A new season of great conversations

This photo of a suspension footbridge leading straight ahead through a forest to a glowing dawn illustrates the theme of purpose-led leadership taking us to a better future.I trust this finds you well and thriving as the new season comes in.

There is a real sense of a ‘new term’ starting so I wish you every success with your own new directions.

Over recent years, my own leadership work has started to take a more defined shape. To help build a bridge to a better future for us all, I am working with leaders, teams and organisations in the following three ways:

Read more

How leaders can build trust across the whole organisation

“Trust, not authority, is the only glue that will hold organizations together in a diverse, global, technology-empowered world” Paul Polman, CEO Unilever

ask more questions poster on office wall

Building trust not only between individuals but also systemically – between teams and across a whole organization – is vital for enhanced business performance and employee wellbeing. I offer three practical solutions for increasing trust through better quality dialogue, more constructive challenge and healthy interactions between teams at different levels.

Trust is a hot topic in business. Since the 2008 financial crash and a seemingly never-ending stream of scandals such as bribery in big pharm companies and the Volkswagen emissions debacle, there has been a proliferation of ‘trust’ events to explore how to restore a better relationship between companies and customers. In a recent article in the FT (18 July ’17), Michael Skapinker argues that shifting the focus from talking about trust to building trustworthy organizations through changed behaviour is the right next step. I wholeheartedly agree.  Read more

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.” Read more

The choreography of collective leadership

It’s been a great pleasure the last few days to be in the throngs enjoying the Edinburgh Festival. Established in 1947, the Festival was created to “to provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit” through the transformative power of the arts. At a time when it’s all-too-easy to focus on the destructive and deluded behaviour of leaders, nations and organisations, the inspiration of dancers, actors, musicians, improvisers, poets and jugglers brings a welcome balance.

Another source of optimism is my observation that the nature of leadership is slowly changing. This comes from developments in research plus my own on-the-ground experience as a consultant working in international banks, energy companies and government agencies. Keith Grint and Clare Holt, researchers at Warwick Business School, define contemporary leadership as:

“The art of engaging a community in facing up to complex collective problems.”

More and more leaders I meet are consciously evolving a more participatory, inclusive approach. From our conversations, I understand that the relationships forged and the results generated from fully engaging a community of stakeholders—whether an intact team, a project team or a network of practitioners—really stand the test of time.

The challenge of collective leadership

Despite this new approach to leadership having the potential to be the “universal future”, Grint and Holt also highlight the challenges. Partnerships are often paralysed into inaction and many leaders still operate on the basis of “command-and-control” despite its unpopularity. In my consulting work, I am also aware of theses pitfalls:

  • If roles are not clearly defined, it’s possible that people will engage in more “social loafing” and not pull their weight as they would in a more traditional, hierarchical structure.
  • If there is no mechanism for resolving disputes, these could be left to fester if leaders feel unable to enforce decisions.
  • If the collective gets to work but it’s unclear who holds the overall responsibility for results, this could undermine the whole enterprise.

Collective leadership is about a leader actively engaging a group of stakeholders to think and work together. They might develop a strategy, resolve an operational problem or identify a consensual future direction. The essence of distributed leadership is to access the collective intelligence that is already present in the system—and to apply it to whatever complex, collective issue is at stake. Each stakeholder has a piece of the puzzle to contribute, if they are given a chance to participate.

The enablers of collective leadership

There are many enablers of this shift towards collective leadership. These include:

  • An open-minded leader whose appetite to achieve extraordinary results is greater than their sense of self-importance.
  • (Somewhat paradoxically) even clearer lines of decision-making authority than in a traditional hierarchical set-up. The formal leader often remains the single point of accountability for the co-created outcome.
  • An expanded capacity for productive, and at times testy, dialogue. Dissenting voices are essential to burn off the dross of poor decisions and shine a light on leadership blind-spots.

Given these challenges, no wonder that a collective leadership approach is less mainstream and more marginal at the moment. The momentum is, however, gathering…

The choreography of leadership

Another enabler of collective leadership is to find a strong conceptual metaphor as a guide for action. Back at the Edinburgh Festival, I enjoyed conversations with Alison Williams, one of the authors of Bite – Recipes for Remarkable Research (see the link below for a free download). Alison explained how she and her fellow researchers experienced a breakthrough in their joint project when they hit upon the idea of writing a cookbook. It brought a practical focus to how to carry out innovative research—and made it fun!

With the idea of a powerful metaphor in mind, I went to watch Sweet Mambo, a dance theatre show by the award-winning German choreographer Pina Bausch. Despite her untimely death at the age of 68 in 2009, the dance company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, of which Pina Bausch became the leader in 1973, lives on.

In the programme for the show, the dance writer Graham Watts describes how Pina Bausch worked with her team of dancers to develop her co-productions, including her work World Cities. What follows is a description of collective leadership in action. Watts writes:

“The process was similar for each piece. The dancers would explore the city, gathering thoughts and observations, often prompted by questions that Bausch would pose to them, from the obvious (‘What do you like about Rome?’) to the less so (‘consider it from a mouse’s point of view’).

“In due course all these experiences would be brought together in the studio, representing many hours of ideas; by some alchemy Bausch would decide what to use, and then set about moulding all the chosen elements into a final shape…. Only towards the end of the development phase would everything be brought together – and all under Bausch’s final control.”

Each dancer’s experience mattered. Everyone was encouraged to participate. The richness of the co-creation arose out of multiple perspectives and experiences. Andthere was a choreographer who, with her eye on the whole, retained responsibility for bringing it all together.

When leaders see themselves—and act—more as choreographers and less as commanders, the dynamics really shift. When people are energised, engaged and invited to contribute, they give their most creative ideas, their most insightful thinking and their best energy. When leaders include their whole team and other stakeholders in developing the vision, operationalizing the strategy or even agreeing cuts to the budgets, there’s a pulse in the room that a leader would never experience by simply telling others what to do. With collective leadership, as demonstrated by Pina Bausch, the show definitely goes on.

For reflection

  • How does this metaphor of collective leadership work for you? What other metaphors come to mind?
  • Who could you include at your next meeting – someone whom you wouldn’t typically include but who may have a powerful contribution to make?
  • What unexpected question might you ask the people around you to engage their creativity (your equivalent of consider Rome from a mouse’s point of view’)?

Related links

 To download Bite – Receipes for Remarkable Research as an Open Access e-book:

 https://www.sensepublishers.com/catalogs/bookseries/other-books/bite/

To find out more about Pina Bausch, theatre dance and Tanztheater Wuppertal:

 http://www.pina-bausch.de/en/dancetheatre/

 

Collective leadership: From silos to shared intelligence

Published in the Network Review of the Scientific and Medical Network, Spring 2013

Before the meeting begins

There was ice in the air as the participants and I filed into the meeting room. Gone was the warmth of the informal conversations over coffee the team had just been having. People avoided looking at each other and their shoulders stiffened as they sat down.

I remembered some of the things that these executives had said when my co-facilitator and I had spoken with them a few days before: “We don’t trust each other”; “We don’t know what projects other people are working on”; “We have to compete with each other because opportunities for promotion are very limited”; “Our boss is aloof”.

When we’d spoken with the Team Leader, he told us about poor attendance at monthly team meetings. Morale was flat, and his team members were bypassing him by going to his boss for strategic guidance—and recognition. He needed to shift the dynamic but he wasn’t sure how.

As I sat amongst the team in the circle of 40 chairs, no table in the middle for any of us to hide behind, I took a deep breath. “Welcome”, I said, “to this session on Collective Leadership”. And off we went on our journey together.

While the story above, only slightly disguised to protect identities, describes some recent experiences with a team of senior leaders in an international organization, it could, however, capture the mood at the start of many a meeting. After facilitating leadership team meetings and coaching business leaders from the East and West over the last 10 years, I’ve found several themes to be very familiar:

– Poor communication, no strategic direction and ineffective decision-making.
– Lack of trust, rigid interactions and a cynical atmosphere.
– People working in silos and competing rather than collaborating.

These dysfunctional team dynamics are especially problematic in a global marketplace: the problems facing leaders today are too complex for any one person to solve. The issues this team were dealing with, for example—unsustainable population growth, environmental degradation and widespread pollution—are not limited to the borders of a single country or the boundary of an organisational department. Cutting a swath through these big, hairy issues requires a multitude of stakeholders thinking and talking together in unprecedented ways.

The challenge of contemporary leadership

In a recent article in the Network Review (Winter 2012), Keith Grint and Clare Holt, researchers at Warwick Business School, define contemporary leadership as “The art of engaging a community in facing up to complex collective problems” (p. 21). They note the growing antipathy towards heroic leaders and the increasing interest in collective or distributed leadership and working in partnership.

Despite this new approach to leadership having the potential to be the “universal future”, Grint and Holt also underline the current reality. Partnerships are often paralysed into inaction, many organisations still operate on the basis of traditional hierarchies and the “command” decision style, while perhaps unpopular, seldom gets replaced with any clear collective decision-making mechanism.

The benefits of collective leadership

While I agree that collective leadership is a difficult “nut to crack”, I’ve also personally seen enough evidence as a management consultant to know that this form of engagement is not only worth pursuing, but decidedly possible. When a whole team is fully involved in thinking and talking together about thorny issues, drawing on leadership qualities sourced as a group rather than as individuals, the solutions developed and the decisions reached are profoundly different in quality and usefulness from the norm. Team members draw on each other’s strengths, deal with resistance at an early stage and consider longer-term legacy issues. The formal leader often chooses to retain responsibility as the single point of accountability, but the decision-making process, which draws on each person’s distinct perspective, creates outcomes that stick.

It is my observation that a central role of powerful leaders is to create the conditions in which others can find their voice—and express it. They encourage those around them to “go beyond their tribe” and break the pattern of silo working and competing. They deeply understand that each person has a piece of the puzzle, and that it is in the mix of diverse perspectives that innovative thinking emerges. In short, these leaders have the ability to access the collective wisdom of the people around them to create new possibilities. And the only way to do it is to talk!

Research on dialogue in high-performing teams

A compelling piece of research published in the American Behavioural Scientist (February, 2004) supports this view. Marcial Losada and Emily Heaphy observed the conversations of 60 management teams, each of about 8 members, in a large information-processing organization. Their dialogue was recorded, analysed and evaluated across three key dimensions, explained below.

The researchers found that high-performing teams accessed their collective intelligence by talking together in ways that were distinct from low-performing teams. In the teams associated with greatest profitability, best customer satisfaction and highest evaluations by colleagues, the team members had developed three capabilities:

1. They asked questions as often as they asserted their own opinions (a 1:1 ratio between enquiry and advocacy).
2. They showed as much interest in others as they did in themselves, rather than being stuck in self-absorption (a 1:1 ratio between focus on self and others).
3. They made many more positive than negative comments, so that enthusiasm, encouragement and support far outweighed sarcasm, criticism or cynicism (3:1 ratio of positivity to negativity with 6:1 as the ideal).

When all three of these behaviours were demonstrated, they created an “expansive emotional space” in which the team interacted. The atmosphere was buoyant, trusting and resilient. By contrast, in low-performing teams where people did not feel connected with each other, the atmosphere was cynical, distrustful and tense.

Harnessing the power of shared intelligence

At the heart of my own consulting practice is creating settings where people feel safe and energised to talk about what really matters within the context of the meeting. They can speak their truth—and be heard—without fear of rupturing a relationship. In such an environment, people can take risks in their thinking, share their “half-baked” ideas and, together, come up with new insights that no one person would have reached by thinking alone.

To harness this power of collective leadership, where shared intelligence is greater than the sum of its parts, leaders need to be effective enablers of face-to-face interactions. We are social animals, after all. We make sense of the world around us by being in conversation with other human beings. When there’s a sense of “We’re all in this together”, it maximises the likelihood that we will make life-affirming and sustainable rather than life-destroying and reactive decisions.

Returning to the story I started this article with, my co-facilitator and I were heartened to receive the following email shortly after the team sessions from one of the participants:

“Last week we had our first team meeting after the Collective Leadership session. I must say that there was a noticeable difference. The first sign of change was when everyone rearranged the tables and chairs so that we all sat closer to each other. Most people came well prepared instead of deliberating the matter on the spot. We were able to discuss sensitive issues that required the cooperation and consensus of everyone and it all went smoothly. No one interrupted each other and many who didn’t speak much at previous team meetings were voicing their thoughts.”

From my work with hundreds of different teams, I’ve seen that the capabilities for having productive, performance-enhancing conversations can indeed be learned (and taught). What’s more, these are key skills not only for senior executives and corporate teams, but for everyone. Leadership can no longer be defined by the size of the budget you manage, the number of staff on your watch or the complexity of the project you lead. We all have the potential to be leaders, game-changers or wayfarers in whatever mission field we’re working, whether as a parent, school governor, senior executive, lobbyist or parliamentarian. Expanding our capacity to engage in life-changing conversations is beneficial for us all.