Mohamed Kande is the U.S. Chair, Consulting Solutions Co-Leader and Global Advisory Leader at PwC. For the Winter 2023 edition of People + Strategy, Executive Editor David Reimer spoke with Kande about successfully driving change in an organization, and how his multicultural background affects that outlook.
People + Strategy: Transformation is a process now, not an event—a kind of limitless Rubik's cube. What is your framework for thinking about change?
Mohamed Kande: Change is the only constant these days, and I think it's important to see change as an endless journey rather than a series of milestones with a beginning and an end. And it's particularly important to approach business with this mindset.
Think about a company that grows from $5 billion to $11 billion in revenue over five years. That both requires and results in a tremendous amount of change. And, how you run an $11 billion business is very different from how you run a $5 billion business.
With greater scale, you face new and different problems, and you need to evolve to address them. To add to that, you need to look forward. How do you set the stage to become a $15 billion or a $20 billion business? You must look at every business process. And you must consider how the changes impact your workforce—from talent attraction and retention, incentivizing and engaging your people and driving collaboration.
P+S: Human beings do crave a degree of certainty, and that means resolution and closure. How do you get people to be open to this idea of an endless journey?
Kande: It's tempting to want to solve every problem right away. Many leaders I know want to solve problems and move on. But if you are going to drive sustained outcomes and lead an organization that will continue to evolve into the future, you need to be comfortable with the fact that transformation is a never-ending journey.
To get people to buy into this idea of an endless journey, you need a destination. For most business leaders, that destination is a clear organizational purpose that all their decisions map back to. If people know your company's purpose and understand how you are fulfilling that purpose in your transformation efforts, they will be more open to this idea of an endless journey.
And while the journey may be endless, it is important to establish measurable, time-bound phases of transformation that will focus your efforts in a way that people can understand and embrace. And be transparent with your stakeholders about how your transformation efforts are going. Being able to drive transformation in distinct, quantifiable pieces allows people to have the certainty and closure that they seek, while continuing on the broader journey.
P+S: That requires something different from leaders to keep people comfortable around the idea that it's a constant journey.
Kande: It requires an entirely different mindset. Many leaders grew up leading projects that had a beginning and an end—and they too have to adjust how they think, work and lead.
To be successful in driving change, we should focus on the individuals who are expected to drive, be responsible for implementation or may be impacted by the change. By personalizing the change, we can help people better understand the impact to them, their jobs and what we need from them. But to do that, we need to understand the people.
You simply can't have a "one size fits all" approach—you need to understand who they are, what they do and what they care about. Good leaders take the time to constantly listen and understand—to help inform their transformation strategies from the very beginning and figure out what is working and what is not, and course correct along the way.
P+S: What were some important early influences for you that made you comfortable dealing with so much ambiguity?
Kande: My life experiences have forced me to become comfortable with change and ambiguity. While I grew up in West Africa, I moved to France when I was 16, to Canada when I was 21 and then to the U.S. when I was 25. I didn't know anybody in those countries when I moved there, and I only really learned to speak English once I moved to the U.S. Later in my career, I traveled extensively and lived in the Middle East and Asia.
These experiences reinforced the need to be curious. Ask questions. Put yourself in other people's shoes. And accept the fact that you are going to be wrong a lot. And that's ok—in fact, it's necessary. Just figure out how to learn and grow from your mistakes.
P+S: How does your personal journey impact the way you advise clients?
Kande: My journey has taught me not to go into any room and think I know all the answers. Frankly, it's about having and asking the right questions. Asking the right questions helps us understand and solve the right problem. There's nothing worse than putting a lot of work into ultimately solving the wrong problem.
It has also given me much more empathy for my clients. As I worked all over the world, I found that in many places—especially where resources are scarce—you need to have options. Backup plans are necessary because you never know when you're going to run out of resources. I've found that this actually applies to clients more broadly, especially in an environment where everything is changing constantly.
It's not about walking in and providing a single answer. It's about giving them options. And then even when you commit to one, keep the other options open. It really goes back to the idea of being able to live with some amount of ambiguity rather than focusing on gaining closure. It's a different mindset and one that can be difficult for consultants.
P+S: Simplifying complexity is a key leadership skill, but there is a fine line between simplifying and oversimplifying. How do you think about that?
Kande: Simplification is good, but simplification cannot be done at the expense of optionality and sophistication. Industries are being redefined and boundaries between them are collapsing. So many things are interconnected and require system thinking to connect information that is not naturally connected. Often, leaders don't know what the next challenge will be and should keep their options open—exploring multiple options in parallel.
The reality is that you can't take shortcuts in the name of simplification. Lazy leadership would say yes to one path and move on because it's easier to execute. But that can lead to the wrong decisions.
Taking a more sophisticated approach is hard. That sophistication to diagnose problems is what I expect from all my leaders.
Sometimes we take the more difficult path because that will take us where we need to go. I refuse to make a decision because it is easier for the leadership team and more difficult for the rest of the business. Our job is to make sure that the rest of the organization can be free from that friction.
Taking this approach takes more time. And it goes back to listening. You've got to ask questions and reflect on the answers. You have to drive dialogue and debate. And you need to have those conversations across business areas.
P+S: How have you learned to leverage HR as you've navigated these various stages of change?
Kande: PwC is a people business, so one of our top focuses is attracting and retaining top talent. You need the right HR team to help you do that. The most effective HR teams not only understand the people elements, they deeply understand all aspects of your business. They need to constantly evolve with the nature of your business and be problem-solvers across functions and business areas.
Our HR team is the eyes and ears on the ground, so they often have a better vantage point to understand the impacts of change on our people, helping us understand the right questions to ask.
Good Growth: 3 Tactics for Sustainable Progress
Before joining PwC, Mohamad Kande doubled the size of his consulting business in five years. P+S asked Kande to identify the top three pieces of advice for somebody who is starting out on a similar growth challenge:
First, ask a lot of questions. Learn not only about the business; learn about the people. Listen more than you talk. You'll be surprised how much more equipped you are to lead.
Second, be picky about the team that you surround yourself with. Don't confuse good executives with good friends. Don't surround yourself with people who make you comfortable. Surround yourself with good people who can challenge you. And surround yourself with builders who can carry on without closure, not with managers who like projects with a beginning and an end.
Finally, have an unwavering focus on the results because the results are the currency that encourage people to follow us. But it's not just about financial results—it's everything. Are we getting the right people? Do we have a purposeful culture? Do we have a clear idea of what good looks like? Are we delivering on the vision? Whatever you commit to, you have to deliver.