Cultures of Purpose: Developing Systemic Leadership

By Sarah Rozenthuler & Edward L. Rowland
Originally published on LinkedIn, Oct 14, 2015

“Leadership is discovering the company’s destiny and having the courage to follow it… Companies that endure have a noble purpose” Joe Jaworski

spider-web-net-grid-silk-drops-dew-morning-dawnCo-creating purposeful organisations is a new frontier in organisational development. This post taps into the growing body of evidence about the financial, social and psychological benefits of creating “cultures of purpose.” It explores how leaders can attune their organisation to a rapidly shifting global marketplace and catalyse purposeful action by developing four core capacities of “systemic leadership.”

Leadership, always a hot topic, has been in the spotlight more than ever in the UK in recent weeks. With the Volkswagen emissions ‘scandal’, Labour leadership contest and refugee crisis, we observe that much of our media remains in thrall to the myth that leadership is simply about individuals or the ‘person at the top’.

The leadership challenges of today, however, are far too complex for any one person to solve by thinking and acting alone. They require diverse stakeholders to think, talk and co-create together in unprecedented ways. Leading in a volatile, uncertain and ambiguous environment, whether this is in an organisation, a political party or a union of nation states, is less about individual heroics and more about mobilising collective potential.

Leaders who can catalyse a ‘flow’ of leadership and purposeful action across a whole system are more likely to contribute to sustainable results. Below we outline — from our perspective as practitioners — four core capacities that will help leaders to demonstrate this ‘systemic leadership’. We will begin, however, by highlighting the newly emerging evidence that shows how aligning a system around a vibrant and noble purpose is core to its success.

The power of purpose

There is a growing business case that demonstrates how companies with a clear and resonant corporate purpose have several distinct advantages. Recent research by global consulting firm EY and IMD, a leading international business school, has found that purposeful organisations are able to:

  • Build trust more easily with their employees, shareholders and customers as their purpose guides principled decision-making.
  • Combat consumer concerns more readily and create brand advocates more widely through positive comments aligned with corporate purpose.
  • Generate competitive advantage more distinctly, estimated to be an increase of 17% of financial performance, due to enhanced reputation in the marketplace.
  • Demonstrate greater resilience by being better able to weather the storms of change such as shifts in consumer opinion, downturns in reputation and challenges to leadership.

To harvest these benefits, ‘purpose-beyond-profits’ (as it is sometimes called) must be the central driver of an organisation’s strategy, not an optional ‘bolt-on’. It needs to be strong enough that it becomes part of the organisation’s operating model and inspiring enough that it unleashes people’s energy.

As examples of what this can look like, Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations researches 12 successful, pioneering organisations which operate – in his view – from a largely ‘teal’ level of consciousness and culture (in the developmental language of Integral Theory). For these organisations, purpose is not only an energetic wellspring that inspires and shapes direction. It also informs and transforms many business practices; strategy formation, product development, marketing, targets and budget setting, and recruitment.

Systemic leadership – Four core capacities

In our collaboration and consulting work together, we have identified four core capacities of systemic leadership that will change the game. We have drawn on over thirty year’s combined experience, our respective expertise in cutting-edge practices such as Systemic Coaching and Constellations, Dialogue and deep inquiry, as well as leading theoretical frames such as Otto Scharmer’s Theory U.

When a critical mass of leaders embody these capabilities they will seed a new culture of purpose characterised by unified action, renewed energy and collaboration across boundaries. The four core capacities are:

1. Creating “containers” for generative dialogue

To create a future that is different from the past, leaders need to step into unknown territory. This calls for a diverse constellation of stakeholders to sense into the future that wants to emerge. This requires building “containers” or holding environments for courageous conversations where all the different voices matter.

2. Seeing the larger system

To build a shared understanding of a complex problem, leaders need to extend their awareness beyond the boundaries of their individual role, team or organisation. Seeing reality through the eyes of people in very different positions from their own helps leaders to generate new insights. When leaders take into account the hidden dynamics that operate beneath the surface of day-to-day interactions, they become more skilful at intervening.

3. Attuning to higher potential

When leaders attune their teams, functions and projects to the real reason for an organisation’s existence, this unlocks great potential for innovation and energy to achieve excellence. In our work we have seen how a noble purpose acts like a “magnet” that brings alignment to a system that has become fragmented. Instead of people pointing in many different directions, there is greater coherence in the decisions people make and the actions that they take.

4. Co-creating a new reality

Shifting from reactive problem solving to listening for what wants to emerge calls for an expanded capacity for collaboration. Embedding systemic change involves an ecosystem of stakeholders — customers, suppliers, partners and employees — coming together to co-create solutions. Somewhat paradoxically, this more collective and fluid approach calls for a clearer flow of leadership than in “command-and-control” cultures so that each person feels authorised to take purposeful action.

Emerging opportunities

In future posts, we will look in more detail at each of these core capacities for activating systemic leadership. We will provide examples from our consulting about how they can be developed in practice to strengthen a workforce, generate long-term growth and build cultures of purpose.

Please note that we are running a 3-day intensive, The Purpose Programme: Developing Systemic Leadership on November 24-26th in London. The programme helps participants develop the systemic leadership capacities to create cultures of purpose. Click here:

http://ow.ly/TcRfV

Further Reading

http://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/about-deloitte/articles/culture-of-purpose.html

Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organizations (2014) Nelson Parker

To have a conversation, create a container

This post explores how we can create the conditions for generative dialogue so that together we achieve more than we could alone. A “container” for a conversation provides a “holding” atmosphere in which the things that matter most can be discussed.

As a fan of the British writer Virginia Woolf, I recently went to the National Portrait Gallery in London to see an exhibition about her life and work. Virginia Woolf, a novelist, publisher, essayist and critic, was a leading light of the London literary scene during the first half of the twentieth century. Insights from her life and writings throw some light on how conversation can become a powerful tool for change both in organisations and at home.

The influential Bloomsbury Group of intellectuals, which also included John Maynard Keynes and E. M. Forester, has significantly shaped modern attitudes towards literature, economics and aesthetics. The Bloomsbury Set was not, however, a group in any formal sense. They were united by a belief in the value of the arts and a passion for talking together. As the commentary at the exhibition put it:

“Bloomsbury had no manifesto or party line. It was chiefly bound together by a love of conversation. This might include argument, analysis, gossip or debate, but it was a means by which its members deepened understanding of each other, and themselves, and the world around them.”

The power of conversation

Given the potential of conversation to transform our understanding of each other and the world around us, the question is: How do we make the most of being in dialogue together? How can create the conditions so that we shift our mindset? What is needed so that conversation deepens our relationships and generates fresh understandings?

There are, I believe, some clues in Virginia Woolf’s observations about women and writing. In A Room of One’s Own, she highlights how women writers didn’t begin to appear in any significant way until the early nineteenth century. Why, Woolf reflects, were the four famous names – George Eliot, Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen – all compelled to write novels? Two of these women were not, by nature, novelists. Emily Bronte should have written poetic plays. George Eliot’s capacious mind should have turned itself to history or geography, not just fiction.

Virginia Woolf notes how the creative outpourings of these women were shaped by the physical conditions of their lives. Their novels were shorter than the books of the men writing at the same time. They were framed so that they did not need long hours of steady and interrupted work. Significantly, a woman writing in the nineteenth century would have to have written in the common sitting room; she had no separate study to which to retire. Virginia Woolf is famous for saying that, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write.”

A woman writing at that time would also have been constantly interrupted. It would have been easier for her to write prose than to write poetry or a play, as less concentration is required. Jane Austen had to be careful that servants, visitors or anyone beyond her own family did not suspect her occupation. When the hinge of the door to the sitting room creaked, she had to hide her manuscripts or cover them with a piece of blotting paper.

Why creating a “container” matters

To generate creative output, physical conditions matter. In the workplace, if our meetings are interrupted, we are unlikely to do our best thinking. If our conversations are broken as we check emails on our smartphones, valuable insights are unlikely to emerge. If we try to talk with a colleague about something important squeezed in between other meetings, we are less likely to get an extraordinary outcome.

What our creativity and our conversation both need is, in short, a “container”. Container comes from the Latin con, meaning “with”, and tener, meaning “to hold”. The essence of a container is, therefore, the sense of being held. Our attention is held, our energies are engaged and our minds are open.

A container has both physical and psychological dimensions. On a tangible level, a conversation that takes place in a circle of chairs with no table in the middle to hide behind can go places that a boardroom discussion typically cannot reach. A meeting in a light-filled room has an expansive atmosphere that a meeting in a windowless room cannot match. A presentation without Powerpoint slides rolling means that eyes don’t glaze over.

On a more subtle level, a container emerges when people feel it’s safe to open up and talk. People are energised when others start to say what’s really on their minds. When there is a palpable sense of the potential, people’s energies gather together. When there is more understanding than criticism, a decidedly different atmosphere appears. Each one of us can bring to the conversation the psychological qualities that co-create a container: authenticity, acceptance and appreciation.

With a strong container, our conversation and our creativity can go to the next level. As an individual, we might find that we can write not just prose, but plays and poetry too. As a team, we might develop a new strategy that no one could have come up with thinking alone. As the quality of our container expands, so does our dialogue.

For reflection

  • How can you create a “container” for yourself? When do you do your best thinking? Where do you feel “all of one piece”? What rhythm or routine can you establish to anchor a “holding” environment for yourself? It could be to go for a coffee to a quiet café or to take time to gather your thoughts before going to a meeting. Pay attention to the conditions that nurture your creativity.
  • What is needed for you to create a container for a group that you are part of? In what way could you change the physical environment so that it becomes more supportive? What resources could you draw on to create conditions that are conducive to conversation? For example, you might remove the table, place chairs in a circle and switch off laptops. Attend to the space in which you meet.
  • How can you shape a conversation that matters in more subtle ways? Before an important meeting, could you speak to individuals to create some connectivity? What questions could you ask people so that they start their thinking process before you even meet? When you do get in the room together, how could you use some appropriate self-disclosure to help others to feel safe and open up? Be aware of how you contribute so that people leave the room feeling excited, energised and engaged.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn on 28 October 2014.

We need to talk

To live is to be related. Nothing and no one can live in isolation. We are all interdependent, and increasingly so, on this planet of nearly seven billion of us. If, as the population forecasts predict, we double in number to 15 billion by 2100, the need to talk and get along with each other will become even more pressing.

The human challenges we already face, individually and collectively, are unprecedented. War rages on in many corners of the world where individual’s dreams, family life and national stability are blown to pieces. In my travels with work around the world, I’ve been disturbed by how much disintegration and destruction there is, socially, environmentally and politically.

Here in the UK, levels of anxiety and loneliness are reaching an all time high. A recent report by the Mental Health Foundation found 1 in 10 in Britain are lonely. The proportion among the young is higher and rising. Many old people report that the TV is their best friend. A 2012 survey by Macmillan Cancer Support found that the average 18-35 year old has 237 friends on Facebook. When asked, however, how many they could rely on in a crisis, the average answer was two. A quarter said one. An eighth said none.

We need to talk

The problems of our world are not new. They are, at root, the problems of us in relationship. Or, better said, the problems of us in the absence of relationship. We cannot bomb our way to peace and prosperity. We are deluded if we think that we will achieve long term quiet by blowing airplanes out of skies. We will not solve our problems, whether nation-to-nation, family-to-family or team-to-team, through the indiscriminate use of power, force and technology. Our inability to talk together extends to become a world problem.

How often have you read newspaper headlines saying that peace talks have broken down? Or that a merger has failed as the CEOs have not been able to bridge their differences? Perhaps in your own family, team or organisation, there’s been a breakdown in communication? Our interactions often fall short of their true potential.

The good news, however, is that we can learn to relate and communicate more effectively. Having a productive dialogue is within reach of all of us. Here are a few observations I’ve made about what helps us when we need to talk:

  • Each person who’s present participates.
  • People are encouraged to say what’s true for them.
  • Everyone is listened to.
  • People talk about what really matters.
  • No one tries to control where the conversation goes.
  • People respect each other’s differences.
  • The sense of potential is greater than the need to be right.

A real conversation opens up new possibilities. By talking with one another, we can arrive at an answer we never anticipated, resolve a situation that’s got stuck and decide on a new direction. When we do find a way to talk, we bring hope that another way is possible.

First published on LinkedIn on 20 August 2014.

Conversation matters

Conversation is centre-stage in most people’s lives. We might even see the whole of life—and work—as one conversation followed by another and then another. Talking together is what many of us spend a large portion of our time doing, whether it’s in the boardroom, across the kitchen table, on the factory floor or at the pub. Making changes to how we talk an, therefore, have a big impact on our lives. Conversation matters!

I became interested in conversation at a young age. As I listened to grown-ups talk, I discovered some patterns that years later have informed my practice as a dialogue coach. Even more valuable to me, however, was the realization of how much our everyday lives revolve around conversation. As a youngster I accompanied my grandmother to many coffee mornings and came to appreciate that talking together was the glue that kept these elderly women connected. It was how they supported each other, shared their stories and found solace in their often solitary lives. Conversation was what kept them alive.

The benefits of conversation

Listening to my grandmother and her friends talk made me realize that even an apparently trivial conversation matters. Talking together:

– Forms friendships

– Airs issues

– Informs our decisions

– Creates new ideas

– Deepens connections

– Changes how we think about things.

Research proves how much we talk

No wonder we spend so much of our time talking! The research bears this out. If I asked you what proportion of your waking life is spent talking to other people, what would you say? When I put this question to managers and leaders at the dialogue workshops I run in the corporate world, the typical response I receive is somewhere between 40 and 80 percent. Moreover, a consistent pattern emerges: the more senior a leader, the more time he or she spends interacting with others.

A survey carried out in 2010 by Courage Beer also reveals how much we talk in our everyday lives. They found that in a sample of 3,000 British adults, the typical person has 27 conversations a day, lasting an average of 10 minutes each. This adds up to a rather staggering 4.5 hours a day talking.

Even more revealing, however, was the finding that while conversations were very commonplace, nearly half of them (43 percent) were deemed to be pointless. If we were to make our conversations more meaningful, it would make a huge difference to the quality of our lives. And this brings us to the question: What makes a good conversation?

I’ll cover some of my own thoughts on why conversation matters in the next post. In the meantime, I’d love to know what you think!

Published on LinkedIn on 12 August 1014

Better dialogue – the power of tone

Tone is a crucial point of leverage in interactions between people. The quality of the tone determines whether people’s energy is amplified or diminished by the conversation and this, in turn, impacts their levels of performance, commitment and satisfaction.

Research shows that the quality of the “field” operates as a key differentiator between high, medium and low performing teams. Psychologists Losada and Heaphy at the University of Michigan Business School have found, for example, that high performing teams generate an “expansive emotional space” where their dialogue shows a healthy balance between grounded positivity and measured negativity. They operate in an atmosphere of realistic enthusiasm that propels the team to reach and sustain the heights of excellence.

By contrast, low performing teams get stuck in a climate of negativity and self-absorption. This generates a draining atmosphere that is very difficult for the team to exit. Medium performing teams show a balance of positivity over negativity but their level of connectivity and enthusiasm are not high enough to pull the team into a new behavioural pattern.

The importance of the tonal level of communication is further supported by scientific research into marriage. Professor John Gottman, an academic psychologist at the University of Washington, is able to predict with 95 percent accuracy whether a couple will still be married 15 years later, based on an hour’s film of how they talk together about a contentious issue. When spouses show defensiveness, criticism, stonewalling or contempt, it could well involve a costly trip to the divorce court.

Setting the tone is subtle but crucial work. We can “charge” the atmosphere with positive or negative energy that others will pick up and respond to. When we bring enthusiasm rather than cynicism, appreciation instead of criticism and respect in place of contempt, the quality of the exchange between us will be productive instead of destructive.

The term “ice breaker”, which refers to an activity early on in a group session that gets people to open up and interact, is an accurate description. There is always anxiety beneath the surface of any group coming together for the first time as people ask themselves: Will others like me? Will I be seen as competent? Will I be accepted? This tonal “ice” needs melting before the group is able to talk and think together creatively.

Try this

The use of a “Check-in” that brings all the voices into the room early on sets a pattern of full participation. It also helps to create a climate of trust as people get to know each other. Self-disclosure and the willingness to make oneself vulnerable before others creates, somewhat paradoxically, an atmosphere of safety.

Through a Check-in, everyone has the opportunity to find their voice and express it. They have the experience of being listened to without interruption. People’s thinking opens up to new possibilities that remain shut off if people feel cramped and judged. Questions you could use for a Check-in include:

• What did you give up or set aside in order to be here?
• What is top-of-mind for you right now?
• What really matters to you about this conversation?

When a participative and respectful tone is set right off the starting blocks, the atmosphere is conducive to creative thinking, generative dialogue and transformational results.

First published on LinkedIn, 6 August 2014

A more meaningful life

Article published in Watkins Mind Body Spirit – Issue 37 (Spring 2014)

Watkins cover

What makes life worth living? What makes you get out of bed with a spring in your step? What do you really want? “Feed your addiction”, says the ad for a shopping mall in London as if shopping were the answer to all life’s questions. While it’s true that retail therapy can work wonders, giving us a shot of energy when we’re flagging, the new shoes and smartphone can soon lose their shine.

With our possession obsession, it’s all too easy to get distracted from the things that bring a deeper meaning to our lives. Many of us are yearning for something more, even if we’re not quite sure what that mysterious something is. We may just have a sense, especially once we’ve got the guy, the car, the house or the job, of, “Is this it?”

Some years ago, I worked with senior government leaders who were responsible for interviewing graduates to be the “fast track” leaders of the future. At the end of a long afternoon’s assessment, one interviewer came back into the office saying, “If I hear another candidate say, “I want to make a difference”, I’ll scream!”

But what if these idealistic twenty-somethings were actually onto something? Is it possible that, as well as wanting to create a good impression, they had a heartfelt desire for something more than just a job? Perhaps they were simply articulating a yearning that we all have deep down – for a life that had some significance.

Substantive conversation

There are many ways we can create a more meaningful life. One simple way is to change the conversations you have. Because talking with another person is such an day-to-day activity, making this one small change can have a huge impact.

Recent research in Psychological Science found that a happy life is one filled with reflective, substantive conversation and not just small talk. Greater well-being is related to spending less time alone and more time talking to others. In this study the happiest participants spent 70% more time talking than the unhappiest participants and had twice as many meaningful conversations.

Try this…

So don’t settle for being superficial in your interactions with others – take a risk to make a deeper connection. Have a go at asking these questions:

–       “What are you most passionate about these days?”

–       “If you could do one thing and not fail, what would it be?”

–       “When you’re 80 and look back on your life, what would you like to say?”

Next comes the most important, life-changing part of all. Listen. The biggest gift we can give another person is not a present but our presence. Our attention is the scarcest – and most precious – resource we have. When we take time to connect with someone, heart to heart, we give them something that they’ll never forget.

Often what people most need is not a good talking to, but a good listening to. When we truly listen, not to our own inner dialogue about the emails we need to write or the shopping we need to do, but to what’s going on for the other person, it transforms a relationship. The other person feels “met” by us and not so alone. This is the biggest gift we can give.

Poor relationships are one of the biggest sources of stress – and sadness – in our lives. Connecting with the people around you is a great way to make life have more meaning. Every conversation is an opportunity to break down a barrier, open up to a new idea or deepen a sense of fellowship and this is what life is really all about.

It’s time to talk

I wonder if the following research surprises you. In 2008 Performance Coaching International surveyed 750 managers in public, private and voluntary sectors about how they addressed poor performance in their staff. They found that 70 percent of the managers said that they were either unable or unwilling to have the “courageous conversation” needed to address underperformance.

The managers gave two main reasons. Firstly, there was an underlying fear of having such conversations. Secondly, there was a lack of understanding about how to go about them.

When I’ve had to manage an under-performing member of staff, I’ve learnt that having some know-how about conversation makes a big difference. It’s enabled me to call up my courage, remove obstacles and bring about enhanced performance. It’s also made me feel good. Talking to someone when there were tough things to say without rupturing the relationship is a key skill, not just professionally but personally.

Having a courageous conversation

Here are a few observations about what helps a “courageous conversation” to happen:

–       Everyone who’s present participates.

–       Each person says what’s true for them.

–       Everyone is listened to.

–       People talk about what really matters.

–       No one tries to control where the conversation goes.

–       People respect each other’s differences.

What, in your experience, has helped you to talk when you’d rather not? How have you faced into difficult situations? What wisdom can you share with others?

Please leave a comment. I’d love to learn from you!

What makes a good conversation?

I’m delighted to welcome you to my blog. I’m excited to be starting a conversation with you about… conversation. I believe that talking together is central in our lives. If we improve how we converse, we enrich our lives.

HSBC Ad: A world of investments is just one conversation awayWalking down Oxford Street in central London last week, I saw an ad in the window of HSBC bank. It read: “A world of investments is just one conversation away”. It made me think how valuable a single conversation can be and how a career can change as a result of one short talk.

Some years ago, I spoke with a fellow consultant about my passion for dialogue. I was inspired by Bill Isaacs’ work, particularly his book Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together. We often think of dialogue as between two people, but Bill had described how to create a conversation amongst 20 people so they could access their collective wisdom.

“But what’s your thinking on dialogue?” my colleague asked. “What do you have to say?”

I was so stirred by his question that I went home and sketched out some ideas. Several years later, when I received an unexpected email from the commissioning editor of Duncan Baird Publishing asking me to submit a proposal for a book on conversation, I dug out the scrappy notes that I’d tucked away. Because of that short talk years earlier, I wasn’t too overwhelmed at having to write a book proposal. Nearly a year later, when I delivered the manuscript for my book, Life-Changing Conversations, I gave thanks for the gift of that question from my colleague.

Let me know what you think

I look forward to exploring with you how we can expand our capacity to talk, even when there are tough things to say. I welcome your comments, queries and insights, and I want to hear your stories about the power of good conversation in your lives.