Keys To Transformation




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Much has been said about change. We are often reminded that change is inevitable, necessary and painful.

Dictionary definitions point towards change as the act, or instance, of making and becoming different.

It’s a movement of something shifting from one state to another – be it yourself, organisations or even a nation. Change itself is neutral, but can bring about positive or negative consequences.

In the field of leadership and change management, a fascinating subset of change is transformation.

While change is neutral and can be a process or a singular incident, transformation is an intentional, internal progression towards betterment.

In Leaderonomics, we run corporate simulations designed to incite a transformational shift in our participants’ minds.

One of our very popular simulations pushes small groups of participants to plan a turnaround strategy and transform a failing business, whilst being subject to stressful “interventions” such as loss of inventory, a public relations disaster, and sinking employee morale.

It’s an intense situation crafted to thrust people out of their comfort zones, kindle greater self-awareness, and progress along in their leadership journey.

For us, it’s also an incredible privilege to be part of that painful learning process, to watch them jolt awake and transform before our very eyes.

By the end of the simulation, we see our participants reflect and realise that they are no longer the same people they were at the beginning.

This then begs a question – with great, successful change leaders, how did they transform themselves and their organisations? What factors did they develop which helped ensure their success? We take a look at transformation guru Datuk Seri Idris Jala’s journey, and his keys to transformational leadership.

The science of doing new things

With a reputation for engineering business turnarounds in Shell Sri Lanka and Malaysia, Jala took on the role of transforming the ailing Malaysia Airlines in 2005, with a RM1.7bil loss and less than four months’ cash flow. With him at its helm, MAS posted astonishing record annual profits of RM851mil by 2007.

In 2009, Jala was appointed CEO of the Performance Management and Delivery Unit (Pemandu) in the Prime Minister’s Department, charged with monitoring the implementation of government Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

Jala defines transformation as fundamental changes in the way a person or organisation does things (its doing) and its character, or being.

“Acting your way into a new way of being” – changes one’s thinking and doing, then drives transformation of character and being.

This way of thinking was triggered during his stint in Shell Sri Lanka. It was a tough period when many typical management tricks didn’t work, and he was faced with asking himself, “What do I need to do differently?”

Jala had to change his mindset, throw away previous beliefs and discover new paradigms of thought and action. And the very act of doing this new thing, was in itself transformational.

Catch the interview here

Allow for divine intervention

In MAS, Pemandu and in an interview with The Leaderonomics Show, Jala shares on a subject people don’t talk about in the corporate world or teach in business school – “divine intervention”.

Divine intervention is underpinned by two experiential human paradigms. Firstly, when we think about it, most major things in our lives occur out of our control.

For top leaders, it means you can’t control the major things that impact your company – the economy, SARS, the competitive environment.

On a personal level, this could be meeting your future spouse to an unexpected job offer.

We can control approximately 40% of life incidences through our own decision-making, but have very limited influence over the remaining 60%.

Hence, life is a continuous reduction of options, as our decisions and chance factors funnel us through increasingly specific paths.

Divine intervention allows us the peace of mind that it is all right to fail, even when we have given our best.

We may tick all the correct boxes on the checklist for success, but recognising this 60% uncontrollable factor means there is no need for self-flagellation when we do fail.

As a leader, it is Jala’s key to setting the heartbeat of his organisation; when he appears unflustered, his troops remain calm through the storm and continue giving their all.

Obtaining divine intervention

Whether we believe in God, luck, feng shui, karma or otherwise, how do we obtain favour from divine intervention?

Jala believes that this rests on three things.

Firstly, reaping what you sow from your values and actions. Being a good human being will attract good people to you, and allow positive chance occurrences.

Secondly, follow the right ethics on the basis of your conscience. With white, grey and black areas, it should be straightforward to make the “white” choice.

However, when faced with “grey-area” issues with no option of white, Jala strongly cautions never to make these decisions alone, but with some form of accountability group.

With “grey-area” decisions, your conscience is compromised, and over time, the grey creeps into the white.

And thirdly, the crucial need for self-renewal, take some time out for solitude and reflection, and give gratitude for what Jala calls his “Theory of Enough”.

With this anchor of divine intervention to guide our perspective and character, there are five additional keys for transformational success.

Aim for the seemingly impossible

Those that succeed have something different from those who fail. Jala calls this the “game of the impossible” – wanting to do what everybody says cannot be done.

The centerpiece of all great leaders is their conviction that the “seemingly” impossible can be achieved. This unshakeable sense of conviction cannot be allowed to survive alone, but must be fed by the leader’s ability to harness people and give their best.

Focus on the fundamentals

In our Leaderonomics business simulation, the “turnaround management” is advised to look hard at the core assets of the business – such as human capital, intellectual property, or even the intangible brand.

When rescuing and transforming a crisis, the core assets are priority; all else must go.

Jala’s absolute priority was the P&L – the yield of flight routes had the biggest impact on the company. Every low-yield route that could not be salvaged within nine months was axed.

Challenging your strategy and programmes mean chopping initiatives that are “nice to have” but do not directly support your mission.

In your own transformation journey, were there activities that were not critical to your direction in life?

For an accountancy professional, it could be the case of sacrificing lengthy baking lessons, at least until the ACCA exams are completed.

Jala cautions that where transformation is needed, enforcing your priorities “needs to be very brutal”.

Enforce discipline of action

Similarly, enforcing discipline of action is another key to success.

If you have a plan for transformation, but do not act on it, nothing will come to pass.

In the same vein, if you do act but sporadically and without discipline, you have a problem as well.

Innovation has to be supported by rigorous implementation to achieve transformational results.

Create a winning coalition

Another transformation key is to create “winning coalitions” – stakeholder partnerships that augment your leadership efforts.

As a leader trying to drive change and transformation, every ounce of support counts and leaders should always be open to collaborative opportunities.

Jala believes you should collaborate with competitors, provided both parties know exactly where the boundaries are.

He cites the example of oil companies collaborating to develop the most cost-effective output from oil wells and refineries, and then competing at the oil stations for customers.

Exercise situational leadership

Great leaders understand not only the how of leadership, but also the when. Should a leader speak, or listen? Be humble or assertive?

Many leadership traits are polar opposites of each other, but that doesn’t mean they are in conflict.

A transformational leader needs to be highly directive at the start of any journey of change, to reinforce discipline of action and focus on the fundamentals.

As the team becomes increasingly competent and confident, the leader adapts to become more empowering.

Empowerment exists when competence exists within the team. And that is when the seemingly impossible can transform into reality.

Hui Yi-Wen is a Leaderonomer trying to figure out her transformation journey, and wonders when she will see this nation head towards genuine transformation. For more information on Leaderonomics’ simulations (youth, corporate and public programmes), contact To watch the video interview of Idris Jala for The Leaderonomics Show, visit Click here to watch the leaderonomics show. 

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