Jenn Allison standing in from of a Q&A sign

Q&A: Talking Transformation With Gagen MacDonald Managing Director Jennifer Allison

May 29, 2024

Jennifer Allison joined Gagen MacDonald as a managing director earlier this year. Recently, she took a moment to talk with Gagen Manager of Marketing & Thought Leadership Danny Kelleher about her background, expertise, why she was drawn to Gagen and what she’s seen drive success leading transformations.

DK: Can you share a bit about your background and career up to Gagen?  

JA: My dad was a steady and strong influence in my life. He grew up in the 1920s and was 50 years old when I was born. One of the many lessons he taught me was to be the very best at whatever I do—no matter what. Coupled with my natural tendencies to share stories and connect people and ideas, my career as a communicator was born. I started in fashion and eventually transitioned to consumer-packaged goods, health care, retail and, ultimately, technology.    

I discovered that I am a natural dot connector and that I love to build—experiences, people, teams—and solve complex challenges. And once I started working in the tech industry, I realized that I loved its pace, and the way that pushing boundaries wasn’t just accepted but encouraged. 

DK: At different points in your time working at Dell, you served as Vice President of Supply Chain Sustainability, of Products and Operations Communication and of Executive and Internal Communications, in addition to a number of other roles. What did you learn from such a wide-ranging, cross-functional vantage there? 

JA: Dell was the most pivotal learning experience of my career. I discovered an environment where finding and fixing problems was okay. Where looking around corners and beyond your day-to-day responsibilities was expected. I worked with and for incredible leaders who were willing to take risks by putting me in roles that stretched me beyond my comfort zone and expanded my idea of what was possible. One of my treasured—and most difficult—roles was leading supply chain sustainability. I knew very little about the work that happened as part of this responsibility, so learning from masters in this space was my first priority. The team also had had many leaders over a short span and were based all over the world. In short order, we needed to build trust and come together as one. I’ll never forget that the first day of my new job, we found ourselves in the midst of a crisis. One of our large European customers was caught off-guard in a TV interview when asked about their largest provider, Dell, and its supply chain practices. His reaction was to stop all business with Dell—to the tune of $800 million. Thankfully because of my communication background and experience managing crisis, we were able to turn this situation into a positive one—regaining our customers’ trust and resuming the initial business lost, while gaining new business. It was such an incredible learning, and it provided the opportunity for us to distinguish ourselves among our competitors. I felt like all the training of my career came together in that role.  

DK: Business Transformation, as you know, is one of our specialties at Gagen MacDonald, and a core focus for APCO. It’s also become an increasingly prominent topic in the business world over the past several years, as more and more businesses look to re-think core aspects of their operating models to stay competitive. What defines a Business Transformation to you, and why do you think so many companies are exploring them? 

JA: It all comes down to the notion that Alan Deutschman wrote about: “Change or Die.” Organizations must be willing and able to adapt and evolve their business strategy. If they don’t, they become irrelevant.  

No matter the size or scale of it, there are always unseen and unintended consequences that result from change. As they drive change, organizations must be agile and able to adapt to these unanticipated developments to make sure the long-term strategy is effective and relevant.  

The challenge I see most often is a struggle by leaders to align and lead from the front. Leaders responsible for the functional or process areas that will be impacted by a change initiative must actively lead their teams and organizations in a meaningful, consistent way. It can’t be one update every now and then. It must be consistent and authentic, recognizing wins and failures and helping teams understand their role in the company’s vision of success. 

The other challenge I see is failure to think about the human beings responsible for creating and executing these evolutions in strategy. The people component is often underestimated, and it’s critical to the success of any transformation.  

That’s why I joined Gagen MacDonald—to embrace my passion for leadership, culture and strategic internal communication. I’m energized by the opportunity to help leaders be their best, and to help employees understand and see themselves in a company’s purpose and strategy. The challenges we encounter are complex. We must anticipate interdependencies and risks that our clients often don’t consider. It’s that notion of seeing around corners and connecting dots. 

DK: It seems like many Business Transformation projects are either directly or indirectly driven by technological change. How do you think of the relationship between technology and Business Transformation? 

JA: Advances in technology present great opportunities for companies to re-think their strategies and business models—opportunities to find efficiencies, assess their workforce and workflows, mitigate risk in new or different ways, advance sustainability commitments and deliver higher value to all stakeholders. In my mind, technology is a catalyst for and enabler of companies’ ability to adapt and evolve. Looking back over the past several decades, you see the correlation between the rising pace of technological advancement and the proliferation of change initiatives. Technological progress—or at least, disruption related to it—often ends up forcing businesses’ hands and pushing them to change.    

DK: You’ve led a lot of technology-related change, specifically change at the intersection between human behaviors and digital tools. What are the most common mistakes you’ve seen businesses commit as they try to drive changes like this to how people work?  

JA: We must remember there are humans involved! The most common missteps I’ve experienced are: 

  1. Underestimating the Impact of Culture. Many businesses fail to consider how deeply ingrained cultural norms can affect the adoption of new digital tools. When introducing new technologies that alter workflows, companies often underestimate the resistance they might face from employees who are accustomed to traditional methods. 
  2. Insufficient Training and Support. Implementing new tools requires a shift in skills and sometimes roles, which necessitates comprehensive training and continuous support. Organizations sometimes roll out new tools without adequate training, leaving employees feeling frustrated and unsupported, which can lead to low adoption rates and poor utilization of the technology.
  3. Lack of Clear Communication. Effective communication is crucial during any change management process. Businesses often struggle with communicating the why behind changes, leading to skepticism and resistance among employees. 
  4. Ignoring Employee Feedback. Successful digital transformations are iterative processes that should incorporate feedback from all levels of an organization. Companies sometimes ignore this feedback, pushing forward with plans without addressing the concerns and suggestions of their employees, which can lead to dissatisfaction and disengagement.
  5. Failure to Align with Business Objectives. Digital tools should be selected and implemented based on how well they align with the strategic goals of the organization. A common mistake is adopting technology because it is trendy, rather than because it serves a strategic purpose. 

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