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.


Earth Overshoot Day: Business and Business Teaching Must Respond

16 08 2010

The fact that Earth Overshoot Day arrives one month earlier this year should be a wake- up call for Boardrooms and business schools alike.

We are trapped in a web of our own making, a web of concepts, beliefs and practices that  places the entire world in service of the economy: but the economy is a sub-system of society, and society is a sub-system of the bio-sphere. A subsystem just can’t grow beyond the capacity of the total system of which it is a part. To make policy as if it can is, to quote Jonathan Porritt, is “as close to biological and thermodynamic illiteracy as it is possible to get.” 

Business thinking and most business school teaching sees humans as separate from the living world, operating “on” the world and having an instrumental relationship to it. This fallacy of “separate from” allows us to view the living world as “resources”, legitimising the “take, make, waste” processes of the way business works.

There is an alternative framing available, seeing the entire earth as a living process of which humans are one interwoven thread, but this perspective has little currency in the world of business or in most business teaching.

We need business schools to be much more rigorous about what is taught and with what consequences. Leading academic Sumantra Ghoshal wrote that “bad management theories are destroying good management practices”. He might have added that they are denuding the planet too. In trying to make management into a science we have stripped out ethical responsibility by simplifying the role of managers into the empirically testable proposition that management’s role is to maximise shareholder value.

This is too small a role and too small a way of studying business. We need business schools to expand their ways of looking and their ways of knowing and to bring in insights from many fields into the management curriculum. We need less scientific management papers and more honest explorations of people experimenting with better ways of working in practice with the complexities of really being a sustainable organisation.

The truth is that no one yet knows what a sustainable economy is and we need business schools that develop people to explore creatively to find out. The Ashridge MSc in Sustainability and Responsibility is based on the principles of Action Research – asking leaders to question their assumptions and reflect on the consequences of their actions. This form of management education opens the way for a creative exploration of possibility that is not bound by blind acceptance of commonplace assumptions about the purpose of business and the role of managers.

Management education needs to change according to new CEO study

25 06 2010

In 2008, the United Nations invited Ashridge and others to lead a CEO survey to understand the perspectives of the business community on the role of management education in helping organisations to make sense of and adapt to a changing global context.

The results were compelling: 76% of CEOs thought it was important that senior executives in their organisations had the mindsets, skills and capabilities to lead in a changing global context marked by trends such as climate change, resource scarcity and doing business in markets characterised by poverty, corruption and human rights abuses.

Yet fewer than 8% thought either their own organisations or business schools were doing a very good job of developing these mindsets, skills and capabilities.

This week, 1300 business leaders have been gathering in New York for the United Nations Global Compact Leaders’ Summit, convened and addressed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. Notable speakers have included Chairs and CEOs from Unilever, AREVA, Petrobras, Bank of America, ENI, China Minmetals Corp, Tata Sons, PwC, Accenture and many others.

As an input to a forum on management education held as part of this summit, the UN again invited Ashridge and EABIS to take the pulse of the business community on management education, this time drawing on data collected as part of a CEO survey conducted by the UN and Accenture.

Headlines from the UN Global Compact-Accenture Study are:

  • 93% of CEOs believe sustainability will be critical to the future success of their companies.
  • 80% believe a tipping point where sustainability is embedded in the core business strategies of the majority of companies globally will occur within the next 15 years. 54% believe this tipping point will be reached within the next ten years. 

These findings mark a significant shift in thinking since a similar CEO survey conducted by the UN and McKinsey in 2007.

Key findings relating to management education are:

  • 88% believe it is important that business schools develop the mindsets and skills for future leaders to address sustainability. 
  • CEOs believe this is the second most important change that needs to occur for a tipping point to be reached, broadly equal in importance to the actions of customers, investors and government regulation.
  • Six out of the sixteen industry sectors surveyed said this is the single most important change that needs to occur. 
  • One in four CEOs say that lack of skills and knowledge among senior and middle management is one of the top three barriers to them as a CEO implementing an integrated and strategic company-wide approach to sustainability. 
  • 86% say their organisation should invest in enhanced training of managers to integrate sustainability into strategy and operations.  
  • CEOs say engaging with business schools to shape the next generation of leaders should be one of the top three strategic objectives of the UN Global Compact over the next five years. 
  • This isn’t just about companies in a minority of regions or sectors. These findings are consistent across different regions globally, across different industry sectors, different sizes of organisation, and across publicly traded, privately owned and state owned organisations.

These findings underline the timeliness of Ashridge’s research programme ‘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. These organisations include IBM, Ernst & Young, HSBC, IMC Group, Bovis Lend Lease, BT Group, Fairmount Minerals and InterfaceFLOR.

The UN PRME analysis of CEO attitudes on management education led by Ashridge and EABIS is here:

The full UN Global Compact Accenture CEO study can be found here:  

The invitation to the Ashridge Leading Organisations of Tomorrow Symposium on October 14 2010 is here.

Copied  below is an excerpt from the commentary by Kai Peters, Ashridge’s CEO, published in the UN PRME-Ashridge-EABIS analysis:

“The clear message from these findings is that the debate about whether the sustainability agenda is a real issue is over. The question now is how should business schools address sustainability strategically. As the 2008 PRME-Ashridge-EABIS study found, CEOs think this is about more than an optional extra on ethics or new modules on old courses, it is about ensuring the entire management development process is built around helping today’s and tomorrow’s leaders develop the mindsets, understanding and skills to lead in a rapidly changing global context.
“For this to happen, business schools don’t just need a few specialist faculty. They need all of their faculty to understand sustainable development and see the implications for their own particular areas of expertise, whether that be leadership, strategy, finance, or marketing. As business schools, we need a much stronger emphasis on faculty development across the board.
“It would also be helpful if the various accreditation and rankings bodies could adapt their criteria to give greater recognition and reward to those institutions that are taking the lead in innovating.
“At Ashridge we have been experimenting with new approaches for a number of years, and learning from our experiences. We are also leading a major research programme on innovation in leadership development, looking at the experience of organisations that have pioneered new approaches to developing leaders in an age of sustainability, to understand the lessons they have learnt about how to do this well and the wider implications for business schools. Innovative experiential learning approaches are needed. We do not have all of the answers, but we firmly believe that this new agenda is central to business schools in the twenty-first century. We are determined to play our part.”

Business needs a new approach from management education

11 05 2010

Last week, the Academy of Business in Society (EABIS) held its annual Leaders’ Forum at the offices of Suez-Tractebel in Brussels. The Academy is a multi-stakeholder initiative created to stimulate change in the management education industry. Officially founded at an event at INSEAD in 2002 (Ashridge was one of seven founding partner business schools), the initiative now involves a cross section of 71 of the world’s leading business schools, together with over 28 leading companies, including founding corporate partners Shell, Unilever, IBM, Johnson&Johnson and Microsoft. These 28 companies lead the Academy on a simple premise: the context of doing business is changing, new organisational practices are emerging in response, but these need to be accelerated and management education needs to change with changing times to help make this happen – by developing a generation of organisational leaders equipped to navigate in a fast changing, complex and uncertain global society.

The Leaders’ Forum is a select gathering drawing together senior individuals from across the Academy’s members. The day began with a briefing on major global macro-trends, including the limitations in the global financial system exposed by the ongoing series of crises, the social challenges presented by 59 percent of the world’s population living in countries where inequality is worsening, and the rapid pace of ecosystem degradation and climate change. Reflections were then offered from Jan Müehlfeit, Chairman of Microsoft Europe, Sandy Ogg, Unilever Global HR Director and a member of Unilever’s Global Board, and Bruno Berthon, a Global Managing Director of Accenture.

All offered stories of innovation in organisational practices in response. Jan spoke of the huge commercial opportunity for the ICT sector offered by the transition to a low carbon economy, but told us that he had spoken with four European prime ministers during the past week and all lacked the appetite for the pain that would be caused by the public policy actions required to make this happen. Sandy spoke about Unilever’s opportunities for growth from developing commercial solutions to pressing social challenges, and the organisation’s vision of decoupling commercial growth from material consumption. Jan spoke about the need to look beyond GDP as a measure, and Sandy declared that the notion that shareholder value is the sole metric of business is dead.

Bruno offered more stories of organisations responding with new practices – how the automotive industry for example had stopped lobbying to block new environmental legislation and had instead begun seeking competitive advantage from competing to develop the most environmentally friendly vehicles. Bruno noted that success in this new context required new organisational capabilities and a culture of ‘embedded sustainability’, returning to the day’s core theme of the role of organisational learning, management education and culture change. Panel chair Bouwe Taverne of Rabobank cited Ashridge’s recent research, where CEOs had argued that their organisations would benefit from senior leaders who could see the strategic implications of a changing context, who had a personal sense of connectedness and relationship with diverse social networks and communities, and who could effectively navigate complexity and ambiguity through innovation.

After a variety of other fascinating provocations, including research on valuing non-financial performance, the day concluded with a contribution from Wim Vermeir, from the Executive Committee of Dexia Asset Management, giving an overview of the proprietary framework Dexia now uses to factor these issues into asset management. The day also concluded with a public policy perspective from Tom Dodd of the European Commission’s DG Enterprise and Industry.

Tom offered some powerful personal reflections, noting that the time may be coming when we might have to leave behind some collectively held values that we currently hold very dear: for example that the purpose of business is to maximise shareholder value, or that endless economic growth is both possible and necessary. Tom offered the old joke that anyone who believes endless economic growth is possible is either an idiot or an economist.

Tom concluded with a powerful call to all of us: reflecting on Jan and Sandy’s comments on the limitations of GDP and the metric of shareholder value, Tom noted that public policy is ultimately shaped not just by officials but also by the balance of what different stakeholders say, and all of us should therefore put more energy into finding opportunities to voice our perspectives in the mainstream policy-making process. All it will take to reform the system to enable resources to be allocated more sustainably is for enough voices, in public and in private, to echo those of Jan and Sandy.