How Executives Make or Break Transformations – SAFe Agile Transformation

SAFe Agile Transformation



trans· for· ma· tion | \ ˌtran(t)s-fər-ˈmā-shən  , -fȯr- \

1: an act, process, or instance of transforming or being transformed

Though transformations are widespread, not all feel successful.

I am blessed to have been able to take part in many transformations.

And in the transformations I’ve been a part of, I’ve found similarities. This goes for Agile transformations, digital transformations, business transformations, and my own more personal transformations.

In this blog post, I’ll share executive behaviors that I’ve seen produce unhappy employees and decreased outcomes:

  • Lack of clarity and communication
  • No connection to middle management
  • Passivity

I will also share patterns that created positive outcomes for the employees and the end users:

  • Leading with heart
  • Leading with honesty
  • Leading with accountability
  • Leading by example

Executive leadership is not the only impact on success or failure. But I’ve seen and felt that strong agile executives enable transformations to be motivational and positive.

SAFe Agile Transformation

Three Ways Executives Break Transformations

Beginning a transformation and not following through can have immense ripple effects throughout an organization.

To begin a transformation, we must ask people to change. Change is something humans have a natural negative reaction to unless they feel safe.

Transformation failures start with this basic premise: we must feel safe to change. Executives who don’t enable safety at scale are not enabling a transformation. 

Lack of clarity and communication

Executives are decision-makers.

Leaders must remember that those under their supervision must live with their decisions. Thus, the leader needs to listen to the ideas and concerns of everyone involved before making and imposing a decision.

This does not mean leaders must follow the suggestions or ideas of everyone. But they must hear and consider what those under their supervision believe before making a decision.

A leader needs to make decisions in a way that those affected by the decision can believe they were heard. Those affected should also know there were reasons why their ideas were not incorporated into the final decision.

Leaders are not “commanders” but must make decisions and be clear about them. Transformations with executives who attempt to please everyone in the moment only ensure that nothing is clear. In this situation, happiness is, at best, temporary.

No connection to middle management

Middle managers have complicated jobs with conflicting priorities. They must focus on in-the-moment concerns as well as long-term strategies. Also, they must find ways to care about the humans that work for them while completing the larger mission of the company. And in most cases, they are not incentivized for these behaviors. 

Rewarding these middle management behaviors and outcomes builds a system unable to transform:

  • Siloed improvements
  • Heroics by individuals over systemic improvements that eliminate the need for heroics
  • Meeting dates at the sacrifice of employee and end-user well-being


Passivity is the biggest failure of executive leadership in times that need change and transformation.

Passive leadership, in my experience, is executives who say they want a transformation and even hire a team to do so and then stop getting involved.

To create a generative culture of engaged workers, a leader must engage.   Executive leaders who step back from the decisions and motivations of their workforce may have happy accidents. But they won’t have the intentional system that builds the culture required to keep their enterprise focused on the appropriate risks and learnings to speed up outcomes.

SAFe Agile Transformation

Four Ways Executives Make Transformations

I’ve managed to interact with many executives throughout my career. Because of this, I’ve internalized my belief on what makes an “agile executive.”

Agile executives hold these transformation leaders accountable for outcomes and results while taking accountability for removing blockers and giving the group the time needed to change. They vocalize and act upon SAFe transformation as a journey that should have measurable and time-bound moments but is never complete.

Agile executives understand their most important asset is the people who work within the company.

Leading with heart

The desire to inspire others comes to mind first. Agile executives are purposeful about inspiring individuals they come across day to day as well as large groups. They do this through clarity of vision but also by taking the time to do so. They find pride in making others feel better, even momentarily, for having spoken with them.

The agile executive doesn’t talk at people; they talk with them and encourage others to talk with each other along the way. Agile executives understand their most important asset is the people who work within the company. They understand this in economic and human terms: employees who are happy, enabled, and mission-driven produce better economic outcomes than those who are not.

SAFe Agile Transformation

A motivating example of leading with heart is in the customer story from Porsche’s leadership. I felt inspired by these agile executives’ connection to the heart of their workforce and how they brought that heart to life together across organizational boundaries. 

Leading with honesty

Agile executives know that if those they lead doubt for one second that they are being honest with them or that they don’t have the best interest of their people at the forefront, harm will occur.

Depending on the products the enterprise creates, this harm could result in not only decreased customer outcomes but actual physical or mental harm to employees and end users.

Agile executives know that trust doesn’t occur in meetings; it happens in moments between them. And they encourage leaders throughout the company to know the same. They own up to mistakes immediately and celebrate those who act upon errors as learning moments.

Leading with accountability

Agile executives hold themselves and others accountable for the transformation at hand. They provide clarity of strategy, prioritization reasoning, and clear intent, creating a fertile ground to hold people accountable.

They also select and empower a group of trusted individuals who have shown desire and competency to move the full business along. To do this, they look for those who believe the company mission and customer outcomes could improve through change and have the relentless positive energy to make it happen.

Agile executives hold these transformation leaders accountable for outcomes and results while taking accountability for removing blockers and giving the group the time needed to change. They vocalize and act upon transformation as a journey that should have measurable and time-bound moments but is never complete.

A personal vignette

This moment continues to stick with me as a clear example of leading with honesty and accountability.

When I was a senior director a few years into leading a SAFe® transformation inside an organization, a new C-suite leader asked to meet with me in her first couple of weeks on the job.

During this meeting, we discussed where I saw opportunities and what I was hoping to achieve over the next year. She ended the call with a few statements that renewed my energy and began an amazing working relationship.

She said:

I appreciate your candor and ability to see the full system. I know this is a journey, not a destination. My ask is to continue to be bold, open, gritty, and kind. My other ask is a challenge to you. If you can help the teams and trains gain 5 percent efficiency in how they produce their work, we will have $$ (number left out on purpose, but it was A LOT) to fund additional efficiencies and improvements. Be the person who tells me how to do this, what you need from me, my peers, and the organization to succeed. I will be there with you, and I ask you to be accountable to that initial result, with more challenges from me after we succeed.

Leading by example

Agile executives are action-based. The transforming organization mimics their actions, not their words.

First, they ask for and receive coaching and education, knowing that lifelong learning is how they got to their position. And no title they have eliminates the need to continue learning, especially in today’s changing age.

Then Agile executives work hard to form teams amongst their peers, exemplifying team behaviors and living the same practices they ask their employees to have. They share their improvement backlogs and communicate their wins, failures, and hopes authentically. 

Finally, agile executives show up, physically and mentally, to events made up of cross-functional roles spanning hierarchies held within the organization, encouraging behaviors that create alignment and discouraging siloes. They learn the words of the transformation and frequently meet with those they hold accountable for the transformational steps. This ensures space to raise and resolve risks, blockers, and detractors to progress.

Aspire to Your Own Transformation

Transformational agile executives have a good sense of themselves and their role in the overall scheme of the endeavor in which they’re engaged. Leaders cannot take themselves too seriously but need also to recognize that their conduct establishes a pattern for those under their leadership to follow. Agile executives teach by example as much as by any other means available to them. 

Leadership requires that a leader respect those under their supervision and treat them as equals. Regardless of the type of transformation which you are deciding to lead, I hope this blog inspires you to inspire others and to continue aspiring to your own transformation.

Be the change.

About Rebecca Davis

Rebecca Davis is a Scaled Agile Framework team member within Scaled Agile, Inc.

Rebecca Davis is a Scaled Agile Framework team member within Scaled Agile, Inc., a SAFe Fellow, SPCT, and a Principal Consultant. She has led multiple transformations as a LACE Director, RTE, Portfolio Manager, and Coach. Rebecca has experience helping organizations create joy in the workplace by connecting employees to each other and user outcomes.

Connect with Rebecca on LinkedIn.