A Systems Approach to Leading Through Transfomation

Guest post from Brendan P. Keegan, CEO, Merchants Fleet

One thing all great leaders have in common is that they understand that transformational growth doesn’t happen without a willingness to change. When I joined Merchants Fleet as CEO in 2018, I knew I was joining a team of some of the most experienced professionals in the fleet industry. However, with all of that experience, habits were inevitably inherited along the way. In order to achieve our lofty goals, we had to be willing to change.

By asking ourselves “How can we do this better?” we were able to build upon many of the old habits and traits that had worked in the past to quickly transform into the fastest-growing company in our industry. To make this happen, we put a system in place with six key focus areas:

1. Create a Clear Vision, Strategic Direction and  Communicate It Constantly. In my years serving as CEO I have made it a priority to build a living, breathing strategic plan. A big part of that is having a simple vision that teams can rally around and a strategic direction that leaders can buy into and articulate easily throughout the organization. At Merchants we have a simple yet powerful vision—to enable the movement of people, goods & services freely—and a well-documented strategic direction that we revisit regularly and communicate to the broader organization on a constant basis so that everyone understands their part in achieving it.

2. Align and Refine Core Values. Employees want to be part of something meaningful, and it’s the leader’s job to articulate the values of the organization and hire people who align to them. At companies I have led, we did exhaustive exercises to uncover the values of the organization. Sometimes, it was refining what the company already had, and other times we built them from scratch. The values are in the company already, you just have to listen for them. At Merchants, through our FleetIQ program, we seek individuals who align to our values and have strong industry backgrounds. Our values are also widely visible—on the walls and printed on employee ID cards—so that everyone is reminded on a daily basis to live and breathe them.

3. Organize Around the Client and Simplify the Offerings. After developing a clear strategy and setting its direction throughout the organization, we quickly evaluated our operations and moved to reorganize around the client into one company. Merchants, to its credit, has always been an extremely entrepreneurial company. Because of this, there were a number of “micro-businesses” throughout the organization that had been created to answer a need but had not been fully integrated. Through our strategic approach, we aligned the micro businesses into the larger business to provide the best experience for clients.

4. Involve Everyone and Encourage Collaboration. Setting a lofty strategic direction and pursuing a truly synergistic experience across our whole company required collaboration. Previously, the leadership team had only met on a monthly basis. We established a weekly standing meeting and during the pandemic have had daily team meetings at some points—focused meetings with real decisions and tangible action items. Establishing a culture of feedback and collaboration has inspired shared learnings and led to new opportunities. Moreover,  this approach has cascaded down through the entire organization, which means we are collaborating more and driving more value.

5. Drive Culture from the Top. Most companies have accidental cultures. Culture is one of those things that you can’t really put on a piece of paper, but you know it when you’re in it. We can consciously build culture, but it requires investment and commitment from the top. First, I had to align our leadership team to drive the service-oriented, flexible and innovative culture. Next, we implemented formal and informal leadership development for our most influential leaders to instill the culture and teach others the way. Finally, I believe in fun—fun drives culture. So we celebrate all kinds of wins, we reward our employees, hold events on a regular basis, and make sure our employees have a transparent understanding of what we are doing.

6. Make Innovation Everyone’s Job. For most organizations, innovation sits as a separate entity in the makeup of the org chart—or it doesn’t exist at all. As a leader, I think innovation is a fundamental skillset that should permeate the entire organization, and not be locked into one particular area or group. It’s about giving employees the tools and training to innovate for themselves, while also having a process designed for the larger innovations. We call the little innovations “Little i’s” and the big innovations “Big I’s”. By providing the communication and tools, we have seen employees across all areas of the business implementing highly successful innovative ideas, and we reward those ideas on a  quarterly basis.

I’m an engineer by training, and through my experience have seen that systems work, when practiced regularly and planned purposefully. The best practices I have listed above are one of the many systems that I have developed and implemented over my career as a CEO.  If you find yourself in a transformation situation—one where you are implementing quite a bit of change or experiencing rapid growth—these six steps can be extremely powerful and help guide your thinking and the organization at large. Systems work because they keep us organized, give us a playbook to run from, and provide a starting point from which we can be creative. Sometimes having a playbook is all it takes to remove the fear of leading and inspire you and your teams to incredible heights.

Brendan P. Keeganis Chief Executive Officer at Merchants Fleet. Under Brendan’s leadership Merchants has become the fastest-growing fleet management company in North America, earning a spot on the Inc. 5000 list. An award-winning, six-time President & CEO of companies ranging in size from 500 to over 10,000 employees, Brendan is the author of more than a hundred articles on leadership, strategy, and technology. He is also a frequent speaker at conferences across the financial services and technology sectors. 

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