absolutely critical for a transformer.

The way I describe my experience from this transformation is daily banging of my head against a brick wall. Headaches, grinding of teeth at night, physical fatigue are real. Being a transformer is not for the faint of heart and mind.

In order to withstand this constant struggle, you must do several things.

  • Celebrate all the little successes. Any win is a win, no matter how small
  • Do not hang on failures. Assess, learn and move forward
  • Spend personal time to get to know your team
  • Get your leadership to recognize successes publicly

Transformation efforts like this are multi-year endeavors. This is not a 3 month project. In my case, it was almost 5 years. Because of this, you need to make sure that you are aware of your mental and physical state. Have others hold you accountable. While you may think spending weekend or late night hours is helping, it most likely is not. Be conscious of your own self well being.

The last thing to note about this is that the momentum is definitely tied to you as the transformer. You have to be strong enough to withstand that weight.

Introspection

If you're reading this, you are most likely already doing some introspection and search for what is necessary to transform your own organization. Some of these characteristics or skills can be built or honed over time. Some are innate. If you find yourself weak in one of these, find a partner in your network that bolsters your weakness. There is no rule that says there is only one transformer. Many times, there will be a team that brings the multitude of characteristics and skills necessary for a full organization transformation.

Header Image Source:
"Bumblebee Autobot Transformers Decoy Miniatures Recasts"by Boynton Art Studio is licensed under CC BY 2.0