When I first became a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum, I was thrust into the corporate world after having lived for many years as a social entrepreneur in China. I remember being curious as to what a consultant really did, as there were so many floating around the Forum network. I was shocked to discover that these young men in suits were advisors to the biggest corporations around the world. How could someone, at 25 years old, without any experience of life and the working world, still less about how to run a company, be an advisor to some of the most powerful corporations in the world?
I was and still am gobsmacked. I built my own enterprise from the ground up in China, a country in fast transition where transformation is not simply a management concept but a daily reality.
A few days ago, as part of a discussion between my peers in global leadership, I was blown away to learn about a transformation initiative in a large multinational that was failing because the consultants in question were unable to get the trust of the employees. As so often, change was being driven from the top. The company in question had a strong corporate culture, built as a family business and still owned by the family. Business got done on the basis of relationships, rather than through performance. A new executive team had been brought in and it was obvious that there was already a culture clash. But did it have to be that way?
Suggestions around the circle were typically male-dominated and top-down. ‘Create a shared enemy’ came one solution. ‘Show them that heads would roll’ was another. Never once was there a questioning of leadership and management style and a consideration — an empathy — as to how employees saw things, as a way to engage them in the transformation itself. Unless you are an authoritarian state, it’s hard to coerce people to do stuff. Perhaps this would explain why the consulting company in question has such a reputation for colluding with and helping authoritarian leaders to maintain power. But I feel sure that the firm itself has many good and worthy people within it’s ranks, who simply lack the on-the-ground experience of the reality of working within a company, and not just as an observer.
It seemed to me, in our own mini-consulting conversation the other night, that the company culture was a strength, not a weakness, and that it needed to be harnessed, not changed, to move the company forward. There seemed to be a willingness on the part of senior leadership to engage at all levels of a company but there didn’t seem to be a recognition on the need to create a shared vision moving forward. The senior team were no doubt right that there needed to be a shift to make the company more profitable and navigate the choppy waters of the inevitable global recession we are all headed towards. But they didn’t seem able to steer the ship through those times with a recognition of the values that built the company in the first place.
In my own company, we have a quote from Chinese philosopher Lao Zi that has been a guiding principle for our own leadership and that has served us well.
Go to the people
Learn from them
Start with what they know
Build on what they have
And when it is done
They will say
We did it
- Lao Zi
Jacqueline Novogratz in her new book, Manifesto For A Moral Revolution, recognises the value of ‘accompaniment’ in leadership. We need to get down beside those that are at the front lines of a company and listen to what they have to say, build their trust — and then use our vision to take all of us higher together. People can get behind change if it inspires them and aligns with their highest values and vision for themselves and leaders must never neglect to understand how important that accompaniment is to bring about the needed transformations. By all means bring in consultants to assist you with your change initiatives, but leaders must make sure their own values are rooted in that genuine desire to respect and honour the culture that has built up in a company, understand the people’s perspective and build trust from the grassroots up. And the role of the consultant needs to be about supporting leadership to do just that. Then, and only then, can the needed transformation take place.
Do you know what differentiates a Nobel-prize winning scientist from their more ordinary peers? Participation in the arts! According to a ground-breaking study by Michigan State University, Nobel-prize winning scientists are 2x more likely to play a musical instrument, 7x more likely to draw or paint, 12x more likely to write poetry, plays and novels and a staggering 22x more likely to be an amateur actor, dancer, or magician. (Source: Originals by Adam Grant). So what is it that makes participation in theatre and performance so transformative for leadership development? Check out the video below and don't forget to sign up for our upcoming webinar that explains more about how experiential learning based on arts-based approaches to transformation can help you and your organisation.
We are excited to be hosting a webinar next week that shares insights on how to build resilience and emerge from a post-lockdown world with more empowered and empowering leadership. Check out the link below and sign up for the event here.
Come and join Caroline Watson and Guila Clara Kessous in this informational session that explores how your employees can transform their leadership skills to adapt to the new normal of life post-lockdown and increase their resilience, empathy and global understanding in the process.
The event will include an introduction to Act for Impact’s flagship programme that uses theatre-based and behavioural change techniques for real impact, showing you how your company can prepare for re-entry into a post-Covid world and hit the ground running to rebuild and grow yourself and your enterprise.
• Introduction and presentation to Act for Impact and Global Leadership training in a post-Covid 19 world (Caroline Watson)
• Resilience and why it’s important – (Guila Clara Kessous)
• Behaviour change: shift mindsets and embody empowering leadership to build a new world (Caroline Watson)
• Debrief and next steps (Caroline and Guila)
A few years ago, I was asked to deliver a training on global leadership for senior executives at a well-known multinational in the beauty industry. They were keen to use my skills in participatory approaches to learning and my background in China to consider what it meant to ‘glocalise’ a company, managing strategic operations from Europe whilst empowering local teams around the world to take advantage of local opportunities. After delivering my own training which was well-received, they asked me to sit in on a strategic planning session by one of their own in-house consultants.
It was evident he was not happy having me in the room. “Pale, male and stale”, he delivered a soliloquy on the ‘corporate values’ of the said company, before putting team members into groups on tables to discuss ways to cascade the company’s values throughout the global organisation. Not once did I see any collaborative discussion on what those values were and how they were expressed, nor yet any support for how these regional leaders were to inspire in their teams the necessary behaviours to bring about transformation in the company. It was pure top-down leadership – and death by powerpoint.
Powerpoint has it’s place in learning, for sure, as a back up to provide context for what you have just experienced, but we must be cautious to not put the cart before the horse. True learning means that we are able to take action, to go from the classroom into life and the work environment and ensure that everything we have learnt has relevance and application immediately into our experience.
But the powerpoint presentation masked a much more dangerous issue. Top-down leadership models, set on high from European capitals, from individuals with little or no grassroots global experience. There was a lack of genuine leadership. A truly empowering leadership competency that maximises the potential of employees who are on the ground, receiving, listening, working alongside customers and suppliers, who, in turn, help influence corporate values instead of merely implementing them following orders after a fancy corporate retreat.
Why is it so hard to get corporate leaders to understand that change cannot happen without truly empowering your teams? And why is it that too many decisions around strategy are made by corporate leaders in their ivory towers in European capitals? It’s as if there is so much fear in the room, fear that leaders will be usurped if their subordinates in the regions get a taste of their own potential, fear that there will be no jobs left for the Europeans if we unleash the potential of China and the emerging markets? Or that somehow Europe will lose out to the energy and dynamism of the emerging world?
But what would it look like if leaders in Europe were capable of exercising truly ‘global’ thinking in how they empower and lead their teams globally? What would corporate training and strategic retreats look like if there was a genuine desire to lead in a way that truly empowers others? And with the understanding that a more equal interplay between global and local empowers everyone in equal measure?
There is little nuanced understanding that true leadership, the kind that empowers others, can only ever result in an ever-increasing virtuous circle that empowers those that lead also. There is no need for fear. When we empower others, we unleash a potential that enables us, as leaders, to go further also. It’s no zero sum game here, but opens the door to a wealth of possibility.
The pandemic has upended the world as we know it. Forced to ground ourselves literally in our homes, we can no longer rely on regular trips across the world to keep everything – and everyone – in check. We are learning to lead remotely and to understand how to manage teams, both local and global ones, in a totally different way. It’s leadership that starts with understanding yourself, building your own internal resilience, and exercising the necessary empathy and listening skills to lead wisely through the turbulent waters we now face. It is about equipping leaders with practical skills to then implement decisions that they have built together with their teams and to model the necessary behaviour change that must cascade through a company in order to achieve financial success, alongside the achievement of social and environmental goals.
It creates an enormous opportunity. The chance to ‘let go’ and realise that true leadership comes from within and can never be externally imposed. If we could just take the time to engage in corporate learning that enables us as leaders to ‘dig deeper’ into what truly ‘higher order’ leadership means, we could unleash the extraordinary potential of what it means to be a truly global thinker – and actor too.