Future-proofing your organisation: developing well-rounded leaders

Many organisations have created a talent base that is skilled in a narrow area of expertise, but not prepared for upper management

In a 2017 post for AMBITION, Juliette Alban-Metcalfe talks about developing a learning culture in organisations, stating: ‘We can’t afford to maintain the silos we’ve built up and ignored for years.’ In this statement, she challenges us as learning and development professionals to address a very important issue, developing well-rounded leaders.

For years, we have helped people develop expertise around specific jobs. However, the need to expand the knowledge, skills, and abilities of our future leaders is often neglected. We’ve created a talent base that is skilled in a narrow area of expertise, but not prepared for upper management.

It is said that by 2030, baby boomers will be completely out of the workforce. So we, as L&D departments and professionals, need quickly to rectify the silos of specialists we’ve created by broadening the role-specific training of the past in order to address the workforce needs of the future. 

Our challenge is to develop a new generation of company leaders capable of making well-rounded and well-informed decisions. So what types of things should we be helping employees to learn, and how?

Many employees don’t know the strategy of their organisation. They are so focused on their individual job that they miss the big picture.

Competitor knowledge is something we’ve seen particularly lacking. People get caught short in being able to ‘sell’ their products and services as the best choice in comparison to their competitors. In an ideal world, all employees would understand their company mission, vision, strategy, and competitive advantage.

Few individuals understand their company’s business model, and how it makes money. Understanding how the company makes money helps individuals make better decisions regarding expenditure, negotiations, investments, and more. 

Continuous improvement is a concept that every individual should embrace. There is always a better way to do something and each individual should be responsible for ensuring that their job is done in the most logical, efficient and ethical manner. Continuous improvement helps a company make incremental improvements over time, and achieve ‘breakthrough’ improvements.

A stakeholder is someone with a positon on a topic, so they can be anyone. Knowing who the stakeholders are helps employees to ‘see the big picture’ and make better decisions.

The next question is: ‘How do we help employees acquire this kind of knowledge and skill?’ Knowing and doing are different things. Also, learning opportunities need to be structured to ensure real-world, on the job experiences.  

One idea that is rarely used is job rotation. Anyone who aspires to lead in an organisation should work in at least three different areas of the business. 

Unfortunately, most companies reserve their rotational programmes for ‘high potentials’. A better approach would be to create an immersion programme for all employees, so that everyone has a more rounded view of the organisation. This will help in retention as well as educating employees about their role.

Most people leave an organisation because they feel there is no growth or advancement for them. But what if they were able to identify their own future role? Participating in a rotational programme could inspire them to contribute to the organisation in many ways.

Organisations must focus on developing well-rounded individuals who can take the organisation into the future. The future success of our companies depends on it. 

Nanette Miner is the Founder and Managing Consultant for The Training Doctor, LLC, a learning design firm.

Why old business paradigms no longer work

The way we do business is changing. As a result, that the old paradigm of ‘win-lose’ is dying out, and anyone still operating in this way looks set to become obsolete. 

Our ability to survive this shift depends on our skill at adapting to the environment – the basis of Evolutionary Theory. 

Survival of the fittest is not about being the strongest, biggest or fastest, but it is about what is the best ‘fit’ for the environment. When the environment changes, the fittest adapt, they are the survivors. 

You might think that if a company isn’t in the business of creating something that can be digitalised, they don’t need to worry. You’d be wrong. In the cultural evolution of our time, organisations need to be aware of the changes so they don’t disappear.

Every era of humanity has cultural shifts where the mass population decides that something previously ignored is no longer acceptable, such as the trafficking of slaves. As we advance as a society, the overlooked become something the majority of the developed world disapproves of. 

Now, the vast accumulation of wealth, without consideration for others, is on the list of activities that are no longer acceptable.

The next phase of humanity is about being decent. It’s about knowing we are consistently doing right by other people – and ourselves. If you think this is just limited to political opinions and parenting, think again. 

The businesses who fail to acknowledge this shift, from win-lose to win-win, will fail to survive and those that are among the first, will thrive. It’s about clearly demonstrating your commitment to being a force for good – in your company, your community, and on your planet. That in itself is a beautiful opportunity, where you can create a lot more than monetary wealth, get to raise kids who aren’t embarrassed by your unethical policies, are proud of what you do, and don’t have to be begged to visit your deathbed to hear your dying regrets.  

This is why you have to pass all your decisions through the win-win filter.

It has to be from the inside-out, because the way you treat your employees, your investors, your customers, and the planet, is increasingly related to your profitability.

At the very centre of a true win-win is honesty, absolute transparency, and open communication. Those who can approach business with honesty in order to create genuine win / win outcomes, are the fittest, and they will survive. Applying this outlook to every situation may take some time at first, but it gets easier with practice – and it will ensure that your decisions are future friendly, and allow you to shift smoothly into this new paradigm of business.

Michelle Lowbridge is an author of numerous books, and a business owner.

Comfortably numb: the peril of a plateau

A plateau in business is really an invisible state of decline, unwittingly fuelled by those at the top. Leading out of it involves innovation, transparency, values-led decisions and sustainability, argue Khurshed Dehnugara and Claire Genkai Breeze

‘Hello… Is there anybody in there? Just nod if you can hear me. Is there anyone at home?’

Does the above quote from Pink Floyd’s hit Comfortably Numb ever resonate with you and your workplace?

We have defined this comfortable numbness as a ‘plateau’: when a business or economy reaches a certain point in its growth trajectory and, while not failing, has become stagnant. 

Putting this into the context of a natural metaphor, a stagnant pond cannot support life; it is dying, poisoned, unhealthy and toxic. In short, both metaphorically and literally, the plateauing, stagnant organisation could be toxic as well. 

Crisis versus plateau
Companies, operating in the volatile ‘new normal’ of the business world will face crises, opportunity, highs and lows. Threat is a now a constant reality and, as a result, businesses are becoming increasingly proficient at managing through crises. 

In the short term, at least, crises can generate positive opportunities. 

They bring a degree of drama which energises the leadership population  and galvanises entire workforces into action. This crisis mentality can engage teams and spur their inner heroes, mobilising them into fight-or-flight mode, where the adrenaline is pumping and making them feel good about themselves. This often leads to great results. For the short term.

For most businesses today, however, there are the plateaus; businesses are failing to achieve growth. Many of these organisations remain in this state, with their only response being to keep generating modest profits through cutting costs; for instance, achieving a 0% sales growth but 2% or 3% profit growth each year, which keeps the city happy and the board and the all-important shareholders satisfied. There is no profit warning, so no real problem, right? Wrong. 

This cost-cutting phenomenon is nothing more than a metaphorical anaesthetic, numbing the pain, dulling the ache, keeping the proverbial wolves from the door – but it is lobotomising the business of the innovation, creativity or passion it desperately needs.

Its people – and leaders – are internally dissatisfied; they see no way through this fog. They are comfortably numb.

This is a financial plateau. Often underneath this is a cultural plateau – in which employees are bumbling along in silos, disengaged and counting the minutes until home time. There may also be a leadership plateau – an habitual state of not focusing attention on real change and, quite simply, not feeling the need to.

Plateaus produce a compelling, but largely unconscious, dominant logic in the minds of leaders as well as employees. This creates a perceived safety zone between the pendulum swing of modest profits and cost cutting. 

However, beneath the financial plateau is a plateau of the imagination. 

In this instance, people in the organisation cease to be able to imagine another way of doing things, or a place of business where purpose, boldness, creativity and innovation lie at the core of the culture and are not the exception. 

The cultural and leadership plateaus that cause, and result from, this failure of imagination are a threat to vitality, invention and wellbeing. They create a workforce of comfort seekers and cynics; they create an illusion of activity when really the business
is engaged in a sophisticated game of killing time. 

Killing time for what? Killing time until employees can reach the top of the organisation, pay their mortgages, achieve promotion or just pluck up the courage to leave their job and focus on something that would genuinely engage them. If these feel like strong and unpalatable statements, they need to be. A plateau is really a decline.

The trouble with crises
It is easier to strategise around a crisis than a plateau because there is a consolidated and absolute focus on getting a problem sorted. A crisis is often more about recovering after a difficulty rather than maintaining or sustaining growth.

A case in point is Samsung. In October 2016, just weeks after launching its flagship smartphone, the Galaxy Note 7, the company had to recall more than three million devices after reports of overheating and exploding batteries. One clever PR strategy later and some Samsung super fans are still holding on to their Note 7s despite the risk. Given strong customer satisfaction with the product line, plus loyalty to other Samsung products, this customer base looks set to put the Note 7 fiasco behind it quite quickly.

Another example is Volkswagen. According to Harvard Business Review, less than two months after a scandal broke around Volkswagen cars’ high emissions in 2015, German consumers were already ready to forgive the company and look past its transgressions In a national survey, 65% of respondents believed that Volkswagen still built outstanding cars and that the emissions scandal was overblown. Less than a year later, the company had returned to profitability.

There is strategic merit in distinguishing crisis from plateau. 

During a crisis, businesses experience the behaviour from their people that they would expect all the time: excitement flares up, employees shine, and then, as quickly as it sprang up, this enthusiasm fades away.

Businesses generate a lot of discretionary effort in crises; lots of high-level communications, collective responsibility, increased collaboration, more truth telling, more focus on customer, very high levels of support and a ‘can do’ attitude. 

But some organisations ‘manage by crisis’ all the time due to the misguided belief that this management strategy keeps people mobilised. The tragic reality is that this is neither helpful nor sustainable over the long term. In fact, this type of initiative will run out of potency fast and, if leaders declare a crisis every few months, then the impact of it declines over time.

Boom and bust 
Considering the logic of organisational history, companies in the past would typically move through a cycle of massive change, steady state, then massive change, then steady state. The aim was to get through these waves as efficiently as possible and businesses became experienced at catching up and repairing gaps, to return, eventually, to where they wanted to be. Corporates that were good at change management were celebrated, but change management sometimes equates to nothing more than an illusion to keep people active, productive and focused.

The low-growth environment of the past decade has partly contributed to an acceptance of plateaus in productivity and growth. But a plateau is a long burn; an unseen issue within the business that can be easily disguised. It is a major challenge, but it is insidious because its damage will only be noticed when measured over a long period.

A well-supported decline?
We’re going to throw a spanner into the works here, because after defining the plateau, we want to argue that the plateau doesn’t, in fact, exist. It is an artificial state of mind. 

If the only way business leaders can generate any positive results is through cost cutting, then their business, essentially, is not plateauing. The ‘plateau’ is nothing more than an invisible state of decline – unwittingly fuelled by those at the top. It is an illusion – a cloak of artificial buoyancy that props up a lack of positive activity. 

So, with that in mind, our definition of what has commonly been described as a ‘plateau’ in corporate life is, perhaps more appropriately, ‘a well-supported decline’. 

This decline occurs when organisations stop challenging their limiting assumptions or constraints. They’re creating results through deficit rather than innovation and, in a psychological era of austerity, it’s understandable how this subconsciously unfolds within business.  

The hollowing effect
If businesses continue in this stasis for long enough, they become hollow. 

Their core values, purpose, culture is removed and this often manifests itself through people movement. 

Senior executives typically remain in a role for no more than three or four years; they simply become part of the hollowing mechanism coming to believe ‘cost cutting is what we do here’. 

In large organisations, whole generations of leaders often leave within months of each other, simply because they’re unable to shift or lead the business away from decline. In other words, instead of companies making difficult changes or hard decisions, leaders who don’t make a difference are moved on. 

As a result, these businesses don’t disappear – the cycle merely starts all over again. Leading a business in a state of gradual decline is much harder work than leading a business through a crisis. Some leadership teams are ‘relieved rescuers’ when a crisis comes along, adopting the mentality ‘right we know what we are doing here, let’s roll up our sleeves and get on with it…’

Leading through a crisis
Waking up the organisation up in a crisis is easy – you don’t need to tell people too much about it as they usually already feel the heat from the metaphorical flames. The clichéd burning platform is screaming at you so there little analytical is skill required to diagnose the challenge ahead.  

Crises respond well to the traditional hierarchy of status and power. Leaders want people to act immediately without too much deliberation when a command is given. So, divide up the tasks between the team, project manage, communicate quickly and regularly, and make sure everyone knows where you are up to by establishing crisis management teams for employees outside of their day-to-day work.

The leaders’ role is often to act as a container around the crisis in a bid to stop panic, keep calm and project an in-control image. The brief is to make the difficulty go away, recover and return to order with perceptions of security, as quickly as possible.

Leadership energy during a crisis is characterised by endurance: grit your teeth, get through it even if you have to collapse on the other side. This is one of the reasons that it isn’t a sustainable, long-term strategic choice. 

Leading out of a ‘plateau’
Waking the organisation up to a well-supported decline, a ‘plateau’, is an altogether subtler act. It is an act of observation, looking differently at what is reality rather than what we imagine it or wish it to be. 

This is an act of courage and responsibility; a process of leaders being comfortable with their vulnerability and saying ‘we don’t know’. The diagnosis here is mostly about identifying and surfacing the repeating patterns of behaviour that are keeping the business stuck and circular in its leadership activities. 

Leadership action in a ‘plateau’ has an experimental nature to it: trial and error, probing, testing and learning; finding some data and bringing it back to the table for examination. It involves applying all of the organisation’s efforts to the day-to-day work, and not separating from it through analyses. The day to day is where the insidious patterns exert themselves and where they need to be disturbed.

Authority at this time emerges from how the system organises itself around the leader, how the individual is connected to others and how much they trust in their team, the culture and the corporate vision. This is because new performance needs leaders to disrupt the system and to disturb it first. After this, a leader needs to take a stand to achieve breakthroughs, bearing in mind that this tactic may be received by the establishment as something ridiculous that feels ‘out of sync’ with the way the business is currently tracking. 

Leaders in a plateau display anxiety in a different way to what is needed in the crisis. They put themselves at risk, but at the same time need to create a sense of psychological safety so that others will want to step out and join them on the precipice. They must quickly become experts in dealing with disappointment, loss of hope, resignation, and perhaps most importantly, resisting invitations to return to the past. 

Conclusion
So, in short, do we live in a business world led by people who love a crisis but are so comfortably numb the rest of the time that they embrace a plateau with open arms? 

In terms of energy and ongoing momentum, anything that looks like a straight line on the balance sheet is actually a decline. The flat line causes a decline in energy, expectation, imagination, belief in possibility and desire. Over time (and perhaps unnoticed) all the people with any energy and purpose start to leave. 

Those with more of a personal investment in the organisation will stay until their own needs are met, but ultimately the effect on the overall organisational system is one of intransigence and self-justification. 

Austerity is the fiend that appears to be the friend of growth – when the real solution to leading from plateau to profit is innovation, transparency, values-led decisions and sustainability. 

Retaining leadership energy in a plateau has a different feel to leading through growth or indeed crisis. And, if you’re reading this and you feel comfortable in your business performance, you should ask yourself if this is, in fact, merely a placebo effect of numbness?

Shouldn’t we, as leaders, always be uncomfortable? If not, how can we possibly be agile enough to innovate perpetually? 

Now is the time for leaders to be savvy, strategic and take a sustainable, long-term view. Great plateau leadership will ebb and flow and leaders need to know when to rest and when to up the intensity. 

But the challenge must be moderated by encouraging teams and peers, in order to keep up the momentum – because the cloaked nature of the plateau can make the finishing line seem a long way away. 

Khurshed Dehnugara and Claire Genkai Breeze have been Partners at Relume Ltd. since 2000. Specialists in coaching senior executives to be challengers of the status quo, their clients are listed corporations worldwide. 

They are authors of The Challenger Spirit – Organisations That Disturb The Status Quo (2011) and Flawed but Willing – Leading Large Organisations In The Age of Connection (2014). 

A calling in business

From Sri Lanka to Europe and grocery shop to international corporation, Allirajah Subaskaran, Founder and Chairman of Lycagroup, has remained agile and adaptable, creating an 8,000-strong business with a family feel. Interview by David Woods-Hale

Can you tell us about your career to date, outlining some of your biggest challenges and achievements?

I was born in the town of Mulllaitivu, Sri Lanka, to a working-class family. 

I am from humble origins, having lost my father at a young age and being brought up by a single working mother as a result. During my childhood, Sri Lanka experienced internal conflict caused by a civil war and my hometown was a major conflict zone. My family decided to emigrate in the hope of finding safety and increasing our chances of having a positive future.

In 1989, I followed my brother to Paris and was joined shortly after by my mother and sister. After some time, my family, led by my older brother, opened a restaurant. It was entirely family run and it was soon joined by a grocery shop. We began selling calling cards for people who wanted to phone abroad. Initially, a distributor was providing us with
the calling cards to resell. However, they stopped providing the cards, creating a sudden vacuum. My brother recognised that there was a demand for the product and identified the opportunity for us to distribute the cards ourselves.

As this venture developed, instead of selling cards produced by someone else, we started producing and distributing them ourselves. By 1997, our market had grown from just Paris to a number of countries in Europe, and we found ourselves, led by my brother, travelling from Paris to many European cities.

After marrying in 1999, my wife and I decided to move to London and continue the business; in 2002, I started Lycatel, a telephone calling card company. 

By 2006, with advancements in technology and the emergence of the mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) market thanks to government regulation, there was a void to be filled. This is how Lycamobile came to be.

Due to our price positioning and the global movement of people, the company has been able to expand rapidly and now, 10 years on, we are operating in 21 countries and have become the world’s largest international MVNO and the market leader in international prepaid mobile calls. 

We have also expanded beyond the telecommunications space, launching a range of complementary businesses servicing different market segments, including LycaMedia, LycaHealth, LycaFly and Lycaremit. 

In my younger days, I didn’t have any plans for the future. I always focused on seeking out and seizing the opportunities available to me. This approach has been fundamental to the growth of Lyca Group over the past 10 years and is something I continue to live by now. 

What does your role as Chairman involve?

In the early days, we were very focused on the day-to-day business activities and tried to be spontaneous, seizing every opportunity as it came along. 

Now, while I play a very active role in everyday business activities, my priorities as Chairman involve developing a long-term strategy that will ensure we are delivering the best services to our customers and meeting their ever-changing needs. This involves thinking outside the box and introducing innovative and complementary ideas, as well as looking for big investment and expansion opportunities. 

Part of my role has also been about building a strong team from the ground up throughout the business. I believe in the need to diversify a company’s power base and I know the business would not be where it is today without the work and support of my management team. These individuals play a vital role, overseeing the development of the business as we continue to innovate and grow. 

What has fuelled the growth of Lyca Group over the past 10 years and what are your next steps? 

Lyca certainly looks different now than 10 years ago. Geographical expansion has been a long-term focus and strategy of Lycamobile, in particular as we work towards our goal of reaching 50 million customers by 2020. We are now present in 21 countries around the globe, ensuring we are the largest MVNO by geographical footprint. This means we are able to offer a cost-effective service, and we are constantly innovating to meet the needs of diverse markets, geographically and across sectors and communities.

Some of our recent product launches have seen us breaking into new territories to bring our low-cost calling, messaging and data services to emerging markets such as Tunisia and Macedonia, and we have plans for further expansion into six new countries this year, including Ukraine, Serbia, Russia, South Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe and South-East Asia. The market context in these regions presents numerous challenges that we have continued to tackle through focused innovation and building meaningful relationships with partners.

To meet the needs of a rapidly developing global community, we have also needed to innovate, not only by launching Lycamobile’s services into new territories, but also by expanding our range of services into new business sectors. 

Today, it isn’t enough for families to be able to contact each other; they want to be able to transfer money to each other, watch the same shows, listen to the same music, and share in each other’s everyday lives. It is along these lines that the Lyca Group has evolved. The Lyca Group is now a multi-national corporation delivering low-cost products to more than 15 million customers, not just in telecoms but also across technology, media, financial services, travel and transport, healthcare and entertainment.

We have bold ambitions, and have already launched a number of new products and services in recent months, including Lycalotto and ChilliTickets, which we acquired earlier this year. Ultimately, we want Lycamobile to be an industry leader in the technology, media and telecoms (TMT) sector and for the group to be a well-established brand, synonymous with connectivity, trust and affordability.

What are the challenges and opportunities you’re facing in a VUCA world? 

We are operating in a highly competitive environment that is becoming increasingly saturated. 

Our flagship brand Lycamobile is faced with the entrance of businesses from a wide variety of sectors, which are showing an interest in launching MVNOs, be it post offices, football clubs, social-media start-ups, multilevel marketing groups, banks, and non-for-profit associations. 

In addition, the sector is rapidly changing with new technologies coming to market, and new regulations being brought in to manage them.

We need to ensure that we are always offering a differentiated service to our customers. We have done this not only by expanding our existing MVNO business into new geographies, ensuring we are able to offer a cost-effective service in the market today, but also by diversifying the business, offering our customers a range of complementary offerings that meet their needs. 

Do you think it’s possible to have a long-term strategy in business, or is success based on agility within the marketplace? 

In this volatile environment, I believe it is important to focus on a long-term strategy and core product offering, ensuring it is delivered consistently, with the highest possible levels of service. 

At Lyca, this means being dedicated to driving forward our ambitious growth plans and customer acquisition target. However, it is crucial to ensure this long-term strategy is never static and continuously reviewed. We must continue to have an innovative, dynamic and entrepreneurial approach that will allow us to react quickly to changing technology, customer needs, and the developing economic and political climate. 

We would not have got where we are today without this ethos. We have always been committed to staying ahead of the game, and so must remain dynamic and adaptive and push forward into new areas and markets that others haven’t, adapting to our external environment accordingly. 

What do you see as the trends impacting most on employers’ strategy globally? 

We are predominantly a technology-focused business and must compete with some of the world’s largest tech companies, to source and retain people with the right skills to drive the business forward and remain on top of the recent technological advancements. 

By fostering employee growth and development, we aim to create an environment where our staff are able to thrive, feel supported, become adaptable to different situations and want to remain loyal to the firm. Despite being a company with more than 8,000 employees, we retain a strong family feel, with everyone invested in the success of the business and experiencing the same highs and lows together. Everything we do at Lycamobile is about connecting with people and bringing communities together, and that’s also our attitude towards our employees. 

How do you ensure there is a culture of innovation throughout the organisation? 

Ensuring a culture of innovation within the group is crucial as we continue to develop high-quality products and services to meet our customers’ varied needs. 

Lycamobile is proud to be a market leader in our industry, and a large part of that is down to our commitment to staying ahead of the game by pushing forward and moving into new areas or markets that others haven’t. Not only have we been able to capitalise on this approach, but we’ve ensured we are delivering the best services to our customers, by continuing to meet their ever-changing needs.

We are dedicated to supporting, developing and nurturing the next generation of senior management, so hiring the right people at all levels of the business is vital, ensuring we maintain and foster the company values of trust, connectivity and innovation. It’s important that despite being a company of 8,000 people, we’ve maintained an open atmosphere, where staff at all levels feel comfortable putting forward ideas, big or small, which are supported, discussed and explored. 

You’ve moved between borders throughout your career. How have you been able to adapt?

I’m not sure how rare this trait is; the movement of people is as old as the world itself. However, having moved from Sri Lanka to Europe to escape the civil war at an early age, I’ve had to learn how to quickly and purposefully adapt to new cultures, markets and contexts in both my personal and business lives, and this certainly hasn’t been easy. But, over the years we’ve managed to transform these survival tactics into a set of core skills which have become the foundation of Lyca’s success and the key to running a successful global company. 

These skills – agility, flexibility, being relationships-driven – are not only the skills that we drive every employee to have, but also enable us to adapt our products and services across borders, and build strong and constructive relationships with partners across our operating regions. 

Lyca Group has employees in 21 countries – how do you ensure there is
a consistent mission and culture?

Working across such a diverse range of markets, it’s important that we uphold the clarity of our mission to connect communities and bring people together through a range of high quality products and services. To ensure that this message is spread across all our operating regions, we have a strong culture driven from the centre of the Lyca Group. 

Our management team is committed to travelling across the different markets to lead negotiations, build lasting relationships with our partners, and place people who share Lyca’s values in key positions.

Do you feel optimistic about the future of business in the age of the ‘new normal’?

As a group, we continue to adapt and evolve to market developments and new environments and are excited about plans to ensure the continued success of the Lyca Group through a programme of expansion into new markets and sectors. 

Reports have shown that the MVNO market will continue to grow in the coming years and we aim to be at the forefront of that growth, with plans to have 50 million people using Lycamobile by 2020, focusing on Africa, Asia and South America for growth – huge, largely untapped markets for MVNOs. We know we can make a real difference to people’s lives by bringing cost-efficient, high-quality products and services to help them better connect with their communities. 

I certainly feel very optimistic about the future. 

Investing in your personal purpose to become a better leader

It’s time for our personal purpose to step into the light and shape our leadership style, writes Laura Wigley

Purpose. Our plan. Our life. Our mission. The thing we wake up for every day. At work, thanks to a revived focus on creating a great working culture – imbued with vision and a reason for being – we focus heavily on the business purpose: its mission, its values. 

Yet personal purpose, the thing that drives everything we do as individuals, is often left at the wayside and seen as something that should only be focused on outside of work, if at all. 

The world of work continues to change, with the challenges of work-life balance and operating in a connected world two of the most significant for employers. Should we, as leaders, bring our personal purpose to work? It is the norm to integrate work and home lives? Realistically, businesses only talk about the future in business or leadership terms. But perhaps organisations should be supporting us, as leaders, to think more widely and to define our life purpose? Should they be helping us to achieve the balance we desire and encouraging us to view our work as part of something bigger?

The argument for alignment

I believe the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Unfortunately, however, given the way most businesses are currently organised, there is no opportunity to achieve this deep self-exploration. There is no moment to be mindful of who we are and what we stand for. Yes, we’re encouraged to have a leadership purpose – how we want to be seen as a leader or to define our authentic leadership style – but this is rarely considered alongside personal purpose. If businesses want to create and motivate brilliant leaders and to deliver a sustainable leadership pipeline, this has to change. For me, defining personal purpose is the most important thing you can do for your own personal development, because investing time here will ensure all subsequent decisions can be based on a clear rationale and will support the achievement of long-term goals. 

I would also argue that, for organisations, providing this deep support and guidance for their leaders is one of the most effective, long-lasting investments they can make. Ensuring leaders are clear about what they stand for as an individual can be the foundation for ongoing, self-driven development, engagement and motivation. It also has the potential to help the business stand out from the crowd: going beyond everyday corporate thinking when investing in their people. 

Sure, it’s difficult to see a direct return on investment and there is a risk that people will leave the organisation following such exploration, but creating this type of clarity is a direct way to promote engagement right to the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and to increase discretionary effort. It reminds me of that much-quoted dialogue been a fictional CEO and his financial director. ‘What if we invest in them and they leave?’ asks the latter; the CEO responds: ‘What if we don’t and they stay?’

Leadership purpose versus personal purpose 

As US politician Sharron Angle once said: ‘There is a plan and a purpose, a value to every life, no matter what its location, age, gender or disability.’

Everyone has a driver that gets them out of bed in the morning, whether it’s raising their family; giving something back to society; achieving career success or some other personal purpose. It’s personal purpose that motivates you. It’s the reason you do the things you do. It could centre around family, friends, health, career or spirituality but it will be unique to each of us. Some may realise their purpose early on, others a little later. But, eventually, everyone will find they have an in-built compass guiding them towards something that resonates and rewards them. 

By contrast, not everyone will develop a leadership purpose. Leadership purpose comes about only when someone has a desire to lead others. Once you become a ‘leader’, whether that’s on the sports field, in business or in a war zone, you’re typically encouraged to define your leadership purpose or vision, describing what it looks, sounds and feels like. This purpose focuses on how you wish to lead; what’s important to you in your leadership style; the sort of leader you’d like be seen as. 

In my opinion, a leadership purpose is not sustainable or rewarding on its own. No matter how good a leader you are, if you’re not also tapping into or fulfilling your broader personal motivations, it’s not going to fulfil you in the long run. Over time, this may prevent you achieving your potential in work or life.

A thought here: I don’t believe it’s wrong to invest all your time and energy in your career, as long as you’re mindful of the trade-offs you’re making in other areas of your life. You must ensure you’re focusing on the things that mean the most to you, deriving motivation and satisfaction from your work, and embracing the ‘imbalance’ rather than seeing only the sacrifices made. 

In an interview with the CoFounders Lab, Storenvy founder, Jon Crawford, summed this up perfectly, saying: ‘Work, sleep,
family, fitness or friends – pick three. It’s true. In order to kick ass and do big things, I think you have to be imbalanced. I’m sure there are exceptions, but every person I’ve seen riding on a rocket ship was imbalanced while that ship was being built. You have to decide if you really want it.’

The ideal, however, is perfect alignment: leadership purpose which encompasses personal purpose to create a balance in both work and life.

How to achieve the balance

The route to achieving a perfect balance is not simple. It’s not something you can achieve alone and it’s certainly not something that can be achieved in a day. Once set out, it becomes a regular exercise – refining it, developing it and adjusting it according to your current situation and your progress. However, it can be achieved. For me, there are three key elements that promote success in identifying, communicating and actioning your purpose. 

The first element is impartiality: gaining an outside perspective to help you ask yourself, and dissect, the tough questions. Using a coach or someone who isn’t linked to your organisation can help you uncover and drive your understanding of what you stand for, though this can be harder to justify to senior management, from an ROI perspective, than corporate coaching. With personal coaching, it is unlikely that there will be open goals that are shared with the company, or a specific business challenge to focus on. The session must simply support private exploration. Some numbers-driven organisations may baulk at the request, but it is important for individuals to open up completely, without the threat of repercussions.

The second element, and the one that requires the most work – and is often be achieved through personal coaching – is to become clear what you stand for, both personally and as a leader; achieving an understanding of your values, your motivations, your needs. My framework for this is simple and can be used to help you discover your personal purpose. You should then apply it continuously to all you do as a leader. It comprises just four steps: define, create, plan and do.

The third and final element to ensure a link back to your organisation and career is an honest and transparent relationship with your line manager, where you are ready to help them and they to help you. While you can choose what to share, and how much to share, about your personal purpose, it’s important that there is maturity in your relationship with your manager so that you can support and embrace this. This is because, once you’ve achieved this level of clarity, you may want to change the way you operate as a leader which requires an honest conversation with your employer. 

You may also need to sell these changes to your employer. Start the conversation on the right foot. Consider how you could demonstrate the positive impact your changes or requirements would have on the business. For example, if you’ve defined your purpose as ‘giving back’, you may want to volunteer during the week, or become a mentor for those who value your expertise. Whatever it is, you need to ask yourself: ‘What is the business case?’ You need to sell the idea to the business and create a win-win scenario.

What this means for organisations

Very few large businesses are set up or ready to have conversations about personal purpose, and how to align this with business purpose, as they are a broad departure from the traditional way of doing things. But organisations need to recognise there is more than one way of achieving success. Being open and committed to investing in coaching relationships could achieve less tangible, but important, outcomes. Be open to individual workers’ suggestions and requests when they do share them and role model from the top. 

Taking time to consider, define and set out your personal purpose is an essential tool in the leadership toolbox. Time invested here has the potential to drive motivation, engagement and achievement, way beyond the original investment. As author Eugenio Pirri, Chief People and Culture Officer at Dorchester Collection, says in his book, Be A People Leader: ‘Unless you truly understand who you are, how can you possibly help someone else grow as a person, grow their career or ensure they reach their
full potential?’  

Life is a balancing act. Knowing your purpose is the key to achieving this equilibrium happily and sustainably.

Laura Wigley is the former Global Talent and Development Director for luxury hotel management company, Dorchester Collection, and is now People Director at luxury health club operator, Third Space.  

Treating the executive team as ‘customers’ in improvement initiatives

Fully engaging the executive sponsors is vital in sustaining the success of any improvement programme, writes David Mann

Proactive engagement by executives is essential for the sustained success of large-scale improvement initiatives. Engagement means going beyond reporting on occasional endorsements, messages,
or visits to encourage frontline workers. In this article, I’ll explain why engagement is important and describe an approach that makes it meaningful and valuable to executives as well.

I will start with an example from personal experience, following this with an important characteristic of improvement initiatives. 

Case study of a lean initiative

About 10 years ago, I was leading an internal consulting team supporting an ‘office’ lean initiative. At 18 months, we had coached people from 50 cross-functional business process improvement projects, involving individuals from sales, marketing, distribution, customer service, order entry, database, engineering, procurement, legal, tariff compliance, and finance groups. We focused only on business process that crossed at least one internal boundary. Many of the projects we worked on tackled longstanding problems – 20 years-plus in some cases – that remained unresolved despite repeated efforts. 

On average, the improvements across these 50 business processes involved a halving of end-to-end timescales and of delays, errors and reworking, and handoffs. There were direct cost savings of approximately $5m, and substantial capacity freed by reducing non-value-adding activity. By any objective criteria, our team was successful. 

I met monthly with my boss, a Corporate Officer, Vice President, and one of four of the CEO’s direct reports who sponsored our team’s work. Meeting at 18 months, she told me directly: ‘David, you have a problem!’ She explained that she and her executive peers had roughly an 18-month attention span for programmes such as the office lean initiative, and that despite our success so far, our executive sponsors were losing interest. ‘After that,’ she continued, ‘we start looking around for the next thing to drive improvement. You have to find a way to involve us!’ 

With initiatives such as lean, six sigma, quality, and safety improvement programmes, it takes two or three years before results show on corporate financial statements. I’ve worked in lean transformation for more than 25 years. Lean ‘tools’ produce improved process performance right away, whether in healthcare, administrative, service, technical professional, or manufacturing processes. Just ask the people who’ve been involved in the projects! But for those improvements to accumulate to corporate-level impact takes time. 

Performance pressure on senior executives is intense; and the aforementioned savings over 18 months, in a Fortune 500 company, amounted to a ‘blip’, not an amount that made a discernible impact on corporate financial statements. 

So, after 18 months of support with nothing showing on the financials, they begin looking for the next big thing. 

I thanked my boss for her candour, and took her news back to my team. We stepped back and followed our own advice: ‘Value is defined from the point of view of the customer,’ is the first principle in lean. We hadn’t thought of our executives as customers, though in fact they were. What we’d been delivering to them – visits to project teams and activity reports – had not met our executive sponsors’ criteria for value, or for involvement. 

Like many other improvement disciplines, lean, a term coined to describe Toyota’s business during the late 1980s, has its own language, approach, and terminology. Much of its terminology is in Japanese, reflecting the influence of Toyota’s lean production system. None of our executives spoke Japanese. 

Lean business process improvement teams used value stream maps which make visible the movement of information and material through process steps and between departments, especially useful in business processes that cross internal (and occasionally external) boundaries. No aspect of these maps is intuitively obvious; business processes do not appear on organisation charts, and none of our executives was a fluent interpreter of value stream maps and their related measures (for example, process time as a percentage of total cycle time).

We wanted to teach our executives about lean as we had learned it, through exposure to lean applications by project teams. So, we arranged executive visits to meet lean teams in their work areas. The team would make a presentation, sometimes prepared, sometimes off the cuff, but always using terms and tools unfamiliar to the visiting executive. On our part, we did nothing to prepare the executives for the visits other than naming the project, walking them to the area, and introducing the team. 

Our executives were socially skilled and used to making conversation. After listening to these nearly opaque presentations, the executives thanked the teams for their efforts, and then turned to more familiar topics, such as the state of the business, sales wins, or enquiries about people’s families.

When our team reviewed the records of these executive visits during the year we had been running them, we found exactly half had been cancelled and never rescheduled. Clearly, our executives were not finding value in visiting lean projects. If you added that to no significant financial impact, no wonder we were losing their interest.

Reflecting on this, we reached several conclusions that we used to restructure and resuscitate the project visits to make them meaningful to the executives. We assessed what we knew about our executives, recognising that they were bright, fast learners, with a high need for achievement. They tended to be competitive (having probably aced every test they’d ever taken), thirsty for hands-on influence in improvement initiatives and accustomed to being prepared by their staff members for unfamiliar situations. We recognised we were putting our action-orientated executives into passive roles that were not to their liking.

We had standards for lean management behaviours, practices, and tools in well-functioning lean areas from my book, Creating a Lean Culture. We based the new executive visits (called gemba walks) on the standards, creating a predictable, executive driven, repeatable process, with a clear agenda, content focus, and structure on a one-page gemba worksheet per standard. 

The revised visits had questions for the executives to answer, from their observations, and conversations around the project area. Importantly for our competitive, high- achieving executives, the new approach included a test: how accurately did executives rate the project on the criteria included in that visit’s lean management standard? 

We were sure we had an improved gemba walk process. As a final step, we made explicit the rationale for executives’ participation; we were sure they would find this meaningful in their own terms.

Senior executives have two unique managerial responsibilities: responsibility for strategy, and responsibility for the integrity of their chain of command. Most executives endorse a lean strategy essentially on faith, based on the advice of trusted advisors and examples of similar organisations’ successes. They lack experience of implementing Lean, and are not interested in gaining it. They’ve been persuaded lean will help reach their organisation’s goals, so they sign up. 

They receive reports (abstracted and sanitised) describing lean activities. They see no impact on the financials. And, they don’t know how to assess for themselves the true status of the initiative and how it’s actually supported within their organisations. 

Here, the tools, behaviours, and practices of the lean management system come to the fore. The management system was developed to support and sustain the underlying, and more technical, lean production system. The state of the management system reflects the health of the production system. Therefore, learn to assess the health of the management system, and you’ve learned how to judge directly for yourself the adequacy with which the production system is being implemented, and the integrity of its deployment down your chain of command. 

Executives learning to assess the adequacy of the lean management system readily develop a keen and accurate eye. In practice, most executives master each management system standard by the second gemba walk on it. Part of the mechanism for this is the test. As we’re leaving the area, I (or another internal lean resource) ask the executive how he or she rated, say, visual controls in a project team’s area. He or she usually assigns a rating of four or a high three (on a self-describing five-point scale). 

Such a rating is rarely warranted early on in the lean initiative, and the visited area is usually chosen because it needs improvement. The competitive, high-achieving executive has not passed the test. This opens a 90-second window for teaching, during which the lean resource explains what he or she saw, what better practice looks like, and why it’s important. In my experience, most executives are single-trial learners, quickly grasping what good and poor practice look like. 

With this knowledge, executives can assess the state of the management system at the frontline, getting first-hand knowledge of the health of the lean strategy they’ve endorsed on faith. And they can assess, first-hand, the integrity with which their chain of command is deploying the lean strategy. 

Consider when an executive asks a frontline worker or supervisor to explain an aspect of the management system (virtually all of which is visually displayed), and the answer is ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘we were just told to do this, but I don’t see how it’s helping’. The executive learns two things: First, somewhere up the chain from the frontline, there’s a lack of integrity, a weak link not reinforcing the lean strategy. Second, the lean strategy is in trouble, at least in the area visited. 

Responding to situations like this is uniquely an executive responsibility. He or she should explain to the supervisor or frontline worker why the particular element of lean management is important, and how it’s supposed to help, and then move on. 

The problem, a serious one, is elsewhere. Find the subordinate manager who is the weak link, walk an area with him or her, and explain what you expect to see and why.

Go back in two weeks’ time in a different area within the remit of that subordinate with him or her. If the same problem shows itself again, a more pointed conversation should ensue.  

For my team, the end result was a happy one. Not a single restructured executive gemba walk was cancelled and, over the next four years the lean team remained in place. Lean in the company’s offices is deeply engrained in a revitalised corporate culture, literally ‘the way we do business here.’ Executives have the knowledge to judge for themselves the health of lean business process operations. Cumulative results of widespread focus on improvement are visible in the corporate financials.

David Mann is the author of Creating a Lean Culture: Tools to Sustain Lean Conversions. The book was awarded the Shingo Prize for Operational Excellence in 2006. Mann is a frequent consultant, trainer and speaker on lean leadership and management, and earned his PhD at the University of Michigan.

Focus on business education in Latin America

Heads of Business Schools from Latin America discuss Business School programmes in their region and how these are developing and interacting with business. Interviews by Jack Villanueva and Kevin Lee-Simion

Jorge Talavera 
President, ESAN Graduate School of Business, Peru


What does a ‘great’ MBA programme look like?

Great MBA programmes support the best product – students. To support them, we need to provide them with the key factors for success which include knowledge, soft skills, leadership and team work.

How has international business developed in Latin America? 

To develop international business, we developed our students. We established very good connections with the business sector. We provided them with the leaders, and they told us what we have to teach in order to be relevant. 

How are MBA programmes similar across the world, and how do they differ?

In the past they were quite similar. People in developing countries followed the programmes in the US and Europe, but MBA programmers try to solve the problems in the region. So now we have to adapt programmes and develop our own, to give our students the ability to solve problems in our society. 

Do you think the MBA mindset has changed?

I don’t think so. People have always studied for MBAs because they want to lead institutions, and Schools have provided students with knowledge to lead institutions.

What are the main challenges Business Schools face? 

Coping with change in terms of technology, and dealing with competition due to globalisation. We have to compete to provide solutions for society, and good quality professionals.

Should there still be a focus on local businesses and local economies as well as the international business economy?

You have to be good in your own country first. Then you can take your success abroad and provide other societies with solutions.

How important is it for Business Schools to continue to innovate in order to compete with businesses around the globe?

Innovation is important but sometimes innovation is confused with change. Organisations change and say they are innovative because they changed – but then go bankrupt. You need to innovate and it needs to be successful, otherwise it doesn’t mean anything.

Xavier Gimbert
General Director of the Graduate Business School of Universidad del Pacifico, Professor of the GBS of Universidad del Pacifico and Professor of ESADE Business School 


How do you see the decision-making process changing over the next few years?

The decision-making process has to be strategically ongoing, because the environment is changing every day. Also, decision making is becoming more collaborative.

Decision making is the most important process in managing an organisation. If you don’t have the best people and a good process, it will be a disaster.

How are strategic models beneficial to a business?

Models are guides and their objective is to help you to think, reflect, and make decisions. In a decision process, a model gives you different steps you have to think about in order to make decisions.

How important is innovation in strategic management? 

Innovation is one of the key elements of strategic management. But do you have to innovate in order to be successful? Innovation is something a company should have the option of doing, but doesn’t always have to do. 

Do you think MBAs are learning the skills required to succeed in the future? Or do Business Schools need to evolve?

I think the content of the MBA is evolving as there are more soft skills, which are fundamental to getting a good job, managing companies, reading changes in the environment, making fast decisions, and adapting to change. These areas can’t be taught though ‘real’ content.

Why is it arguably more important than ever to create alliances?

We are in a global world and can’t do everything alone. In Latin America, it’s a way to improve, in terms of businesses and Business Schools. Alliances provide knowledge from abroad. It’s a very powerful tool. Nowadays, alliances are key and we have to see others not just as competitors, but as potential allies.

Martin Santana
Professor of Information Systems, ESAN Graduate School of Business, Peru

Should there be a greater emphasis on technology in MBA programmes?

I think there is an emphasis but it’s not significant. We are dealing with millennials, 75% of whom interact through technology. Our MBA programmes are not prepared for that, as technology is used more as a learning platform. But this is a different dimension we are talking about with the technologicalically savvy guys from the millennial generation.

How important is the role technology for Schools? 

I think technology is key and Schools are using it to gain connections around the world, to provide a leaning environment, create alliances, and persuade prospective MBAs and faculty to come to their School. 

What innovations have you seen in the world of digital business?

Change in the learning environment. It’s now an open environment with different technologies, but they are converging into one purpose for Business Schools – enhancing learning opportunities
for students. We are under pressure to create a learning environment for the millennial generation.

What are your thoughts on e-learning? How beneficial do you think it is to an MBA?

It’s very important, but I believe in a more blended methodology. A 100% online programme is not yet well accepted in Latin America as employers believe these are low-quality programmes. I believe blended programmes will be the solution but I’m not against having a 100% virtual programme.

In what ways could Business Schools use technology to
their advantage?

I think technology should be used to attract, retain, and train our students, and change the mindset of professors who are using technology for basic things.  Technology is a key component of being successful.

Do you think technology and millennials are essential for Peruvian Business?

I believe so because more than 40% of the population is made up of millennials. In the near future, the majority of the workforce will be millennials, they will be future entrepreneurs and will be running most companies.

How will millennial leadership compare to traditional leadership?

Millennials care about a lot more than just being managers. For one, they expect to have good mentors, and this will be the model they use in the companies of the future. They will become mentors and transformational leaders – focused on the person rather than the activity.

Do you think millennials lack soft skills when you compare them to previous students?

Yes, remember we are still talking about young people and they are in the process of developing. They lack social skills but it’s our job to teach them these. We can change their mindsets and help shape them so they can be successful. 

What do you think the future holds for the MBA?

There will be many different varieties of MBA programme, and they will come together with a blended methodology. This means you will be able to connect with anybody around the world, but we will have to change our methods of teaching, and our professors. 

Matthew Bird
Professor, Universidad del Pacífico Graduate School, Peru

Is there a big difference between how businesses are run and how the government is run?

There is in Latin America. There is a distrust between the government and the private sector. I believe many countries’ societies understand that they need one another, but the hard thing to do is to build the foundation for trust and identify those shared spaces for collaboration.

How important is innovation in solving social challenges?

Very important: innovation can be anything that is different and creates value. Understanding social systems creates opportunities to identify those small interventions where the government and private sector can work together.

To solve social challenges, do you think it is a one-size-fits-all solution all or is it case-by-case?

There are elements that are cross-cutting, and once you know how to tackle social issues, it’s down to harvesting local solutions to shared problems. This is one of the reasons I believe in design thinking because it really focuses people to listen, empathising first. Through that empathy, you can understand where the gaps are, and what people want, so you can collaborate better to deliver that.

In what ways will harvesting local innovative interventions solve common social challenges?

People look at social issues as problems, but people should see them as solutions. Take the informal economy. People originally viewed the informal economy as a problem. However, people were working in the informal economy. This means they were creating value through jobs, and therefore creating  income. It was a solution.

How do you think the rise in digital technologies is affecting Business Schools?

Digital technologies are already transforming the way we teach and interact with students. Technologies are creating challenges, but also opportunities. For example, with virtual education, you are creating competition between Schools, but there are also opportunities for people to overcome historical geographic barriers and push education into areas that have been traditionally harder to reach.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing Business Schools in Latin America?

The biggest challenge for Business Schools in the region is to move away from a strong focus on teaching, as there are opportunities for research. Research can still contribute to value creation, but its potential has still not been tapped.

How much of an impact does cultural influence play in economic decisions?

You define decisions and use certain frames – influenced by social cultural backgrounds – to justify them. Then you identify decision criteria, and then the choices. These choices are permeated by your culture.

Oscar Muartua de Romaña
Director de la Escuela de RR.II. y Gobierno de la UTP en Universidad Tecnologica del Peru (UTP)

How important is it for countries to work together?

It is an obligation and we have always demanded that the international community resolve these problems. The UN means there is an international community of 200 nations, and stability has a path through hard times.

Do you think volatility makes collaboration more difficult?

It is more challenging, but we can provide more effective reactions. One of the biggest challenges, but also the most fundamental aspect, is to have dialogue, because only through this will countries understand each other. Also, science and technology are providing us with enough arguments to build our future to benefit all humanity.

Do you think international relations impact business education?

Business Schools need international relations to prepare future professionals. MBAs have a moral function – they are embodying the values of society while trying to benefit society.

will it be difficult for Schools to implement the UN’s sustainable development goals?

It will be difficult to adapt to reform. But these principles are nothing new. So it is about doing as much as we can through investment in education and generalised development.

How do international relations impact Latin America? 

International relations have helped us create Schools, bring in faculty, and establish MBAs. We’ve learned how development can create good results for a country, and we made this into a reality. International relations have also helped us become aware of innovation and entrepreneurship. Business has played an important role in the growth of Latin America. 

How are Schools in Latin America preparing MBAs for the future? 

Business Schools are preparing MBAs for an open economy, and everything that has been done by Business Schools is an investment in Latin America. MBAs are also learning about the linkage between the Business School, industry, and government, and the importance of moral values.

Racheli Gabel Shemueli
Research Fellow and Professor in the Graduate School of Business of the Pacific University in Lima, Peru

What do you look for in a prospective MBA student?

We want people who are different and who acquire knowledge and implement it. They have to be responsible leaders who want to create change. We are looking to the kind of person that makes a difference. 

What are the challenges in attracting these students?

The challenge is to state that our Business School is different. We say we are looking for quality, and we are very demanding.

How important is it for MBAs to have cross-cultural experience?

When we think about inter-cultural experience, we also think about local experience because Peru is very diverse. Cross-cultural experience is not just about travelling the world, but about working with diverse people. For an MBA to be exposed to cross-cultural experiences, and know how to work with this is important, in order for them to lead.

In what ways can cross-cultural issues be addressed in the future?

In-house learning is important so we can see what our students understand. Then it is a matter of doing the exercise, and doing it in your own life.

Why is innovation important?

Learning is interactive. I am learning from my students and they are learning from me. 

Professors are now just facilitators of limited information, and as a result, knowledge comes from both sides, the students and the professor.