To succeed in transforming your brand, you must also transform yourself

Embarking on organisational change means being willing to challenge yourself and others, and leading people through uncertainty with courage.

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Almost a year ago, I made the choice to join PZ Cussons as chief marketing transformation officer. PZ Cussons is a medium-sized multinational with a footprint in emerging and developed markets, present in a range of categories but with hygiene, beauty and baby at its core. UK readers will be familiar with Carex, Original Source, Imperial Leather, St Tropez and Sanctuary Spa.

Transformation is a big and often overused word, but in this instance it is accurate – the business had been in decline for several years due to a number of different factors. Under-delivery in profit had been alleviated by cutting investment in brands by a third between 2013 and 2019, but the residual strength in those brands eventually began to fail, leaving a broken algorithm.

A new CEO in 2020 marked the beginning of sustained change; a new strategy was created and a commitment to organisation-wide B Corp certification announced, along with a multi-year journey to first turn around the business and then deliver sustained growth.

I was drawn to a role whose purpose was to create a profound shift from trading to a brand-building business. Moreover, I was excited by the opportunity to develop transformational leadership.

We are drawn to things for a reason. After a couple of challenging years personally and professionally, I saw the potential for this mission to grow and develop me in different ways – to be restorative, creative and rewarding. With good reason did Gandhi say: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.”

So what have I learned in this first year about leading transformation?

Transformation brings profound emotions

The first part of a transformation expedition is full of hope. Like our attempts to make sense of reality, transformation ‘simply’ requires implementing solutions to a series of well-diagnosed problems. I start equipped with all my experience and knowledge of brand building. With thorough analysis, understanding of the drivers and a good dose of change theory, I can set out from base camp.

Despite this rational certainty, phase one of transformation brings profound emotions because reality is messy and true transformation involves jeopardy.  So, your expedition experiences loneliness, confusion and a real sense that failure is a possible – maybe even a probable – outcome. There are moments of insight and inspiration, and you find the balance between self-belief and hubris. Though these feelings may be unnerving, they are all good indicators that you and your team are on the way.

As you march onwards, there’s an art in continuously absorbing new data and perspectives, even though the destination remains the same and your initial plan may still seem sound. The environment around you may change profoundly and you need to know when to revisit the plan. This year, conflict and inflation were layered onto the existing challenges consumers faced with populism, Covid and climate crisis. Practise framing and reframing what you are trying to achieve to keep the mission fresh and relevant.

Transformational leadership demands you to write the different chapters in your story with real agency, not settling for following the status quo or the expected path.

Transformation happens through the co-ordinated effort of a whole team. It requires patience and a willingness to show vulnerability. This means listening deeply, seeking to understand people’s emotions and their evolving sense of themselves on the journey. It also means having courageous conversations frequently and without exception. Expect that you will need to invest time in connecting and reconnecting people and yourself to the mission, especially when there are major setbacks.

Seek counsel and build a brains trust. Spending time being mentored and mentoring will nourish you, provide invaluable and surprising perspectives, and keep you sane.

Keep your feet on the ground. Embarking on change and seeking meaning does not mean you will always be happy, but it will enable you to become more of the person you want to be, testing the alignment between your values and sense of purpose, personally and professionally. Transformational leadership demands you to write the different chapters in your story with real agency, not settling for following the status quo or the expected path.

PZ Cussons has just closed its second year under the new strategy and its second year of growth, up 10% over two years and with almost all our ‘must-win’ brands in value-share growth. It is a good first step and testament to everyone’s hard work, particularly given the impact of raw materials and freight, and the growing pains of brands getting back out there in the world.

Perhaps this milestone marks the moment of a shift into the second phase of leading transformation? With some progress, perhaps it is easier to accommodate and deal with the unexpected, and to approach some of the biggest challenges.

This is the moment which confirms that leading a transformation is less of a leadership journey and more of a life journey. What meaning do I want to create? What might my legacy be? When facing the inevitable trials and setbacks any personal or business transformation entails, this mindset enables you to be calm, to lead boldly, and for the experience itself to be nourishing and life-enhancing.