Leadership development at the sharp end

15 04 2010

I recently led an observation for one of our case studies in the ‘Leading Organisations of Tomorrow’ project and thought I’d share my initial personal reflections on the experience.

‘Leading Organisations of Tomorrow’ is the working title of a research project being led by three of Ashridge’s research centres – the Centre for Research in Executive Development, the Ashridge Leadership Centre, and the Ashridge Centre for Business and Sustainability. We’re looking at eight examples of innovation in leadership development within major organisations to understand things like why did the organisation do this? Why did they do it the way they did it? What did they learn about what works well? And what kinds of impact did the interventions have? Each of these interventions included some focus on developing leaders capable steering and stewarding their organisations through the changing context of leadership in the twenty-first century.

The research involves interviews with key individuals within each of the organisations, as well as a sample of participants in each case. Where possible, we will also be observing programmes in practice to get a first hand perspective.

I joined for a few days participants in the middle of a two-week leadership programme organised for a family-owned Singaporean-based company employing around 6000 people across East Asia. The first part of the programme involved an intense week of classroom-based work in Hong Kong. I then joined the participants as they travelled to one of the company’s own palm oil plantations in East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo in Indonesia. Here participants were challenged to apply new thinking in practice with a live project to develop a management plan for this new investment that would develop a management approach combining economic success with sustainable livelihoods for local communities and sustainable stewardship of natural resources. The participants were tasked with preparing a plan and presenting it to the organisations’ senior management team, who were flying in for the final day of the programme.

I joined the participants as they engaged with the local management and toured the newly established plantation. We also engaged with local workers and their families in their homes, and other families living in local villages. Some things that really struck me were the complexity of power relations in the local villages, and the potential for these to be impacted by the coming of the plantation. I was also struck by the simplicity of the lives of families living in the villages, the sense of hope they had around new opportunities from the plantation, but also their fears around lack of health protection and education for their children. Workers and their families living on the plantation itself spoke about their isolation, and that it was impossible for them to get their kids to school as the nearest schools were too distant – but that this was an improvement on what their lives had been like before.

I was also really struck by the extent of environmental degradation across Borneo as a whole, where around two thirds of the primary rainforest has been cleared over the past 20-30 years – far more than I had imagined. This company is not destroying primary forest, which is illegal, but has been sanctioned by the government to clear secondary forest to establish the plantation, along with countless other companies across Indonesia. This company should be applauded for its aspiration to cultivate palm oil in the most sustainable way possible, but again I was struck by the scale of the challenges in meeting this aspiration – palm oil, one of the principle vegetable oils, is an ingredient in just about every food product you can imagine. But palm oil plantations are nearly always monocultures, with major biodiversity impacts, displacing forests which provide all of us with tremendously important ecosystem services, not least the role they play in the global climate. Indonesia is the world’s third largest carbon dioxide emitter (after the China and the US) principally because of the rate of deforestation. And that’s before we even mention orang-utans.

As well as experiencing these things first hand, it was also fascinating to talk with the programme participants about how they were experiencing this. On walking away from talking with one family in their simple home, a participant said to me that they had been sceptical about the programme initially, but talking with these families was having a real personal impact – ‘Those could have been my kids running around in there, this gives me a completely different context to the decisions I make back in head office, I now have a personal connection with the people who will be impacted by those decisions’

Ashridge faculty will be conducting interviews with a sample of these participants in three-four months time to explore their reflections on impact and value of the experience to them and their organisation. We’ll report back from this and the other cases over the coming months.

The Leading Organisations of Tomorrow project will share a draft report at a major event hosted by Ashridge in central London on October 14th. The final report will be published at the end of 2010 and a more in depth book exploring the key themes of the work will be published in 2011.