Miliband’s got a point – we need to be more discerning in who we celebrate

30 09 2011

Who and what we celebrate, value and reward has a real impact on the decisions other people make and how they behave – that’s what all the research tells us.

So Miliband is right in some respects to draw attention to the problem that in public debate over the past 30 years political leaders, business leaders and business school gurus have tended to celebrate all business leaders, without necessarily distinguishing between those who have an overall positive impact on the wider world and those who don’t. This kind of talk does have a real impact on the kind of business we get and the kind of society we get.

Interestingly though, although Miliband’s been clobbered a bit for raising this in his speech this week I think he is picking up on what is already a growing trend – in our research on leadership at Ashridge, we’re seeing that more and more business leaders are recognising that they need more than commercial acumen and emotional intelligence to be effective in today’s world, they also need a strong personal commitment to making a positive contribution to the wider world through the way they go about business, and the skill to act on this.

Not only that, but they are increasingly choosing to measure themselves across a range of metrics that measure their broader contribution to society, not just the financial value they create for shareholders. This way of thinking is also starting to influence how their organisations are approaching their leadership development work.

Bringing this theme into the heart of public debate – and talking about recognising and rewarding good business through the tax system – could be a real boost to this trend. And it’s not necessarily hard to do in practice, despite the criticism Miliband’s received – think of all the work that’s gone into developing what could be appropriate metrics through the GRI process over the past decade. Bringing this nascent trend into sharper focus, paying more attention to who we celebrate, and aligning the influence of the tax system behind that, could play a valuable role in helping build the right kind of healthy prosperity for the medium and long term.


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.

Supercorp and the new leadership

24 03 2010

Yesterday I had the privilege to join a conversation hosted by IBM with Harvard’s Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a number of senior IBM executives and small group of representatives from the UK’s leading business schools and think tanks, including London Business School, Cranfield, Manchester Business School and the Centre for Tomorrow’s Company. The conversation with Rosabeth was convened to discuss her new book ‘Supercorp: how vanguard companies create innovation, profits, growth and social good’.

In the book, Kanter argues that the companies that are keeping ahead of the curve in terms of market changes and customer needs are the businesses that are also progressive, socially responsible human communities. Kanter looks at ‘vanguard companies’ and explores exactly how they create innovation, profits, growth and social good. The “supercorps” include Banco Real, CEMEX, IBM, ICICI Bank, Omron, Procter & Gamble, Publicis Groupe, and Shirshan Bank.

As the FT’s Stefan Stern notes in his review

 ‘These are companies that aspire to be “big but human, efficient but innovative, global but concerned about local communities… The best have business prowess and clout with partners and governments, but try to use their power and influence to develop solutions to problems the public cares about… The leaders of a vanguard company espouse positive values and encourage their employees to embrace and act on them.” … Vanguard companies understand that the early 21st century is characterised by uncertainty, volatility and complexity, Kanter says. They have grasped the need for diversity in their organisations. They err on the side of transparency, and take a responsible approach.’

In our round table, Rosabeth talked about the massive cultural change that had been required in these organisations to achieve vanguard status, and the role of leadership. She argued leadership in the twenty-first century means putting your values ahead of what people might be telling you are your short term interests, it means people standing up and becoming vocal champions, but also going beyond talk to action as well. Leadership in the twenty-first century is also about collaboration and the skill to build constituencies and coalitions, to coalesce people around tackling major global challenges.

Another review of her book here  explores further some of the implications for leadership…

‘ “Relationships: Persuasion and diplomacy” is one of the characteristics of vanguard leadership. Kanter suggests that such a leader “Can communicate, listen, and inspire. Likes to connect, to collaborate, and to find solutions that are good for many people. Can enlist people in projects and motivate volunteers. Is partnership oriented, seeing opportunities to leverage resources by tapping networks. Work as an effective, enthusiastic mentor.”

However different they may be in most other respects, all of the CEOs of vanguard companies she discusses in this book… possess highly-developed skills for establishing and nourishing relationships within and (especially) beyond their organization. Their effectiveness is explained by ability to see things in context and understand complex interactions between and among many variables. They have a bias for action and are results-driven when seeking solutions for their own organization as well as for the clients it is privileged to serve. They have what Daniel Goleman correctly describes as “emotional intelligence”: exceptional self-awareness (of weaknesses as well as strengths), empathy, respect for individuality and principled dissent, and a sincere delight in others’ achievements. They are also values-driven, take very seriously their fiduciary responsibilities as a steward of resources, and recognize, indeed embrace a higher calling than merely making money…

In vanguard companies, Kanter points out that competences and capabilities such as these are by no means limited to CEOs or only to executives at the C-level. On the contrary, they are developed in those who occupy positions throughout the enterprise, at all levels and in all areas. Kanter concedes that the vanguard model “turns organizations upside down and inside out. They become less hierarchical and more driven by flexible networks. They become more open and transparent to the outside world while bringing society and its needs inside. As an ideal and an aspiration, the vanguard model attempts to reconcile contradictions: to be big but human, efficient but innovative, respecting individual differences while seeking common ground, global in thinking but concerned about local communities.” ‘

Cranfield’s David Grayson posed the question in our roundtable ‘What does Rosabeth’s thesis mean for what we do in business schools?’, and drew attention to Ashridge’s recent research with the United Nations and EABIS where, in a global survey of CEOs and senior executives, 76 percent agreed that senior leaders in their organisations needed to demonstrate the kind of leadership articulated by Rosabeth, but fewer than eight percent thought either their own organisations or business schools were doing a very good job of developing and fostering this kind of leadership at the moment.

There are actually some very strong echoes of Rosabeth’s themes in Ashridge’s research, and also Tomorrow’s Company’s work on Tomorrow’s Global Talent. Ashridge’s work argued that the global leader of tomorrow needs to understand the changing business context – 82% of those polled said senior executives need to understand the business risks and opportunities of social, political, cultural and  environmental trends. And they needed to know how their sector and other stakeholders are responding. Senior executives also need the skill to respond to this information – 70% said that leaders need to be able to integrate emerging social, political, cultural and environmental issues and trends into strategic decision-making.

Ashridge’s research identified a second cluster of attributes around the ability to lead in the face of complexity and ambiguity. The challenges and opportunities of the twenty-first century are complex – there is often little certainty and little agreement about both their precise nature and the response that is required. 88% of those polled say senior executives need the ability to be flexible and responsive to change; 91% – the ability to find creative, innovative and original ways of solving problems; and 77% – the ability to balance shorter and longer term considerations.  

The final cluster to emerge from our work was around connectedness – the ability to understand the actors in the wider political landscape and to engage and build effective relationships with new kinds of external partners, including regulators, competitors and NGOs among others. The mindset with which our current leaders are groomed does not encourage productive engagement with partners outside the organisation. Leaders receive plenty of training in negotiation skills, for example, but on the whole, lack the skills for engaging in effective dialogue and partnership. To survive and thrive, 73% of senior executives say the global leader of tomorrow needs to be able to identify key stakeholders that have an influence on the organisation and 74% say they need to understand how the organisation impacts on these stakeholders, both positively and negatively. 75% say senior executives need to have the ability to engage in effective dialogue and 80% say they need to have the ability to build partnerships with internal and external stakeholders.

Rosabeth was in London for the launch of the Young Foundation’s ‘City Year’ initiative, where young people spend a year working on the pressing challenges of our time. As Rosabeth noted, this kind of thing is now considered an important part of career development. This is new, it didn’t exist 20 years ago, but now even MBAs are queuing up to start their own social enterprises to address the world’s major challenges on a commercial and therefore sustainable basis. This, Rosabeth said, is the new leadership.

Ashridge is currently leading a second phase in our research programme on ‘the new leadership’. The project – entitled ‘Leading Organisations of Tomorrow’ – is seeking to explore in detail how ‘vanguard companies’ are innovating in their leadership development practices to turn this kind of vision into a reality in their organisitions, and foster a generation of leaders equipped to embrace the kind of leadership the twenty-first century demands. We will be sharing some preliminary findings at a major event in London on October 14th this year. Watch this space for more!