CCTO Interview

Leading change transformation at RSM – Dr Robert Coles

RSM’s newly appointed Chief Culture and Transformation Officer, Dr Robert Coles, spoke to Zoya Malik about his strategy in leading change transformation and what it takes to get stakeholder buy-in

Dr Robert Coles
Chief Culture and Transformation Officer

Zoya Malik: What are your key objectives and focus areas as Chief Culture and Transformation Officer?

Robert Coles: As RSM’s Chief Culture and Transformation Officer, I will lead a number of transformation initiatives with the aim of fostering even greater cross-border collaboration between our firms, further nurturing RSM’s diverse, entrepreneurial and client-focused culture, and aligning local and global people activities.

One of my priorities is to equip and enable the Network itself to lead change transformation. As a Network with over 860 offices, it is essential that they feel genuinely inspired to embrace change. To achieve this, it will mean engaging each one of them to align strategic priorities that will drive meaningful, long-term impact. This will bring greater consistency in our processes across the organisation, further developing key skills such as persuasion and influence, effective listening and critical thinking. This will benefit RSM clients in the future as they work with us as a trusted partner to help them navigate an increasingly complex and challenging landscape.

ZM: What attracted you to RSM and this role? 

RC: Having previously held the role of RSM’s European Regional Leader from 2010 to 2015, and then subsequently working as a consultant to support key global initiatives such as the RSM Academy, I had first-hand experience of the organisation’s purpose-led, high-performance culture which has always defined it. RSM’s commitment to putting human relationships and culture at the heart of everything it does is a key differentiator and makes the organisation an attractive place to work.

Furthermore, as a trusted professional services provider all over the world, RSM is leading the charge on powerful change during a period of great uncertainty, so it is a fascinating space to work in.

On a personal level, as someone who has been passionate about mountaineering for many years, I possess a drive to continuously move forward. When you conquer one peak, you know there is another waiting for you behind it. Making an impact in a newly created role centred around transformation represents an exciting challenge – both practically and intellectually.

ZM: As the Chief Culture and Transformation Officer, who do you work with and for?

RC: Really my job exists to work with and on behalf of the Members of our growing RSM community. I report to RSM International’s Chief Executive Officer, Jean Stephens, and I’ll be working closely with the Members including the Managing Partners of RSM firms as well as the global leadership team to take these transformational projects forward.

ZM: How do you get buy-in from all stakeholders? How do you change behaviour?

RC: You simply can’t force transformation. You need to be absolutely crystal clear about your goals, and the reasons behind them. If you want people to listen, it is incredibly important to listen yourself. Likewise, if you want to be heard, you need to be open to hearing others, and if you expect engagement then you must engage, so the role of change and transformation is always reciprocal.

During a period of transformation, organisations can fall into the trap of acting with haste. This is counterproductive as clumsy attempts to impose behavioural change can cause damage in the long-run including a lack of engagement or even mistrust which can impact a company’s culture. On the contrary, if you engage, listen and combine your efforts with important stakeholders in a collaborative way, you are more likely to be successful during times of change.

ZM: How do you build commitment from the top team and pursue impact?

RC: Creating impact can only be achieved through clarity. This goes back to my earlier point around the importance of being crystal clear about what you need and why you need it. Once you've managed to engage and secure buy-in around that clarity then you can achieve impact. If you’re uncertain, in conflict or contradictory around your reasons for change, the impact will inevitably get lost. Commitment flows in the same way.

As with mountain climbing, when you’re starting out, you often believe that the goal is to get to the top of the mountain. However, you learn over time that your objective is in fact to come back down again safely. No mean feat when you’re tired and it feels like hard work, and when the euphoria of achieving the initial success has faded. Coming back down a mountain is when 80% of accidents occur because the motivation reduces and you’re tired; the same can be said for an organisation going through a period of change. It is more important than ever during the final stages of a transition to engage and inspire as this is the time that you are most likely to see energy dip, commitment wain and mistakes occur.

Commitment also comes from effectively communicating what you are seeking to achieve at each stage of the journey. In addition, it is important to recognise and celebrate the achievements along the way, no matter how small. Another important skill is agile problem-solving; as a business leader, the longer you leave an issue, the more problematic it becomes to rectify.

Fundamentally, it’s about breaking up the journey just like a climb to the top of a peak. Communicating that certain points of the journey may be tough from the outset ensures transparency and realistic expectations along the way, but it also allows your team to anticipate the parts that are easier to achieve and more enjoyable, keeping morale high, and resulting in a greater impact.

ZM: Is there anything else you would like to mention?

RC: We are in the age of disruption. During times like these we must embrace ambiguity and continuous disruption. This requires us to refine our problem-solving skills in order to adapt. RSM operates in a sector where stability, regularity, and consistency have been highly valued for a long time so we are ideally positioned to support any business during this time of transformation, not just as an advisor but as a partner to bring the solutions to the fore that will support their long-term success.

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