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Companies that claim to be “transforming” seem to be everywhere. But when you look more deeply into whether those organizations are truly redefining what they are and what they do, stories of successful change efforts are exceptionally rare. In a study of S&P 500 and Global 500 firms, our team found that those leading the most successful transformations, creating new offerings and business models to push into new growth markets, share common characteristics and strategies. Before describing those, let’s look at how we identified the exceptional firms that rose to the top of our ranking, a group we call the Transformation 10.
Whereas most business lists analyze companies by traditional metrics such as revenue or by subjective assessments such as “innovativeness,” our ranking evaluates the ability of leaders to strategically reposition the firm. Some companies that made the list were obvious choices; for example, the biggest online retailer now gets most of its profit from cloud services (Amazon). But others were surprising, given their states before embarking on transformation. The list includes a health care company that was once near bankruptcy (DaVita), a software firm whose stock price stagnated for a decade (Microsoft), a travel website that faced overwhelming competition (Priceline), a food giant that seemed to lose its focus (Danone), and a steel company that faced new pressure from lower-cost rivals (ThyssenKrupp).
The team began by identifying 57 companies that have made substantial progress toward transformation. We then narrowed the list to 18 finalists using three sets of metrics:
New growth. How successful has the company been at creating new products, services, and business models? This was gauged by assessing the percent of revenue outside the core that can be attributed to new growth.
Core repositioning. How effectively has the company adapted its legacy business to change and disruption, giving it new life?
Financial performance. How have the firm’s growth, profits, and stock performance compared to a relevant benchmark (NASDAQ for a tech company, for example, or DAX Index for a German firm) during the transformation period?
We recruited a panel of expert judges (see the list below), who evaluated the companies through the lens of their own expertise and gauged which transformations were most durable and had the highest impact in their industries. (For more on our methods, see the sidebars below.) With these criteria in mind, our final list is as follows:
Our analysis revealed characteristics shared by the winning firm’s leaders as well as common strategies they employed.
Transformational CEOs Tend to be “Insider Outsiders”
The list is topped by companies headed by visionary founders with no prior experience in their industries; Jeff Bezos came from the world of finance, and Reed Hastings from software. As it turned out, having no predetermined way of doing things turned out to be an asset when it came to reinventing retailing and television, and these leaders kept that outsider’s perspective even through waves of growth.
We see an interesting pattern across the professionally managed companies, those whose CEOs were hired by the board. These CEOs are what we call “insider outsiders.” Make no mistake, they have substantial relevant experience. They had 14 years of tenure on average before getting the top job. That knowledge helped them understand how to make change happen inside an organization. Yet these executives also had an outsider role where they worked on an emerging growth business or consciously explored external opportunities, giving them critical distance from the core. After becoming CEO, that insider-outsider perspective helped them explore new paths to growth without being constrained by yesterday’s success formula.
Satya Nadella, for instance, joined Microsoft in 1992 and worked his way up to running its cloud computing effort, building that business unit into a viable new growth platform before becoming CEO, in 2014. He got the top job because of that, and then as CEO he accelerated cloud-business development to make it the company’s primary strategy.
The same was true of Adobe’s Shantanu Narayen. He joined the creativity applications vendor in 1997, and got the CEO job a decade later largely because he was able to articulate a vision for pursuing digital marketing services as the new growth path.
Editor’s note: Every ranking or index is just one way to analyze and compare companies or places, based on a specific methodology and data set. At HBR, we believe that a well-designed index can provide useful insights, even though by definition it is a snapshot of a bigger picture. We always urge you to read the methodology carefully.
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