With shifting market trends, slashed budgets and a fickle economy, it’s the flexible, agile company capable of quickly adapting to changes that is successful.

Dr. Marta Wilson, the founder and CEO of Transformation Systems, Inc. (TSI), an executive strategies and management systems engineering company, is an expert in leadership effectiveness and breeding a culture of transformation in the enterprise.

The Corporate Growth, Capital Style editorial team recently caught up with Dr. Wilson to discuss why a culture of transformation is so important, especially in today’s business market. We also talked about her upcoming new book, Everybody’s Business.

Here’s what she had to say:

Q) Dr. Wilson, in your new book, Everybody’s Business, and in your previous book, Leaders in Motion, you look at the qualities and practices that make for effective leaders that can embrace change and innovation in the enterprise. How has your personal and professional background, as well as the work you’ve done with TSI, helped you to identify what makes for a successful, transformational leader?

My PhD is in industrial and organizational psychology, and an area I’ve studied since the mid-1980s is transformational leadership.  Based on my academic training and 20 years of leadership work, as a leadership consultant and now as the CEO of TSI, I like the definition of transformational leadership defined in the American Psychological Association’s Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, which says that a transformational leader:

  • Does what’s best for the organization and its members, rather than what’s easy and expedient.
  • Encourages people to achieve more than what’s thought possible.
  • Inspires folks to think for themselves, question their own assumptions, reframe problems and collaborate.
  • Pays special attention to peoples’ needs for achievement and development and acts as a caring, compassionate and empathetic mentor.  

These four behaviors are grounded in engagement, and to be successful transformational leaders, each of us can engage everybody in our spheres of influence to be agents of change and to collectively make big and lasting impact. 

Q) In your books, as well as in articles you’ve authored for our publication, you’ve stated that a culture of transformation is imperative for a successful enterprise. Can you explain why that is, and if a culture of transformation is even more important in difficult economic times, like those our country is currently experiencing?

During these difficult economic times, I suggest that leaders commit to creating a culture of transformation where everybody is rewarded for learning, collaborating and succeeding. This starts with leaders engaging the employees in their organizations and continues beyond the boundaries of payroll with engaging board members, customers, suppliers, investors, media partners, strategic allies and even “competi-mates”. 

All of our stakeholders can help to create a culture of transformation because each one has a unique take on what our organizations are doing.  Each is a potential wealth of information for a real-time, high definition information feed.   As we are faced with daunting economic challenges, transformational leaders and change agents must empower and unite everybody to rise to excellence.   I suggest that leaders ask themselves, “Are the people around me poised to apply their talents, to forge solutions and achieve great things at a moment’s notice?”   If so, that’s great, because excellence emerges, time and again, for the leader who institutionalizes a culture of transformation. 

Q) In Everybody’s Business, you discuss the power of taking a small step, specifically, the smallest step with the biggest return. Can you give us examples of some of these “small steps” companies have taken that you’ve witnessed in your past experience?

More than 40 years ago, Neil Armstrong was the first person to set foot on the moon.  He coined a famous phrase, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”  A single footstep advanced human achievement forever. In the same way, any one person in an enterprise can move it forward exponentially. Armstrong was one individual who stood on the shoulders of giants, and it often takes a series of small steps to create watershed moments. Our task as transformational leaders is to create those teams of giants – to imagine the smallest steps with the biggest payoffs. And, we need to free everybody in our organizations to do the same. In other words, make it everybody’s business to know and grow the enterprise.

During my 20 years of leadership work, I’ve seen organizations take many small steps with big payoffs.  Small steps include asking, answering and acting on questions such as these:

  1. Do I have a confident sense of what my organization is committed to, how we are performing and what indicators we use to understand total performance?
  2. Is my organization effectively gathering the information we need to identify key priorities?
  3. What priorities should we tackle first, and what’s our action plan?
  4. What are the barriers to getting things done more quickly, and how can we remove those barriers? 
  5. How are our different stakeholders linked together, and how can we strengthen these bonds to improve organizational performance? 

Time and time again, leaders who have gotten clear on their answers to these questions and then put those answers into motion have significantly boosted quality, speed, savings and innovation.

Q) How can a company or organization identify its “small step?” What do they do once they’ve identified it?

To find a “small step” with great impact, leaders must foster bold dialogue among all stakeholders, craft a clear strategic plan and imbed smart metrics throughout the workplace so that it’s everybody’s business to know how the organization is performing. The greatest impact is achieved one decision and one person at a time.  So, individuals can and should be encouraged to innovate and lead no matter what their job level or duties. Every organization needs internal dialogue, and it can’t be limited to one-time, short-term assessments. Dialogue needs to permeate the culture. The question is how do we engage everybody to be in dialogue and achieve our bold goals, even in bleak times? 

I’ll assert that engaging everyone to achieve bold goals starts at the pixel level.  The pixel is the smallest discrete element of a picture, and I suggest we get granular when we look at our organizations.  Instead, many leaders use blurry snapshots to assess performance. These snapshots are a static view, but our enterprises are not static.  Organizations, like the environments in which they operate, constantly shift, grow, contract, innovate and react to a tumultuous world. In today’s highly fluid reality, organizations need a dynamic exchange of ideas, so everybody contributes their pixels and we get high definition information. This way we have the most accurate picture of our situation as possible to help us make our best decisions, take meaningful action and achieve lasting results.

Q) Your previous work, Leaders in Motion, was published back in 2009, the year following the housing market collapse, credit crisis and subsequent economic downturn. How has the difficult economy of the past three years shaped the way companies have to do business? Is the business environment different today than it was when Leaders in Motion was published?

Since 2009, customers in all markets have become even more conscious about choosing products and services with best value, and in many cases lowest cost.  The pressure is on to deliver, and organizations must rise to increasing customer demands driven by the economic downturn.  So, as transformational leaders, we must ask ourselves:  Are we prepared to be a dynamic partner?  Are we ready to team with our customers, suppliers, employees, investors and community to boost quality, speed, innovation and especially savings for those who acquire our products and services?

In today’s economy, the strategic focus in many organizations is on boosting efficiency and savings to produce more value for less cost.  Now more than ever, the metrics we use to inspect the results that we expect must provide us with a high resolution information feed.  This is critical in setting ourselves up to thrive in the economic realities we face.  These metrics are needed to align decisions with the overall strategic direction and tactical requirements of the organization.  And, we can share these metrics in total, or in part, with our stakeholders to engage them in helping our organizations perform with excellence and weather the current economic storm. 

Q) In Everybody’s Business, you discuss how collaboration and communication play a large part in transforming the business. Why is communication, collaboration and listening so important for a successful enterprise?

Often, when asked about innovation, people imagine a lone genius.  The truth is that while inspiration may dawn one idea at a time, innovation is more often a collective achievement of multiple actors who are communicating and collaborating.  That’s what organizations are all about.  Communication and collaboration build bonds, deepen relationships, expand our networks and boost our business results.  Also, we need to know the impediments and strengths of our organizations, and this requires a dynamic dialogue among people inside and outside to feed great ideas.  And nothing unites people like ideas.

Wikipedia is a striking example of how the exchange of ideas bonds and unites people.  Jimmy Wales, Co-Founder of Wikipedia, has rallied thousands of people around the world with an online, open encyclopedia. Participants are united in their enthusiasm and even in their debate, and they are committed to – Imagine a world in which every single person is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. Wales knows what he’s talking about when he speaks of “harnessing the power of lots of people who believe the same thing.”

Q) I understand that TSI’s first-year proceeds from the sale of Everybody’s Business will be donated. You have been recognized on multiple occasions for your individual charity work and TSI’s commitment to corporate social responsibility. Can you tell us a bit about the work that you’ve done and the organizations that you’re passionate about?

TSI’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) story is just one of many stories unfolding in companies nationwide, and my hat is off to everyone who is consciously choosing to make a positive difference in our community.   TSI’s CSR program is called Feed to Lead, and the mission of Feed to Lead is to nourish leadership potential in those who need a helping hand.  To implement Feed to Lead, TSI makes community investments through funding and volunteering for charities that fight hunger, advance education and assist veterans.  Our four charities of choice are: So Others Might Eat; Equal Footing Foundation; Marine Toys for Tots Foundation Literacy Program; and Easter Seals DC-MD-VA Military and Veterans Services.

At TSI, we do everything we can to make Feed to Lead fun and easy by giving every employee paid time off to volunteer, coordinating an exciting activities calendar, paying registration fees for outreach events and providing transportation to volunteer locations.  Every month, the TSI team engages in activities such as serving meals for the homeless, sorting items at the Toys for Tots warehouse; assembling supply-filled backpacks for students in need, donating books at our annual book drive and running races to benefit wounded warriors.  Every employee rallies to support our community with energy and enthusiasm, and we are so dedicated to the impact of the organizations we support that we provide pro bono strategy services to the Boards of our charities of choice.  Also, we earmark a set percentage of annual revenue for charitable donations, and as you mentioned we will be donating all of TSI’s first-year proceeds from Everybody’s Business book sales to our charities of choice.

We’d like to thank Dr. Wilson for taking the time to answer our questions. If you’d like to get your own copy of Everybody’s Business, you can find it online HERE. Dr. Wilson is a member of ACG National Capital’s Emerging Growth Business Roundtable (EGBR). The EGBR’s next event is entitled, “Leading a Growing Company: How to Create a “We Team” Customer-Focused Culture,” and will be held on November 12, 2012. For more information and to register, go to the ACG National Capital Web site.