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.