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Barack Obama’s boardroom bubble: Transformation tips from the master

TomTom rendered millions of street guides obsolete and it’s now facing the same fate. Well, like they say, little disrupters grow up. They get a pooch and some aches and pains, turn into a fatcat and perish as disruptee. It’s the nightmare of all the shareholders and directors who have collectively begun transforming as a precaution.

The CEO’s task is clear: turn the decline into double digit growth fast. Panic sets in and the McKinseys are wheeled in, with their mathematical masterminds leading the pack. We’re going to centralise expertise, reorganise management layers and work agile. We’ll put up posters in the lifts with catchy themes such as Go the extra mile!, Unleash!, Accelerate! (anything with an exclamation mark is super!). And the plan will be shared and celebrated with the rank and file at the next townhall whilst enjoying a glass of Champagne. After which we’ll gaze with anticipation at the skirting board to see whether the profits are already splashing up against them.

But the CEO staring into the spotlights can’t see that the employees are shaking their heads in pity and whispering to each other: ‘What a hoot you guys, the boss has a new toy.’ ‘Stay calm, this too shall pass, just like last time.’ This once again shows that it ultimately isn’t about the business or digital transformation, but about human transformation. Just like the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, the way to organisational change is through the employees.

Someone who has loads experience in this area and who is coincidentally in Amsterdam right now, is President Barack Obama. He knows better than anyone that you can’t take shortcuts when it comes to change processes. In a packed AFAS Live concert hall in Amsterdam, 3,000 managers were mesmerised as they listened attentively to the transformation master’s tips.

People need good stories. While ‘storytelling’ is roaring towards a top place in the Annoying Word Top-5, when Obama talks about it, all of a sudden it sounds very wise after all. He says change is frightening and that’s why we need simply good stories. People have to be able to envisage something. That’s why there’s always a history lesson in his speeches: this is where we come from and this is where we’re going.

Do not despair. Transformation is tough; it’s two steps forward, one step back. Obama is a gentleman, but he’s referring to his peroxide blond successor. The setback doesn’t make him less optimistic about the ability to move forward.

Beware of the bubble. He says our boardrooms, just like the White House, are naturally bubbles. Power corrupts and before you know it you’re in an ivory tower surrounded by yes-men. That’s why Obama had a special department that selected ten letters from the daily stack of 40,000 letters received from citizens for him to read before bedtime. The secret of Obama’s transformation is so simple: listen to regular people. He even had his mother-in-law move into the White House. Would TomTom have been better off if CEO Goddijn had appointed not only his wife to the board, but also her mother. Or is the key takeaway from the conference that the greats sometimes also make mistakes.

Dick van der Lecq

Dick van der Lecq is the Managing Director at DDB Unlimited. He was previously the Managing Partner at Etcetera.