Leading During Times of Organisational Change: An Interview with Marcel Nussbaum

How would you define a high performing team?

I think you could define it just by results: you have a plan, you have delivered against that plan and if you did then you can say that the team has “performed”. But I don’t think that’s all there is to it. I think it has a lot to do with how the results are achieved, how motivated the people are to achieving them, how used up or not used up they are after the delivery. I think a lot of people are so focused on delivering just the results that they forget to also value the how.

Many people understand leadership as the person responsible for managing and decision making…Could you in a few words describe when you hear the word leadership what it means to you and the impact it has in building a high performing team?

I think leadership absolutely includes management. Management is more the procedural administrative portion of leadership. If you need to manage something, you need to plan, execute and control it.. Leadership is more than that. It’s not just a process. It’s taking care of the people responsible for the process and responsible for delivering it and making sure that these people are encouraged to deliver what needs to be delivered. Getting there with a motivated team for me is a part of leadership, on top of the daily management of tasks. There’s  one more aspect: usually things don’t always go well, so you need to manage exceptions and I think how you manage exceptions, how you manage incidents, has a lot to do with successful leadership as well.

What are some key characteristics that you believe every strong leader should possess?

Enthusiasm. I think people should feel that you are enthusiastic about what you do no matter what it is. If you are not, it is difficult to be a strong leader.

Honesty. If people realize that you are not being authentic and don’t stand behind what you say, you won’t be recognized as a leader and you won’t be successful, so you  have to be straightforward and honest up front and tell people why and what they need to do.

You have to be thorough, you have to follow through, you have to control, you have to do the not-so-liked stuff. People need to realize that there is an agreed level of tolerance for not doing things. This is usually the thing managers don’t like to do, everybody wants to be the nice guy. Sometimes you can’t do that, but you need to correct, change, control. For me that is a critical portion of leadership as well.

Marcel you have lead teams in large global companies who have been going through significant change. What lessons have you learned, what would you have done differently?

I’ve experienced very few “must” changes. The majority of changes I have witnessed or gone through, are changes which were inflicted by new line managers. They’ve come into a new role, felt that they need to do something, so they announced an organisational change.But in reality nothing really changes other than the reporting lines. Most of the more frustrating changes I have witnessed in large financial organizations were those that changed nothing but the reporting lines – often perceived as a very disrupting and unneeded change by the impacted people.

My advice would be to think well before you announce an organisational change just because you are now in charge.. Look at improving the processes and not just the organizational structure, because changing reporting lines has a big impact on people.

Also, be transparent with the real underlying reason for the change. The ‘why’ must be properly communicated to all levels of the organisation, especially the lower levels. If the ‘why’ isn’t communicated properly then people usually react being insecure and scared.

Many larger change initiatives fail or are not considered 100% successful, why do you feel this is the case?

There are many aspects to the reason for failure, it’s hard to give a simple answer.

Sometimes it’s ones own ego wanting to do too much, then you come to your limits and you don’t want to admit it so you keep going and aren’t effective. I’ve seen this trait in myself as well.

When i look at the things which failed in my own space, close to 100% of failures were caused by human issues, purely. Technology doesn’t fail often and if it does you can fix it. Things fail because of people issues, those are the ones that are hard to control and hard to predict. But for me those are also the ones that make a project manager’s life interesting and challenging.

What were the ‘right’ things that you have done as a leader and what are you sure to continue to do?

I think this comes back to the first thing I mentioned: Enthusiasm. When people realise that you are enthusiastic, that you allow yourself to express your emotions, then they are more tolerant with you. There is more tolerance for your mistakes if people realized that you are passionate about what you do too then when you just go by rules and processes.

To maintain energy and enthusiasm, try to focus on the things that you are convinced are good and that you like to do and then the enthusiasm is self fulfilling. Of course this is not always possible, it’s an ideal. So the next best thing, if you are forced to do things that are less interesting for you, try to team up with somebody that likes to do the things you don’t like or with somebody that is good at things that you are normally not good at.

Work to peoples’ strengths.  Basically do for others what you do for yourself. Try to involve them where they like to be involved and try to avoid making them do things they don’t like to do. You have to know them well and you have to treat each character differently and as individuals. Once size does not fit all.

With over 20 years of senior IT leadership experience for  top tier investment banks, Marcel Nussbaum has witnessed  many significant organisational changes. These experiences have taught him how to effectively manage change and maintain team focus and commitment in turbulent times.

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