14: Chief Transformation Officer, Frederic Ducros on Getting Out of a Chaotic Business Situation

Getting Out of a Chaotic Business Situation

No one likes being in a chaotic business situation, but often it’s unavoidable. Discover why the “longer path is the shortest in the long run”, and the presence required of leaders who want to inspire their teams and enterprises.

In episode 14 of Agile Leaders Conversations, hear Frederic Ducros, a veteran in the digital transformation space. Frederic played the role of Chief Transformation Officer in AirAsia, spent more than 15 years in consulting firms, and spoke at the Business Agility Conference in New York. Hear Fred share how leaders should approach transformation by looking at tasks vs people with a different paradigm, riding the curve of maturity, and the importance of having mindful conversations with people so that organizations can transform successfully.

Connect with Frederic Ducros at https://www.linkedin.com/in/transforming/

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Frederic Ducros: When you become a leader, there are certain number of things that were obvious and valid then, that are not so simple after you become an executive.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Welcome to agile leaders, conversations where executives, business leaders and experts from all sectors come together and share leadership insights around leading in today’s workplaces. They will be sharing some tips on how you can use the agile mindset to make sense of the complexity and lead with authenticity and ease.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: In this episode, I have a pleasure of speaking with Mr. Fredric Ducros, an expert in large scale enterprise transformation who has played key roles in multiple enterprises in the region, supporting their transformation. Fredric is also an established speaker and has spoken on various global platforms, including business agility conference in New York and within the region.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Fred, would you share with us a little about yourself?

Career Transformation of Fredric Ducros

Frederic Ducros: Sure. The shortest version is that my last responsibility has been to be chief transformation officer at AirAsia. And I didn’t start in that role at AirAsia. Initially, I was head of digitalization. Before that I’ve been having different roles. I had been in large consulting firm for a very long time, 15 years between KPMG and Deloitte. And after that, I was very much interested in developing a way of working that was more iterative, more experiential and more collaborative, which most people would recognize as agile.

Frederic Ducros: So I created my firm which was Agili and it had its life. And it allowed me to help a number of companies in the region after transitioning being an executive in large firms. I’m at a juncture in my career where I’m discussing with a number of consulting firms to become a partner in the firm, and to foster more transformations of this style really aligned with what you discussed your in book. Or becoming a chief transformation officer or a chief digital officer, essentially the sidekick of the CEO who has the agenda to transform, but who has so much more things to do outside that at times some of the elements of the transformation needs to be shared.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Yeah, very pivoting part of the career. And I think it’s a transformation in your own journey as well. Isn’t it?

Frederic Ducros: This has given me the time to really think of what I had learned in this two year ride, and to see the kind of leader I want to be next because chief transformation officer has a slightly different role in the organization, in the C-suite. As in, they don’t have to maintain the existince. And so, they need to be cognizant of that. And I think that taking stock of this, and understanding what it means in terms of relationships with the rest of the C-suite, I’m happy I took this time.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Yeah. I can see how’s one part of my coaching model where you talk about what is the persona. I think there’s that thought around that? What is the persona you really wanna play in this work of helping businesses transform?

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Fredric and I connected on one of the business leadership agility conversation with one of the other agile practitioners. So, we connected and then Fredric picked my book. So I really wanna hear his thoughts of what he thought about the book after reading my book, eight paradoxes of leadership agility.

What got you Here Can’t get you There

Frederic Ducros: So actually I bought the book while we were talking. That’s one of the benefits of being online is that when you’re on a panel, you have a minute here, a minute there to do something else. And I had actually started reading the book while we were talking on the panel, which is shame on me. I really appreciated a number of things in the book, but what I really liked was it’s obvious it’s on the title is, it really takes us the foundation the fact that when you become a leader, there are certain number of things that were obvious and valid until then that are not so simple after you become really an executive.

Frederic Ducros: And so I’ll take an example that covers several of the paradoxes, but that’s one that I’ve seen very often. And it’s the notion that very often, when you become an executive, you have been good at performing. You have been good at taking charge. And suddenly in our world, which is so confusing, so fast and so uncertain.

Frederic Ducros: With so little information that is clear and so much information that is confusing. As an executive, you don’t have all the information that is necessary. So if you keep taking charge, you prevent the people below to take charge. And if you take charge and they don’t take charge, then the organization by default will not be as flexible and as reactive. So what made you successful before will make the organization and yourself fail?

Frederic Ducros: There was an example of this. I’m not going to mention the bank because the CEO in the past six to seven years decided to make a push to really push cross selling and cross selling meant that the people in the managing directors in private banking would work and play nice with the managing directors in corporate banking.

Frederic Ducros: Because a lot of people who are very rich. Usually, have grown by growing businesses, and so they are both clients for their own estate in private banking and for their company incorporate banking. And it makes sense to try and acquire their clients of one for the others. And obviously that didn’t go so well because that’s not what they had been trained and rewarded to do for decades.

Frederic Ducros: So, I think with these paradoxes you address a lot of these things. They are important, because very often we try to improve by growing at the first level of learning or first level of transformation, which is to try to do a little bit more or little bit less of certain things.

Frederic Ducros: Oh, I will swear a little bit less. Oh, I will listen a little bit more. But, real transformation comes when you suddenly see things differently, and it’s not one or two things that are available to you to do more, to do less, it’s completely different ways of approaching things. And so these paradoxes are good gateways for that.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: I think from leadership principle standpoint Marshall Goldsmith has this saying, “what got you here can’t get you there.” So there’s a need definitely for us to relook. I think most dangerous phrase that leaders can say would be, that’s how we’ve been doing things for X number of donkey years and refuse to change.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: And that really prevents businesses from being agile. And Fredric, you have started talking about paradox. So would you share with us which paradox, which resonated with you?

Task vs People: The Core of Everyday Decision

Frederic Ducros: I have four, so I’ll mention all four and then pick one. So, there is leading versus following. There is bottom up versus top down executing versus inspiring, but the one I think encapsulate the most to me is tasks versus people.

Frederic Ducros: And I will do a shameless quote placement here, which is from a guy I, some days I really respect and some days a little bit less. Depending, because I know him very well. And this quote is it’s simply “the long ways is the fastest in the long run.” And what I mean with that, I think we share this principle that either you go for the task, and this is going to work right now, or you go for the people. And that’s going to be very difficult right now because people are not ready. There are so many books that say trust your team, empower them leave them space to fail, but frankly, if you have children, you imagine that you give a chainsaw to your three year old and you just tell them, come on Marianne. I trust you.

Frederic Ducros: And if you’re a good parent, maybe you won’t. And so this paradox for me is that ultimately, you want to grow people, and you want to let them learn. And for this, they need to take risk and they need to fail. But these people evolve in a system that has boundaries and that has expectations.

Frederic Ducros: If you give them the space, but you do not have the authority to defend them when they fail, you won’t have a lot more people who will try and fail after the first one is fired. So for me, this notion of task versus people I know that it actually covers different things in your book, but ultimately you want to grow people, but there is a curve of evolution of maturity. You need to ride that curve. And at the same time, you cannot decide for the person. But you can have intelligent and mindful conversations about the level of tension. If you are familiar with used stress, the level of tension that the handover represents for that person.

Frederic Ducros: Are you giving the person or are they taking a task or a mission that is challenging enough, but that is not going to lead to a catastrophic failure? Because catastrophic failures will cost careers, no matter what.

Frederic Ducros: Task versus people is really at the core of so many decisions everyday. And that’s why I want to pick it because a lot of these other paradoxes they cover a certain range, but this one, I feel I can ask myself this question 20 times in a day.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Wow. And from your sharing, there’s no fixed way whether you wanna focus on tasks on people. Because you talk about the curve, how mature, how ready.

Frederic Ducros: I would say that my bias after I started with handling the tasks. When I was at KPMG in Silicon Valley, my career grew pretty fast, and my salary doubled very fast. Because I was doing a lot of sales, but also I was doing a lot of red project turnarounds. And for me, what mattered was the mission and the results. And that costed me friends. Because mission first.

Frederic Ducros: After losing enough friends, I asked myself questions and I started to realize that maybe I could have done things a little bit differently. And so I realized that people mattered. So that was 15 years ago. However, I would tend to say that now my bias is people. My question is when do I need to look at the tasks so that I don’t endanger the people that I’m trying to help grow?

Chuen Chuen Yeo: That’s a very good question to ask. And when you talk about tension in my book, I talk about the stresses, and it’s about maintaining the healthy tension, because anytime you swing too much to one end, you will see some consequences, and then they need to adjust.

Frederic Ducros: Maybe it’s a question of vantage point as well. There will always be the people and the task, but I would say, before I was looking at the task ,and I was calling your person to do the task. And I think it works well for the short game. But if you play the long game, it is better to look at the people and to have conversations about what are the tasks that are going to be the most appropriate.

Frederic Ducros: You will always have both, but which one is going to be the point of focus. But what we’re speaking about here is inner energy. We’re speaking about nuclear fusion. Yeah. It’s once you have conversations with people, and you find what motivates them, and you take the time to see the mission they want to accomplish.

Frederic Ducros: If you take the time to understand where it could fit in the bigger picture, you can then hand it over and nearly forget about. It’ll be enough. Whereas, if you do it the other way, and you’re assigned to someone who already has business as usual tasks to handle any. You assign them something that they’re not even interested in for a reward that is usually nominal. What engagement are you going to get?

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Yeah. And that’s executing versus inspiring coming in here as well?

Frederic Ducros: That’s exactly that. Yeah. And very often I see inspiring as we can speak about presence. The presence to the moment, the presence to the the reality that people are leaving.

Frederic Ducros: Are the people we are entrusting with the task going to be able to carry out? Or do we sense that something is going to be wrong? That’s the level of presence I feel we need now. And so that level of presence for me is tied to the real inspiration. The real inspiration is not to be the flame for everyone, but it’s to help people find their flame and keeping it alive.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Very much. Not being the flame, but helping people find their flame, and keep all those flames alive.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: In my book, I intentionally kept the definition of leadership, agility, simple there basically is the ability to navigate complexities and uncertainties with the sense of ease and authenticity. How do you see it from your point of view?

Agility is Also About Awareness

Frederic Ducros: I very much like this quote. I wish I had heard it before. For me, what I like is that it is so removed from any framework or any set of activity. And it really encapsulates the fact that the organic nature of individuals and organizations, so this this notion of ease for me relates to what’s happening in sport. When you try to do Tai Chi, for instance, you can actually do it and be very relaxed, or you can be incomplete tension, and that’s going to give you completely different results. And I’m not good enough to know which one is the best in every case.

Frederic Ducros: But I know that there are there are outcomes in both. And it looks nearly the same to a layman from the outside. Climbing would be the same or sailing would be the same. I remember when I practiced windsurfing for a good two or three years without surfing at all.

Frederic Ducros: I would simply float and move and I thought it was boring. Then one day in Canary islands, there was a lot of wind, and I didn’t know what it was at the time. But suddenly, I caught the wind enough to get above the water and to surf. And I finally understood why this thing was called wind surfing and it was suddenly done with ease, but the problem, and actually it’s something that I wanted to mention earlier when you spoke about the paradoxes is that, before I windsurf, I didn’t know I was not windsurfing, so I didn’t know. I wasn’t surfing. I thought floating and surfing were the same. And I feel that a lot of the paradoxes you discuss in this book, the problem is awareness. Until you have experienced the other side, you will feel you’re doing it.

Frederic Ducros: And that’s the challenge. It’s very difficult to convince people to change around these paradoxes because they will be absolutely sure that they’re doing it right until they see the other way.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Yes. And I recall…

Frederic Ducros: Do you feel the same?

Chuen Chuen Yeo: No! I don’t. It’s so hard to tell people, especially when you talk about wind surfing. I have zero experience. I cannot visualize it. And I that’s exactly how I feel too, because I’ve never experienced it. How would I know what wind surfing is? And I think. I recall the conversation we had on the panel. The discussion where everyone brought the challenges. In business transform, it is very difficult. Any change is difficult. A lot of organizations think that they are really agile, but they are actually not. And what you said made me realize, it’s because they have never experienced what it means to be fully agile.

Frederic Ducros: Yes. Yes. Flow is we will pass on the fact that even the word is not always clear and that it is used and abused, but really feeling what it is. It’s a little bit like framework differentiating simple and complicated and complex, chaotic and confusing. The thing is these are just words unless you really attach them to very specific experiences. Yes. If I say simple is exiting the theater 20 minutes after the show ended, when nobody is in the room, that’s simple. Complicated is exiting the theater when you have your grab waiting outside, and you are five rows from the end. But a few people moved before you. Chaotic would be exiting the theater when it is on fire.

Frederic Ducros: There is no more light and everyone is running. And so that would not be simple. That wouldn’t be complicated. You can’t really have a plan. You’re going to have to make it up as you go. And so obviously you can’t burn a theater every time, so you can’t really share these kind of experiences. So that’s where I find the need, and that’s why I created my company, that it needs to be experiential. And that was the reason why I felt it was necessary to be experiential.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Now that we are facing the COVID 19, I’m wondering, what advice do you have to all the agile practitioners, chief transformation officers out there. Anyone involved in this transformation journey? What advice would you give?

An Advice to Everyone in the Transformation Journey

Frederic Ducros: Given the fact that we’re in chaos, my advice would be very limited because there is no best practice. Because there is not even well known good practices with experts available.

Frederic Ducros: It seems to me that what you put in your book about being true to yourself and really remaining present, not being caught in fear, not being caught in reaction. I had the chance this year to go through a lot of learning. And one of the classes that I took was in the US and it’s called the Hoffman process. And it’s a deep course for seven days in a retreat. No access to internet, no access to phone, access to TV, nothing.

Frederic Ducros: And the core is to realize how often we react to things.. Which means we have automated responses and to start realizing that instead of reacting, we can respond. And respond is quite curious because it’s the most rational thing that you could do. And the most emotionally aware things that you could do.

Frederic Ducros: Usually when we react we run away from something and responding means walking towards something you want. And so I feel that in an environment as chaotic as the environment that we have now, we have incredible opportunities to show that we are good leaders because we have opportunities to show how we care about the people while we care about the business.

Frederic Ducros: And a lot of the masks are off. This is interesting because as we put masks on our faces. Those social masks in companies have fallen off. And so I feel that this is an opportunity for you to show what kind of leader you are going to be and to experiment things that frankly before, you may have wanted to try, or you may have heard. You could try if you’re more conservative, but you would’ve hesitated.

Frederic Ducros: Now you have the license to. In a way, that’s what I lived for about 10 years when I was at KPMG and Deloitte, and I was handling red projects turnarounds I was asking for projects like this. I asked to go to Nigeria, to Pakistan, to Afghanistan. At some point, my partner said, do you really want to die?

Frederic Ducros: And I wanted to play to go to places that were scary because frankly, there was nothing to worry about. When a project is really messed up, you can’t really mess it up more. And so all you have to do is to be there and to be present and to reignite the machine. You are literally going to help people see the thing. Then see what’s wrong, then see what they want to create. Create a mindset and then build capabilities. I hadn’t realized that until I said that’s what I was doing in turnarounds, but that’s really what I was doing in turnaround. And I feel that now we have this license to try these things. So seize the day.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Carpe Diem. Take the opportunity because things are chaotic now. Sieze the day. Be courageous.

Frederic Ducros: Sorry. Didn’t work.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: Because if it’s is messed up, it can’t be even more messed up.

Frederic Ducros: Yes, exactly. Plus, we’re chaotic. We are not going to think our way out of a chaotic situation.

Frederic Ducros: We will act our way out of a chaotic situation. If we act regularly and we check if it’s making things worse or not.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: The way you say, you’re not gonna get out of the chaos by thinking, but act a little, review and then act again. You gotta keep moving. I think the key is you gotta keep moving where you don’t move and you just stop, that’s where you go under the water.

Chuen Chuen Yeo: This has been a great conversation. Thank you for spending time to have this chat with me, and thanks for reading my work. So keep in touch.

Frederic Ducros: Thank you very much.

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