Interview – A Transformation Executive Leveraging Complexity Intelligence at Atos (Part 1)

For this second transformation leader interview, I met with Lucas den Boer, currently Business Transformation Executive (C-level consultant) at Atos Benelux HQ in Amstelveen just South of Amsterdam. After a short tour through their atrium cafeteria and innovation rooms where they receive their clients for demo, we sat for an hour to discuss his various experiences of large scale transformations.

Throughout the interview, what struck me from this 51 year old man, is that he can clearly express his vision, he has a balanced view on transformation, a good heart, an open mind and a sensitivity for people issues, whilst keeping a strong focus on business. This I call “complexity intelligence”. Through the different experiences he shared, I could confirm this was not all just nice talk, Lucas has a strong sense of purpose and service, especially demonstrated by his involvement in non-profit organisations and projects.

In his 20’s, Lucas den Boer worked at KLM, Royal Dutch Airlines. He was a keen learner and wanted to know as much as possible about the organisation, technology, the aviation business, processes, also the people’s behaviours. As he puts it: “…it was mainly learning, learning, learning.” It is then in his 30’s when he worked at Cap Gemini and Transavia that he decided that he wanted to have more influence and solve bigger, more complex problems so he started to lead transformations such as the rebranding of Transavia following a merger.

And when he turned 40, he decided it was time to give back and he got involved in the non-profit sector, whilst still keeping his business engagements in a transformation leader role at Atos.

This article is my take on our discussion about successful transformations, the role of transformation leaders and the challenges large organisations face through these changes, illustrated with his pieces of wisdom and business transformation stories.

Disclaimer: the opinions and perspectives shared in this article are my own and that of the interviewee, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the interviewee’s employer.

Walking the middle path – a balanced and steady approach to transformation

His natural curiosity and thirst for learning have led Lucas to complement his engineering background in the aviation with other knowledge and competences in pedagogy, organisation psychology, and strategy. This is probably why, whatever the transformation he’s driving, he ensures to have a holistic view of the change: considering the context of the organisation, its internal workings, the parties involved inside but also the customers and suppliers, as well as the technological aspects.

“I always see transformation as a collection of all the elements that are available in the company or organisation. Transformation always impacts people, processes, technology, the structures that govern our organisation, it affects the clients but also the suppliers so my approach is always look at the total, the challenge, the environment, and try to fit the transformation, with respect to all the elements.”

Dealing with complex systems such as a large organisation, means understanding the interdependence of many elements, and the possibility of various impacts such as “butterfly effect”, ripples or nuclear reactions within the organisation when initiating a transformation. From what Lucas was sharing it is obvious that he has that kind of perspective on organizational and cultural change, and it is not surprising coming from a chess player (more on this topic later).

His balanced approach is illustrated in how he considers and involves the various stakeholders, what I call strategic empathy: the capacity of being aware and understand the feelings and thoughts of all stakeholders in a specific business context. He likes to use both approaches: top-down and bottom-up hence reaping the benefits of both strategies.

“… always find a balance between a top down approach and a bottom up one.”

He is very aware of the pros and cons of both strategies, this is why he seeks a balance between the two. According to Lucas, if you only approach a transformation in a top down manner, then you may get very nicely structured well-thought business case driven transformations but the implementation might prove to be challenging, mainly because these transformations may not fit with their context or environment. Lucas recommends to:

“… listen to people on the floor, the end users, to the customers, because they can tell you details that are really important and if you involve them from day one, then you can start let’s say a more successful transformation.”

And on the other side, if you only do a transformation bottom-up, then maybe you build very beautiful solutions but the risk is that they do not fit with the goals of the company. It would be very naive for large scale organizational transformations to be taking the bottom up approach only, even though there is strong value in it. It is still a business, with a strategy.

“It makes the transformation much nicer, if you speak with the top and you speak with people on the floor.”

This clearly reminds me of the full-stack approach of cultural change in which it is key to address all elements (DNA, values & core beliefs, vision and behaviours) at once. Even if there may be steps in a cultural transformation, as not all elements can be “moved” at the same pace, it is key to ensure that all have been considered and aligned – meaning there is coherence between all.

In his balanced approach, Lucas strikes me as a “steady wins the race” kind of guy. He invests (and pushes leaders to do the same) time in the “right places”, meaning he takes the time to talk to stakeholders, which can be very many in large organisations, and especially if it includes customers and suppliers.

“[It is] important that with the leader and the team you have that you’re able to listen to the people on the floor and also take time for that. And invest in that.”

So we discussed the value of taking the time, and how in this day and age, everyone is looking for instant results, and quick wins. And Lucas does take the time, and he is also aware that communication is key to reassure, encourage and keep everyone onboard, so during a transformation he’s also sharing – communicating on – interim results (more on results and measurement later on in the article). Again he is walking the middle path, taking the time where it matters and still showing some results when necessary.

“If you have results show them”

His balanced approach of taking time to listen, and communicating on progress, makes perfect sense to me, as I believe that it is more meaningful and easier to lead the transformation when people feel that they have been listened to, so they can be onboard even if the decisions are not exactly what they would have wished for. They think: “my opinion has been considered, I understand it is a complex subject, so I can respect and follow the decisions that have been made because I feel I have been heard.”

In the end, slow is smooth (investing the time makes for easier transformation), and smooth is fast (once you have the basics right, things can move much faster).

Aligning and on-boarding in a movement with visual models

“A clear vision is the starting point of any good transformation. It is in my opinion the most important step.”

Ok, like any good leader Lucas is starting with a vision, but what is interesting is that he’s not one for “buzz words” or wishful thinking. Just like us at Innovation Copilots, he is a seeker, a pain in the b*tt as he’s not satisfied with a vaguely defined vision. He wants specifics, he wants to dig and ensures that the vision set for the transformation he will be driving is strong, specific and meaningful.

“…and it always starts with a very clear vision, because most of the transformations that have started have a lack of a very concrete vision. And the first thing I always ask is: “what’s your vision?” And the client comes with a vision and it’s never specific enough.”

For Lucas taking the time to go into details, to make the vision more specific, to make it clear for everybody is time well invested because as long as the vision is not specific enough, then he says: “the many stakeholders which are involved in the transformation go their own direction.”

Working with the stakeholders at the highest level and the layer below, sharing a clear and concrete vision is key. If not, the stakeholders cannot engage fully – “they can hide between their own agenda and use politics to block a transformation” as Lucas puts it.

“[ in a large scale transformation] the first challenge is always to align the various stakeholders”.

With the many and diverse stakeholders involved, it is a challenge to get to know them, to know their agendas, and to make sure they are all aligned so they are ready to contribute to the transformation. To help in aligning them, Lucas often uses a visual model to illustrate the vision, to make it clearer to all, and in my opinion it is also a great way to start discussions, to let pain points emerge and get people engaged.

“CEOs like it when I build a visual model to decomplex the transformation in such a way that everybody understands. [Then] we work according to this model, these are the main topics, and we can use this model as means of communication towards the middle and lower management and employees and then you get a more aligned approach so everybody speaks the same language.”

This is actually music to my ears because what I’ve noticed in many transformations whatever their scale, is that misinterpretations or misunderstanding of the vision occur far more often when it is delivered or communicated using words only. People seem to think they’ve understood, or if they haven’t, may not always ask for precision fearing to look “stupid” – even at very high level. As when pictures or visualisations are used, there is still room for misinterpretation of course, but people are more engaged in discussing, debating over an image or a visual representation.

Lucas has been using this type of visual models with his project for European Commission to help drive the European Solidarity Corps. Its aim is to unite Europe by means of bringing young people to solidarity projects on a voluntary base. With the goal to have one hundred thousands placement in 2020, it is a big challenge with many topics to address across all European countries. The visualisation of all the topics he came up with is really helping the EC teams to stay on track to achieve their 2020 key topics.

In the Transavia transformation that Lucas was driving, he used a different kind of visualisation to align the merged teams: the new brand.

“The challenge was to merge two airlines, there was a low-cost airline under the brand BasiqAir, and there was a separate airline under Transavia called Transavia Airlines, that was the leisure company, bringing people for holidays to sunny destinations, and the challenge was to merge these two… The key success factor was … visualizing and defining and discussing what exactly should be the common goals instead of fighting against each other, for their own interests, finding the common solutions.”

The main results in the end was the merger of two airlines into one low-cost low-fare company, one commercial organisation, one product, one brand and one inventory. It visually impacted the aircrafts’ colors, the cabin crews’ uniforms, etc. All employees believed in one company. This transformation was a success for Lucas, and for the organisation who managed through this change to remain financially successful in the difficult competitive airline market. The customers were satisfied and employees were very motivated. They embraced the new brand. There were no strikes, even with strong unions. It was overall a very positive transformation.

What Lucas achieved here is a real feat, as many of you involved in mergers and acquisitions know how tough it is to get the culture hybridation right. As he mentioned, the fact that the two companies were not too big, not the size of a KLM or Air France, might have helped in terms of speed, but again even with smaller M&A, cultural differences could have been a real spanner in the works.

So using visualisations or visual models of the transformation have many benefits:

  • They simplify an otherwise very complex issue or journey ahead, showing clearly interdependencies, milestones, collaboration points, and end picture;
  • They support discussions between various stakeholders, during the design of the vision and steps as well as during implementation;
  • They serve as visual reminders of key points, giving direction, and helping set priorities during implementation;
  • They help the cohesion of teams behind one visual, one vision, one brand.

As discussed with Lucas, visualisation is very helpful but what matters is the kind of relationships you create with all the stakeholders.

Creating trusting and respectful relationships with all stakeholders

Easier said than done, especially when you are driving a large-scale transformation across borders with a very high cultural diversity. Stakeholders not only do not speak the same language, but they do not value the same things, and add to that the fact that you may not understand why they value things differently.

“The second challenge is the cultural differences. We are working with various people from different countries, but also in big companies, there are various divisions… sometimes there is a lack of respect and understanding of each other. That’s always a challenge.”

It takes patience, tolerance and high degree of detachment to be able to move through these cultural hurdles, as very small things can easily jeopardize the whole transformation. Especially when the pressure is on, when the transformation has been advertised, commissioned, recognized to be high staked etc.

Lucas shared the story of the large scale multinational transformation of ASML, one of the top Dutch companies, worldwide market leader in computer chip making equipment. This transformation was designed to work on the “people pilar” to support their strategy of growing from a 5 to 10 billion Euro company within 5 years. To ensure their talent strategy (attracting and retaining highly intelligent people) could deliver results, they engaged the whole company with offices in the USA, in Europe and in Asia in a transformation to make ASML the best workplace with a clear sense of global identity and belonging.

Of course, Lucas started with the vision and alignment, but cultural differences can very quickly emerge and need to be addressed swiftly (not ignored). For example, one of the many elements was the rebuilding of the offices (desks and facilities). Asia and the US had a very different attitude towards materials used. So while at head office they thought of one concept, using one supplier, then to deploy it everywhere, which makes perfect business sense, in Asia they wanted bamboo or natural material surrounding them rather than plastic or composites. It might appear like a very trivial example, but each detail might count, and even if you have to think global, you have to make the changes locally based on cultural differences, if you want people to engage with the overall transformation. Especially that this transformation was called “Make ASML a Place to Work, Meet, Learn and Share”. And as Lucas was saying:

“Sometimes it is difficult and costs a lot of energy”.

This is what I call reconfigurable mindset or the ability to take different perspectives, to adapt behaviours to different contexts, to move from macro to micro, to be able to hold paradoxes and still function, and make decisions. Having this ability to adapt one’s mindset is the second element of complexity intelligence I was starting to describe earlier (first one being strategic empathy).

In this ASML transformation example, we see Lucas’ balanced approach to transformation as he is not only working with stakeholders at the highest level who think of one solution and roll it out, he is also dealing with cultural differences that may not always be so obvious or not always expressed clearly. This is something I have observed when people resist a transformation, they don’t always clearly express why. It is the job of the transformation leader to get to the root, the underlying need that is not met and that is driving people to block the transformation as a whole – even if only one small element is going against one of their values for example.

One of the way that Lucas is overcoming the challenges of stakeholder diversity, is by setting up the governance of the transformation.

“In a transformation, a lot of decisions will be taken, and a lot of things will be changed, and it has impact on many departments at the same time, you must make sure that these decisions are taken with the right stakeholders. So by thinking of a governance structure, and putting the right people on the right decision board, is important.”

The governance brings together representatives of the stakeholders, but also and more importantly it involves them at every stage of the decision making process and recognizes them in the value they bring during the implementation. Lucas insisted that it is key to ensure that you don’t forget a department, like IT or facility management because they are not directly connected to production for example, but they might still have an important role in the transformation.

“… so bring these departments together, and speak about the common goals and interests and find together the solutions in the transformation. And they love it. If you don’t bring them together they will work against them, for their own interest… [also] Reward people who have done good things for the transformation, and rewarding doesn’t always have to be in a financial way, it can be small things.”

Lucas has understood after many years of leading transformations that involving the stakeholders and creating relationships with them are key, but above all it is about trust. He explains that what made a success of the ASML transformation was first of all that there was trust from the top in his leadership and the way that he works. That was for him the starting point. This trust allowed them to be open to work more deeply on the vision, to redefine objectives in the short and the long term, and to invest time and money in meeting important stakeholders, organizing events, and investing in communication. Because of the time it takes to do all this, it is key for top execs to trust that investing in such often undervalued activities is necessary for a successful transformation. And Lucas summarized it nicely with:

“When you have all these elements: vision, operating model… the commitment and the trust from the top, then you can start building your transformation and change the organisation. [Then you set up] a governance, because you need to make sure that all stakeholders can take their own decisions and are involved in such a way. So you really should pay attention to that, it is important and then you can start working with the structures.”

“I see myself as a transformation leader who is serving the people and the organisation. I want to help to improve their quality of life. So I always take the serving role, of course sometimes, you must be directive because you are setting out a direction, but always, no matter which target group, you need to respect them and listen to them, and try to understand their interest in the transformation. And try to find a way to find a direction that’s also a fit to them. I think that’s my main role, I’m an integrator, and I noticed that since I started to become a leader in projects, bigger projects, to programs, to complete business transformations, I was always able to make friends with all the people in the higher, middle and lower management, they trust me, I trust them and together we found a direction. I think that’s my gift that I can integrate and bring people together in a kind of diplomatic way.”

Creating these trustful and respectful relationships with all stakeholders is key to start but it also needs to be maintained throughout the often long transformation period. To do so, understanding the fears and doubts of stakeholders and being able to reassure them is important and it can often take the form of interim results showing progress.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this rich interview coming next week!

Published by

Stéphanie Mitrano

Insightful and open-minded, Stéphanie accompanies organisations in their cultural transformation to support innovation and business agility. She is one the few European expert both implementing and doing research on mentoring programmes.