In this fourth interview of transformation leader, I was delighted to meet Sophie Delmas, head of partnerships at l’Atelier BNP Paribas. L’Atelier is dedicated to prospective and market intelligence, working mainly as internal consultant for the bank. They sell their advice internally, and Sophie’s role is to define the needs and help promote the Atelier’s know-hows. Sophie also co-founded with Orange the “Observatoire des réseaux sociaux d’entreprises”, dedicated to sharing about Digital Transformation and Innovation between CAC 40 companies. It appeared very clearly from my exchanges with her that she strongly believed in the power of networks and collaboration.

Why business partnership, because we are in increasingly open and porous environments and we cannot work alone, so it is key to value a whole network of internal and external connections in order to transform ideas into businesses by accompanying projects.

Sophie has had a very atypical career: starting as an engineer in construction then moved  to code, sales and progressively evolved towards marketing in consulting industry. She entered BNP Paribas in 2001, and got various positions in the company since: from internet subjects, online banking, and implementing the first collaborative platform for the group. She also worked with HR on corporate social network, digital acculturation, and change programme in the digital transformation of the group.

From construction engineer to digital subjects it’s awesome.

What struck me was that despite a technical background Sophie not only shows great understanding but also deeply values the cultural aspects of business. She’s a people person with a pragmatic approach to transformation.  In this interview, I’m highlighting three key points of Sophie’s perspective and experience of transformation: do not get carried away by the fancy trends, build supportive communities and play the long game.

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.

Don’t believe the hype

Sophie has seen the various hypes in business, trends, buzz words, new tools, methods, come and go. She can almost name them all. She has learnt to use them to energize a movement without getting carried away by the magical belief they will solve everything.

Ten years ago it was the internal social networks which were supposed to make email disappear, it wasn’t the case but it contributed to change people’s and HR’s mindset about publication of profiles, ethics and internal validations.

So she has a very realistic view of using trends in a transformation, which doesn’t mean she is not ambitious.

There is a lot of stakes around communication in any transformation. It is great because it gives energy, it gathers people, it helps with alignment, and at the same time, it is key to know how to decode what is the hidden message, and be sure to know what we can reasonably implement or adapt depending on the culture, the history and the people.

Sophie shared a few examples about being real when facing the next hype and the one that struck me the most was her intrapreneurship reality check.

At the moment there is a trend about intrapreneurship, but you need to look at concretely how many projects actually lead to business in corporations. Everyone has an intrapreneurship programme but only two or three intrapreneurs succeed in a year. Those initiatives can only be elitist depending on skills and sponsorships.

I have to say that it is not often that we hear this in large corporations. Most of the time, people are overly enthusiastic, believing it is the next best thing, evangelizing like crazy, without looking at the reality. Sophie is right here, and Philippe has been saying this for years about intrapreneurship and internal incubation. And we know people recognize it too (without advertising it too much) as one of his top ranked article is still: “10 reasons why your internal incubator will fail in less than 2 years” (in French).

So communication [department] may amplify the impact of these initiatives, they sell the dream, but in reality there’s only two or three projects, and as those projects required a good awareness and must cope with the objectives of the sponsors, very few succeed. Does the company support them to the end, and how do they accompany them? Do they disown them of their business? When you look closer at what is happening, that’s what you observe.

Being lucid about a trend doesn’t mean negating completely its benefits, I’ve found that Sophie has a very balanced view on the coming and going hypes and knows how to surf them.

You also see that when managers are engaged in that trend [intrapreneurship], they can see concretely new emerging businesses so it also creates new leverage. So we can hope that this buzz or trend effect can contribute in some way to make things move forward. But we need to disconnect the communication about these trends, which make you think it is the panacea, to the reality.

The ROIs may indeed not be where you expect them to be. You may not find the next revolutionary business model, and as Sophie puts it, it might be more realistic to expect some incremental innovation in customer services.

I don’t believe it creates real business model transformation, or rupture innovation, we don’t know how to do that, intrapreneurship is not about rupture innovation, more about improving our client services for example.

But the learning and development that teams and managers will gain from the experience are just as valuable for a continuous transformation.

How can we really understand the subject so that we can implement, and say to ourselves that not everyone will be intrapreneur. But maybe it can free some rigid processes like in conformity, legal. We can enable a cultural shift, we reshape some processes, so it makes things more open and flowing.

When discussing transformation, Sophie shared her belief in the concrete delivery of strategy in order to change mindsets, she wants to convince with proof rather than blind belief. She shared the example of implementing “flexiwork” and how the digital tools in action (in use) were able to change mindset and how people worked.

Of course using new tools will contribute to the digital transformation, with quantifiable measure, but it also changes mindsets. For example, using the iPhone which is open (to the outside, which is a new thing for bank), the wifi everywhere, and flex work have contributed to the digital transformation mindset: the teams feel trusted, they have pleasure to work in beautiful workplaces.
Also clichés are being tested such as ‘zero paper’, ‘clear desk’, ‘no personal territory’, ‘people need to sit at different desk every day’, this is rubbish, but that’s ok we learn from that too.
It is key that people are « in the doing », that they are in action, they contribute, they learn and can use later in their own context.

Another interesting hype is “community management”, and this one she is paying great attention to. But here read community not as a group of people in her linkedin profile, but meaningful and supportive connections for business and beyond.

Building supportive and diverse communities

Sophie describes herself as:

Someone who is curious, open. I like to meet people. I believe we need to learn constantly. We need to question ourselves, so personally I want to learn and stay open and I find it interesting to bring this energy to people too.

To me, this is the start to build a strong community that is based on values such as mutual discovery, enrichment and learning. It was very clear to me that what Sophie was saying about herself wasn’t just boasting. Her openness and curiosity was so obvious throughout the interview (which was about her) when she very often tried to get my point of view.

When we think of corporate or business community, we may instinctively first think of either clients or internal networks. On one hand communities are either seen as just another way to sell to clients with better customer relationship or on the other hand as a sense of belonging to a collective (the company) that seems to have been lost.

And I would agree that with the fast growth of corporations, the sense of belonging and “being in the same boat”, “working together” may get lost along the way. My own experience of helping large corporations regain a sense of community has been via mentoring programmes such as the one I wrote about recently.

In the case of Sophie, she shared her experience of “champions network” which was the first bar camp event on the subject of HR transformation she created with an external consultant in 2012. This is interesting because it is about active communities, ones with purpose, and delivering results (not necessarily business). This “champions network” event resulted in several solutions about their corporate social network and its implementation and training, but most importantly as Sophie said it was about:

Creating a community with a mutually supportive mindset which can be useful to spread, deploy, enrich and nourish practices and hence transformation.

Internal communities are sources of energy to impulse in large scale transformations. Because communities are not like tasked workforce governed by objectives, they are rather voluntary participants with a purpose, open to learn, teach, and grow together, they can be much more powerful because of the high level of engagement.

Also change is brought by external environment.

Sophie has built communities, internal social networks and also stimulated external inter-organisations collaboration. She sees these networks not just for visibility and career development purposes, but for real mutually beneficial interaction, learning, help. These networks can also be sources of support and inspiration, especially when they are outside the usual, comfortable hanging places which as she puts it “… are stifling creativity”.

When I started working on BNP Paribas’ social network, I found many blockages from communication, legal, HR, it was something that raised fear in people, and I felt intuitively that there was something to do with that, so I put on my saleswoman’s hat, and  I looked at what was going on outside.

I was interested to learn about the non-profit organisation called the Observatory of Corporate Social Networks (L’observatoire des réseaux sociaux d’entreprise) that she co-started with Ziryeb MAROUF (Digital Transformation & Social Network Director at Orange). They were both working on the same subject, corporate social networks and thought: “how about gathering people from various companies to see what’s going on?”.

There was L’Oréal, Danone, EDF, Crédit Agricole, Société Générale. So there were competitors which was revolutionary for us. Everyone was presenting their corporate social network project, and at the end we decided we had things to do together. So we had a second meeting, some shared more than others, and Ziryeb capitalized on this and created the association [not-for-profit organisation] to build an inter-organization community. Everyone brings what they can, we had events hosted by one member, gathering 200-300 people once or twice a year, on specific themes.

Being involved in a community of professionals in various industries facing the same issues or working on similar subjects will help to move forward together rather than waiting for a big consulting firm to come up with some outdated analysis based on US companies a few years later.

A mutually supportive community. For example I got legal teams from Orange talking to our legal teams at BNP Paribas, so we create a circle of trust to amplify actions. Create relationships that can enrich each other. This network also helped me personally when I was borderline burnout to get energy from my peers who had me involved in events, supported me, it was very powerful.

What Sophie has understood is that being involved in external networks is key to benefit from diversity especially in the bank sector where populations tend to be quite homogenous. She strongly believes in diversity and also that confrontation to our differences can bring innovation and change.

In the first change I delivered, in the inter-organization association, I’ve called upon external people many times, as it has a far more powerful strength than the internal voice, that’s why we use consultants. It is incredible that we don’t trust ourselves internally.

I hear this once in a while in large organisations when what is said by an external expert tends to have more power and legitimacy than when it is said by an employee. Here I would advise to have a good balance between listening internally (using the existing collective intelligence) and keeping also your awareness open on the outside. In our company culture framework, it is what I call your touchpoints and shows the level of empathy your company has, or how much it is in touch with (and understands) itself and its environment.

Sophie explains further the benefits of her external networks:

I had people from Orange, Sanofi, L’Oréal come and talk to us, and vice versa I was giving talks in their companies, but we need a network of companies to be able to do that. The trustful relationship with an external network allows you to be challenged, energized, and also looking at competitors.

I personally liked how she sees networks about being about itself (the people in it) and not herself. This is why she enjoys delegating and nourishing as she says, whilst giving the example of facilitating a round table:

Who do you put in the limelight? Yourself or the experts? Make other people shine, that’s the only way. It is also gratifying to see others blossoming.

So you may have understood that for Sophie, community is key for transformation, as she finds it extremely powerful when a group of people sharing common values move forward together. But another thing you need to understand and that Sophie is very clear about, is that building communities and support networks is about building trust and it takes time and nurturing.

Playing the long game

Sophie doesn’t believe in the quick win of culture or digital transformation. Like she didn’t believe in the trendy buzz words, she knows from experience that:

Transformation is a lengthy process which may take more than ten years.

She has a realistic view of transformation timing, and as mentioned earlier she is in the doing and wants to see concrete results and impact. Indeed, various elements of the company culture move at different speeds. For example, the behaviours are easily changed, but the underlying company values will take a lot more time to adjust.

While sharing with other colleagues whether in HR or business or other companies,  we often hear: “the transformation, we did it”, “we did webcafé, we did hackathons, we’re good, we’ve done it” or “we have digitalised all our processes, that’s good, we are digital”, “we spent x millions or billions, now we’re done, we move on to something else”. Except that the culture may not have moved as fast, so there’s still a long way to go.

One of the key challenges that Sophie has found is the long term commitment of people mainly because of the long term scale of results, real results, not just the happy event effects. It is a political game, and you don’t know how long people will be holding a position. Like politicians, they want to be able to show quick results in order to show them on their resumés and advance their own career.

The long game of cultural or other real business transformation is about strategic decisions that may not be personally beneficial in the short term.

Because digital transformation is a power stake. What is at stake is visibility and power. So it might not always be the right person being positioned in the right place. There are issues about people’s ego. Which can be quite typical of the business, it might not be connected to the transformation but it seeps through and it is amplified by the digital aspect.

Sophie shared the example of when people look at the digital transformation only on the technical level. What she has experienced is their lack of competencies, so they are only using their existing competencies which might be limited to technical expertise. Hence not taking into account other important issues of management, training, user experience etc.

You find that when things do not work, it is about people, you can have processes problems but that you can explain and solve, but when you have people stuck or resisting, that is harder, and it is key to address. And some of the resistance to collaboration is due to ego issues.

In the organizational constant battle for resources, Sophie has learnt to do with frugal means, and asking help from her network. She finds that having constraints is also interesting, it’s a challenge, it’s motivating, but budget may become important when you want to scale.

So in these highly political staked transformations, Sophie knows it is key to find sponsors, not just allies or people who nod “yes”, but people who have enough power to keep things high priority, who can engage resources, and who may have a long term strategic view of the business (that is not always the case).

In transformation, it is necessary to connect with high level in the organisation. It seems obvious, but what you observe is that people who succeed in leading a transformation are the ones who get a high level sponsor, who have created a trustful relationship with top executives.

A last thought and a wish

I enjoyed discussing with Sophie and I’m pleased that we will exchange further and maybe collaborate in the near future. I will leave you with this final thought that I didn’t have the heart to edit as it was so well said:

So we fear that startups will kill us, but it is not the case. We fear that regulation will destroy us, it is neither the case. We fear the customer will kill us, no, or the GAFA. It just pushes us to move.
It is not a question of age or generation, it is a question of maturity, and also people who change it is because they are doing it, they live through the change, it is about practice.
So when I envision a strategy I need to think about what the deliverable will be, which will bring me and the group to change their mindset. Like in coaching you want to understand what is the people’s mindset, what are their thought processes, to consider how you can help them find their way by themselves and feel they own the subject.
It can be a very personal introspective work for key people in the company, except that we don’t always to that.

And a wish that Sophie expressed during the interview:

My wish is that people at work find more meaning, live their values. That companies have a positive social impact. And I have a special wish for seniors whose experience and wisdom may be undervalued in corporations and are closeted because their competencies have become obsolete.

I look forward to exchanging with Sophie again maybe about how to use mentoring as a tool for transformation and maybe to help her with her wish ;o)

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