Authentic leadership for sustainability: Bovis Lend Lease Embercombe Leadership Programme

13 09 2010

Ashridge is currently leading a programme of research exploring innovation in leadership development in a changing global context: Leading Organisations of Tomorrow. I was really fortunate to be the researcher observing the Bovis Lend Lease-Embercombe Leadership Programme in Devon in June. My ears had pricked up at hearing that this had a ‘wilderness’ component, but I knew little else before my first client meeting. The Leadership Programme is an essential part of an ongoing development programme provided by Bovis Lend Lease to employees on their two-year graduate programme. I observed the first three days of the four-day programme. In this piece I’d like to capture a few of the key features that stood out for me in this unique programme.

The first thing that struck me was the INTEGRATIVE element of the programme. They are two very different organisations: with Bovis Lend Lease a major player in the construction industry, and Embercombe  an unique community of people committed to developing a viably sustainable lifestyle that is integrated with local communities. As one facilitator explained, ‘I want to live in a way which would be possible for all of humanity’. It was clear that the programme has benefited from a partnership of around five years that enables Bovis Lend Lease and Embercombe people to co-design and present the programme. This ongoing collaboration has also enabled ‘sustainability’ to move from being an implicit element of the context to a clearly highlighted value of the programme, in line with Bovis Lend Lease’s stated values.

So what exactly was the programme? In brief, around 20 participants were divided into 5 project teams, headed by an overall team leader. Each project had a specific building task to deliver within the four days of the programme – given the introductory time and hand-over, there were only about two full days for design and delivery. What struck me from the start was the elegant simplicity of the whole process. It was clear from informal chats I had with participants that the combination of authentic tasks and time for considered reflection gave rise to some significant personal insights and rethinking . This is what makes for sustainable leadership.

AUTHENTIC TASKS: Here were real construction tasks, with a real client in a real delivery time. In terms of ‘leadership development’ input, the emphasis was on trusting that the essential lessons for each and all would emerge form the very nature of the projects and the roles each participant played. The underlying principle was that each individual needed to identify his or her own leadership style, strengths and development areas in the context of being leaders, followers and team members. And this was the case. Mac Macartney, who is the founder of Embercombe, acted as co-ordinator, alongside Michelle Palin of Bovis Lend Lease. Mac has an abundance of leadership material to offer, but chose to rely on a few pithy illustrations that surfaced in the context of the project. This was a truly emergent, experiential process.

COMPLEXITY AND DEPTH IN SIMPLICITY: Core to each of the projects was the need to use principles of sustainability in design, material and process. The projects included:
• extending the volunteers hut,
• completing the construction of a central yurt,
• a second firewood shelter to allow for 3-years of drying out,
• a movable male and female compost toilet, and
• extend the ablution block to allow for more hand-basin access.
As the projects were allocated, I had the sense that the teams felt their projects were not overly-challenging. By project handover, however, their appreciation for the intricacies of well-considered, sustainable design and delivery had multiplied.

REFLECTION: Another core element was the attention given to reflective reviewing; drawing participants back from the detail of specific task delivery to promote a broader and deeper awareness of the wider context and their personal learning. This facilitated reflection took place through a joint meeting at the start and end of each day, and at pertinent points through each working day. Each team had a ‘facilitator’. The facilitators were themselves craftsmen with the capacity to guide on key elements of sustainable construction principles, a well as the ability to lead learning review sessions as incidents took place, or significant project phases passed.

RELATIONSHIPS: I’ve already mentioned the Bovis Lend Lease-Embercombe relationship underpinning the programme. On our first day on this programme, there seemed to be at least four different clusters of people: the Bovis Lend Lease participants with their co-ordinators and facilitators, the Embercombe volunteers working and living on site, the Embercombe staff/volunteers who provided the meals, and a group of long-term unemployed youth on a work experience programme. It soon became clear that the project teams were going to need to enlist the support of volunteers and people involved in the work experience scheme to complete aspects of their projects. In a rich (and very real) process of reaching out, miscommunication, misunderstanding and dialogue, the final days saw the emergence of a connected community pushing for successful project completion.

SUSTAINABILITY: The unanticipated need to build community in order to build the various constructions was remarked on by many participants as significant in sustainable work and leadership. Similarly, I found that all the participants I spoke to had shifted from a sense of ‘this is a strange/interesting/weird/intriguing place’ (just as ‘sustainability’ is often seen as a strange/interesting/weird/intriguing concept) to a very personal appreciation of both the Embercombe community and the challenging demands of a commitment to sustainability. In other words ‘sustainability’ had shifted from being something ‘out there’ to something each had made part of their personal meaning.

It will be interesting to explore how this experience impacts on the participants’ Bovis Lend Lease work and lives in the months and years ahead. We plan a number of follow-on interviews with past programme participants to see how they have worked with their Embercombe experiences.

Dave Bond, Ashridge Faculty Tutor

Ashridge is leading a major research inquiry ‘Leading Organisations of Tomorrow’ which is exploring innovation in leadership development through the experience of eight pioneering organisations that, having recognised the need to adapt to a changing context, have integrated a sustainability orientation into their leadership development strategies. Ashridge is inviting senior business leaders as well as professionals from the fields of leadership development and organisational change to come together to discuss these themes in London on 14 October 2010. You can find more information here.