Striving for the side hustle

Why more students than ever before are setting their sights on the side hustle and ditching the traditional nine to five

Our general default to working hours is and has always been, the nine to five. But why is this so? Is it just a habit? A comfort associated with this way of working and living?

Among the many students around the world that I’ve spoken to or mentored, there’s a sense that these traditional, standard working hours are well on their way out. This simply is not the lifestyle young people want for their futures and change is already afoot.

We’ve seen a major change in the behaviours and desires of job seekers over the last 12 months on the JOB TODAY hiring platform, particularly among students in the UK, but also worldwide.

Where the ‘Jack of all trades’ was once seen as a negative, today’s millennials and members of generation Z are embracing the opportunity to grow in multiple trades or skills and are ditching the race to chase elusive job titles through the ‘job for life’.

Instead, they’re pursuing multiple income streams through part-time, freelance and casual roles to develop new skills and champion a more balanced way of working – as a student and beyond. A multi-hyphenated way of working if you will.

We recently conducted new research which shows that more young people in the UK than ever before are ditching the nine to five. In fact, 50% of those surveyed said roles outside these standard working hours are helping them pursue side hustles and achieve a better work-life balance.

Supporting students to challenge convention and pursue flexible work

Personally, I love that this generation is completely challenging the norms set by generations before us. They’re leveraging multiple roles and ways of working to create a multi-hyphenated career that allows them to smash goals and create a lifestyle that better balances work, passion pursuits, and social/family lives.

However, while many millennials and Gen Z job seekers (in particular) seem to have it all together when it comes to pursuing their passions the reality is that the vast majority of young people still need a helping hand to go after their side hustles.  

We need to do more to help and encourage this generation in their pursuit of their passions, side hustles and simply, a lifestyle that goes against the comforts of the nine to five. This is all the more important when this type of lifestyle looks so different to parents, grandparents, and even to friends.

That’s the reason behind JOB TODAY’s recent partnership with king of the side hustle, Jamal Edwards MBE, who was named to the 2016 Forbes 30 under 30 in European media list and is the founder of urban music channel SBTV. The #WorksForMe campaign offers the chance to win an exclusive, one-to-one mentoring session with Jamal that can help one young person in the UK to get their passion project off the ground.

As part of the campaign, aspiring entrepreneurs across the UK have been getting in touch to tell us about their career goals, their side hustles, and why they want to win a one-to-one session with Jamal. We then selected finalists and you voted for the winner.

Top 5 flexible roles for students

The JOB TODAY app connects young job seekers with casual jobs which are available through local businesses. This allows students to secure jobs and facilitates flexible job opportunities that help young people in the UK steer through the ever changing, fast-paced job climate. Some of the most popular flexible roles we have available on the app right now for students include:

1. Dog walker: the UK’s fourth-most popular casual job can see you make monthly earnings of around £1,500 GBP a month. It also gets you out in the fresh air and offers a much-needed break from the books.


2. Promotional work: popular brands we use every day run campaigns to boost awareness and often need casual staff to help spread the word. Where these campaigns are held vary, but you could find yourself at a festival or a major sporting event. You can also pick which days you can work and which you can’t. Ideal for any hard-working student who doesn’t mind spending time on their feet!

3. Cleaning: cleaning while studying can help aid mental focus as you are keeping active without mentally investing. The trend of cleaning has seen Sophie Rose Hinchliffe (aka Mrs Hinch) catapult into influencer territory with her tips on keeping spaces sparkling. This role suits students who want to zone out and earn some cash.

4. Barista: the wonderful thing about the UK’s love for a frothy one is that there’s always work available behind a bar! The added bonus to this is, tips! This is best suited to the early birds.

5. Delivery driver: if you have a driving licence, then why not work the parcels – from courier driving to Uber Eats. Internet shopping is forever on the rise with instant and flexible options for delivery meaning there’s a constant demand for flexible workers in this arena. This often comes with a vehicle and you can work days and hours that suit your schedule.

Polina Montano is co-founder and Head of Global PR and Brand Marketing at mobile hiring company and app, JOB TODAY. She has a wealth of experience building and growing her own companies and holds a master’s degree in entrepreneurship and innovation from the University of Luxembourg.

Building a responsible and inclusive future

Developing a mindset of continual learning for the future of work and inclusive leadership will underpin the MBA at Newcastle University Business School, explains its Director and Professor of Leadership and Organisation Studies, Sharon Mavin. Interview by David Woods-Hale

You joined Newcastle University Business School during a momentous year for the School as it celebrated 30 years of AMBA accreditation. What attracted you to the organisation? 

I was attracted by the stage of development of the School. It’s going through a period of growth and is expanding its presence with an additional building. It’s triple accredited and has world-class research, but at the same time there was an appointment of a new Vice Chancellor and Deputy Vice Chancellor, so there was an opportunity to join a brand new team and look at really embedding the Business School into the University and developing a vision around the future of work and leading on leadership. 

I previously led Roehampton Business School, University of Roehampton, London, as Director and before that I was at Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University, as Dean and Associate Dean Research.

At Newcastle University Business School, there is an opportunity to look at an interdisciplinary approach in terms of the stage of development of the Business School. The challenge facing Schools today is to prepare students and graduates for problems that are not just around business and management; to be able to take a more interdisciplinary approach to thinking and problem solving and to prepare business, management, economics, accounting and finance students, for the future of work, when we don’t know what that future will be. The jobs they will be doing in the future don’t actually exist now. 

In Newcastle, we have two national innovation centres (one in data and another in ageing) and integrating the Business School into the work of these centres is a fantastic opportunity to expose our students to further world-class research. 

What do you think draws prospective MBAs to Newcastle? 

When I joined the School, we were celebrating 30 years of AMBA accreditation and this is a testament to the Newcastle MBA. While it has changed and evolved, it’s still a very progressive MBA programme, which details a journey of transformation for the individual student, combined with innovative curricula, real-world interaction and the internationalisation of the programme on a global scale. For example, this year, our international study tour is to Brazil. 

We welcome students who are ready and committed to a journey of personal transformation and change, and offer them the knowledge, skills, and exposure to international experiences plus international approaches to business and management. 

What keeps people coming to us is a combination of our first-class reputation for academic excellence, high graduate employability and excellent student experience. It’s an all-round journey of personal transformation.

What skills do you think MBAs should be demonstrating upon graduation?  

We are in an ongoing dialogue with external organisations, our advisory board, our academic team, our students and employers, asking what a Newcastle University Business School graduate and post-graduate should know, and what they should stand for. 

In terms of key knowledge expectations, these would be the same as for any MBA graduate: being able to develop personal resilience; to thrive in complex and chaotic situations and those in which there is ambiguity; to make clear judgements based on information and evidence; being informed by a commitment to ethical corporate social responsibility; having a commitment to gender inclusive leadership, which will become increasingly important in our MBA; and being able to work individually and also as part of a team. 

Our corporate and organisational partners are talking to us about continual learning and they want people who can embrace change and accept that the MBA is not the end – they want people who want to learn for life. This means being prepared for the future of work, but also to learn, change and adapt in order to influence, lead and shape their future and their own future careers. This goes far beyond knowledge of business and management. 

How do you view ethical management? 

As part of our vision, we see ourselves as a globally renowned international Business School that is building a responsible future, through our graduates and post-graduates, for both business and society globally. It’s certainly a core value of Newcastle University around sustainability and responsible management. In the MBA, we have both a corporate social responsibility module, but also a commitment to ethical behaviour and personal values running all the way through. The Newcastle University Business School post-graduate has a strong understanding of their own personal values and what they stand for.

Do we need a new metrics system to measure MBA programme success? 

We would argue that there does need to be a new metrics system for measuring success, not least beyond international diversity, to include gender diversity and different elements of intersectionality for the type of cohorts we’re learning with. 

From my point of view, coming in as a new Director, one of our scholarships for next year will be for a woman, who will work with us exploring gender-inclusive leadership. This will be a scholarship that signals that women are very much encouraged to join our Business School. We know that all UK Schools have a long way to go regarding ‘gender on the agenda’ in all kinds of ways, as evidenced in Athena SWAN action plans. Gender equality is a core value of mine. We want to be explicit about our commitment to gender inclusive leadership. 

It’s not just about cohort size if you’re trying to bring a balance of international and gender diversity into the MBA learning environment. 

As a female Business School Director, do you feel like you are trailblazing the way for other women?

I’m the first woman Director at Newcastle University Business School. In my first semester, I think I made an impact on the academic group, because colleagues see my commitment to talking openly about the gender pay gap, gender inclusive leadership or gender on the agenda in curricula. I’m not afraid to have these discussions. 

I want to award a scholarship to a woman with aspirations who envisages a major transformational journey. I will be involved with that learning journey as a mentor and with the students on the programme and I’m hoping to make a positive impact. 

You’ve done some work with Board Apprentice Global Scheme on diversity. Can you explain some more about this?

It’s a not-for-profit franchise that offers an immediate solution to the lack of diversity in the boardroom because it is, in effect, a development programme for people and boards to develop experience that they wouldn’t otherwise have had. Introducing diversity to company boards through an apprenticeship scheme.

I went through a selection process to become a board apprentice for a JP Morgan Investment Trust. I wouldn’t ordinarily have been in a position to have this experience. I’m in higher education, I’m from the north of England and I didn’t have any non-executive (NXD) board experience other than committees to do with higher education. I went through a selection process and joined the JP Morgan Claverhouse Investment Trust plc. 

I had the privilege of observing the board for nearly 18 months and joining board activity across the different methods that it uses to govern. I engaged with the Chair of the board, other directors, the fund managers, the board business and enjoyed learning more about the financial investment sector – including the AGM and meeting shareholders. 

This increased my experience of governance and knowledge as a NXD If I hadn’t recently moved into the Director role at the University of Newcastle, I’d have already applied for NXD with this new knowledge and experience and therefore offering diversity to other boards. 

The Board Apprentice offers people, who don’t necessarily have the ‘right’ knowledge and experience, opportunities for development. This programme looks at diversity beyond gender and encompasses ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation, age, disability, personality and skillset. Simply by observing a board, an apprentice can change the dynamic within it. Through the chair, I was able to ask questions of the board offline to help understand and refine my own decision making. Having a board apprentice is a positive, committed action and adds to the diversity of established thinking within boards and increases the pool of people who are able to apply for NXD positions. 

I also met with the London Higher Group of Universities which has started a board apprentice journey. It’s working with corporate organisations, enabling people from universities to become NXDs and their councils and senates are engaging with board apprentices from the corporate sector. Universities require diversity on their senates and councils in the same way that FTSE firms do. Universities are not exempt, but it can be very challenging to reach outside the University community, to get the diversity you need. 

Board apprentice programmes build a pipeline of people who are ready for their first board position. Because of my subject area, I’d never worked in the finance sector in that level of depth and the opportunity allowed me such a good exposure to the sector, which benefited my own personal development.

Do you think there’s still too much talk and not enough action on gender inclusive leadership? 

Up until about six months ago, I would have said ‘absolutely yes’, but I think now, we’re hitting a tipping point of what has been acceptable and what’s not. This might be around the gender pay gap, sexual harassment, and the gendered representation in the media of women leaders – which has a major impact on socialising future leaders. 

The media shows Hilary Clinton or Theresa May as powerful women leaders, but are talking about what they wear or how they look. This is being challenged and becoming unacceptable. The backlash to the US presidency race will also be a part of the tipping
point I’ve just described. People are becoming more comfortable with calling out gender discrimination.  

You cannot be what you cannot see. We want students to think more critically about what they see when they see leadership images and how leaders are portrayed around them; some of these messages are so normalised, they don’t realise how sexist they are. 

One of my key next steps is to consider how to develop gender-inclusive leadership with men and women students, because change is not just the responsibility of women. 

Our students are letting us know when they see men-only guest speakers or panels and expect to engage with leaders and entrepreneurs of both genders. I use the term ‘gender inclusive’ because we need to pull the models apart, so everyone can relate to the terminology. 

Do you feel optimistic about the future of Business Schools and business education? 

I feel very optimistic about business education that understands what we have to do now and in the future and is different to what we’ve done in the past. 

Providing personal development journeys that engage with the whole person rather than comprising knowledge transfer is a fantastic opportunity. 

From our point of view, in our School, we’ll be educating and developing for the future of work and leading on leaders for a future we can shape – this is a positive way of looking at massive change, continually. 

How do we prepare people to engage and learn in an unknown future of work

This will be about developing the knowledge, skills, values and open mind sets for a future we don’t even know yet. 

That’s a challenge I’m excited about.   

Surviving and thriving in your post-university life

How can you ensure you don’t end up in a job for which you’re overqualified? HelloGrads co-founder, Sophie Phillipson, offers some practical steps

After years in education, we all look forward to the photo opportunity that is graduation. But beyond the gowns and mortarboards, there is a lingering sense of dread – the unknown is just around the corner.

The charmed walk into jobs and graduate schemes, others look to PhDs or gap years. The best advice you’ll ever get is this; even if you aren’t sure what you want to do for a living, the more preparation and planning you can squeeze in before you leave education, the better your first taste of the real world will be.

The risk of overqualification in your future employment

Research from the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that graduate overqualification is a particular problem for the UK, compared to the rest of Europe, with 58.8% of UK graduates in non-graduate jobs – a figure only exceeded by Greece and Estonia. That means the risk of under-employment – doing a job you’re overqualified for – is high.

How to boost your prospects of securing the right job

The good news is there are some practical steps that can be taken before the training wheels come off.

1. Prime your CV

Life can get hectic at university, especially in the final few months. Finals loom, essays are due and the question of ‘what happens afterwards?’ keeps getting pushed back to deal with what is right in front of you. So kickstart your post-university prep before the final semester. In fact, there are plenty of things you can do from day one.

One of the best ways to enhance a CV is to get involved with, or run, a society, particularly if it bears some relevance to your chosen career path. Be it student media, young entrepreneurs, LGBTQ or debating, there’s either a society to be joined, or a gap for one to be started.

Not only will you meet interesting people, pick up new skills and potentially participate in big events, but it’s a golden opportunity to become more employable while enjoying yourself.

Likewise, hobbies and sports can demonstrate that you’re passionate, a team player, disciplined or dynamic.

2. Network

One of the biggest concerns we hear from new graduates is that they’ve left university without having any idea about what they want to do thereafter.

Having an idea of your career mapped out is sometimes half the battle, but this doesn’t mean Googling job titles – you need to start talking to people. There is no better way of understanding a job, or an industry, than to speak to someone on the frontline.

Spread the word among family and friends. If you stumble across a contact with an interesting job, send them a message or arrange a call and ask about what they do. Most people will be flattered to be asked.

If you don’t know anyone, try professional networking on LinkedIn. Search relevant content, read all you can, and try to strike up a conversation with someone in an industry that appeals to you.

Check out careers events taking place at your university. Dress smarter than the average student for these, as this is an opportunity to speak to industry insiders, glean useful knowledge, and make your mark.

Also, look at local employers. Can you start making relationships with small businesses in the same city while still at university, either by offering your skills as a temp or by doing some work experience between classes?

3. Great expectations

Speak to career coaches, professionals, graduates, or anyone with a job and they’ll all tell you your degree doesn’t define your career or your route to success.

Take the late billionaire Donald Fisher, who studied business at UC Berkeley. It was decades after he left his studies, and with no retail experience, that he founded Gap aged 40 because he couldn’t find jeans that fitted him. Dexter Holland completed a master’s in molecular biology then suspended his PhD studies to pursue his passion project which became the internationally-acclaimed punk rock band, The Offspring.

No one’s life or career is a well-structured race to the top. If you prepare properly and take the necessary steps to give yourself the best chance – as you’ve already done by investing in higher education – then, trust me, things will work out. But effort is required to make the transition easier.

By the time you leave higher education, you should already know how to solve problems, work hard, focus and really get stuck into a project. But you can make your way into the ‘real world’ much simpler with some thought and planning.

Sophie Phillipson is co-founder of student and graduate support site HelloGrads, which offers help and advice on careers, life and finances to those leaving university.

Creating a beacon of culture in the darkness of war

Syrian-born businesswoman, Shireen Atassi, stepped away from a career in banking to launch a non-profit foundation in Dubai, promoting Syrian artwork and artists. She talks to David Woods-Hale about her unconventional career path, post-MBA

As part of AMBA’s 50th anniversary celebrations, we conducted 50 interviews with MBA graduates from across the globe, to celebrate the diversity of a global network of post-graduate business students. 

These stories showcase bravery, entrepreneurship, achieved ambitions, goals reached, careers changed, borders crossed and boundaries broken down. 

But, considering the global geopolitical environment, one story stands out from the rest. 

It’s the story of a woman who left her village in Syria – currently the world’s most violent country, according to the Global Peace Index – to complete her MBA, and then moved back to the Middle East in a bid to protect and promote the art and culture of her homeland. 

Shireen Atassi, CEO of the Atassi Foundation and an MBA graduate of Imperial College Business School, picks up her tale.

‘I grew up in a little town in the middle of Syria,’ she says. ‘My father was a partner in a construction company and my mother was a gallerist. I graduated from school, spent a year in Switzerland and then moved to Manchester, where I did a BSc in economics. I went back to Syria for three years. By this stage, my parents had moved to Damascus and my mother had another gallery there. I worked in a consultancy firm, and in the evenings, I worked at my mother’s gallery.’

Atassi is thankful for this experience, explaining that it gave her access to the worlds of both business and culture; but by 1996, she was ready to leave Syria for the second time.

‘Everything was too small for what I wanted and the opportunities were too few,’ she says. ‘I had a privileged childhood with access to lots of things, because of who my parents were. This wasn’t a path I wanted to go down and I wanted to open my own doors. I’m not someone who had a plan and worked according to that. All I knew was that I wanted to open doors and tick boxes on my own.’

Atassi opted to do a full-time MBA in London at Imperial College Business School. 

She explains: ‘A lot of people who do MBAs don’t know where they’re going. Some people want to change careers – from engineering or medicine to business. Others are like me with no masterplan and want to use the opportunity to regroup and broaden their horizons. Did the MBA give me a masterplan? No – but at the time it wasn’t an issue for me. I wasn’t keen to tell people where I wanted to go.

‘Instead, my MBA gave me a completely different perspective on business. As a consultant, you scratch the surface of business but you don’t lead companies. You talk big, but you don’t get your hands dirty and manage a business. The MBA gave me a well-rounded idea on the elements of how you would manage a business.

‘Back then, if you had an MBA it was either to be a banker or make money. It was almost surreal how students were motivated to think the bigger the words you use and the bigger your salary, the better your programme was.’ 

She pauses, before adding: ‘In saying that, the year I spent at Imperial was one of the richest in my life, academically, culturally and socially. It opened my eyes to a lot of the business questions that I hadn’t been able to answer when I worked in consultancy. I learned about the nitty gritty of managing and actually being in a business. 

‘I met my husband while I was doing my MBA and tried to find a job in London, but had to move to Dubai.’

Atassi received two job offers in Dubai, one from a young venture capitalist and one from established corporation Ernst and Young (EY). 

‘I chose Ernst and Young,’ she tells me. ‘It was a safer bet and I already had some experience as a consultant. This seemed the more conventional way to go. My hunch was telling me not to take it – but I did. But Dubai at the time was very young. Being a consultant is only as interesting as your clients and I have to say, my clients were not that interesting.’ 

In 2000, Atassi applied to work for Mars, which had built a factory to produce chocolate in Dubai; she was offered a different job to the one she applied for, finding herself on the operational side of business for the first time. She found it played to her skills.

‘I think I’m made for that kind of thing,’ she explains. ‘I loved operations and procurement. I managed a number of markets and was in charge of direct and indirect materials.’ 

In 2007, she decided to set up her own business – a consultancy firm for training and software around procurement and supply management. 

‘With hindsight, there were a few mistakes in my execution,’ says Atassi. ‘The timing was wrong. There were a couple of accounts that were close to being signed, but the [2008] recession materialised.

‘This was a male-dominated society. I walked into a boardroom of an oil company in Abu Dhabi to give a presentation on my software and it was a room full of men. One said to me:“where’s your team?” I was offended and replied“I am the team.” Had I taken a partner who was a male, who wore a suit, it might have worked better, but I have no regrets. Part of your success as a person is to accept these facts and deal with them because the world is not perfect. 

‘Even if I had set up my company in the US or UK, I should have understood that my clients were not small businesses,’ she continues. ‘They were large corporates and to walk into these big organisations, you need to have an appropriate corporate image. You need to play the game: I had big plans but I didn’t act like a big deal – this had an impact.’

A couple of years later, in 2010, Citibank in Dubai invited Atassi to come on board for six months, a contract that became nine months and then a permanent job. 

She says: ‘I loved it and I did damn well with them. I managed the Middle East and North Africa. I also co-managed Africa. My career was going well, but in 2014 it plateaued. I’d had a career path and I was worried about career progression.’

It was at this point that Atassi’s Syrian roots, and her immersion in the arts, through her parents, impacted directly on her career path. Like many ambitious business leaders, she came to realise that ‘sometimes life happens’, drawing you in a particular direction.

Due to the conflict in Syria, her parents had moved to Dubai in 2012. Her mother had been forced to close down her gallery in Damascus and had brought with her a sizeable collection of precious Syrian art and curiosities. 

‘I wanted to keep an open mind and an open heart,’ says Atassi. ‘I’d lived with this [art] my entire life. My parent’s home had been a cultural saloon, full of playwrights, artists and moviemakers, so it was something I’d always had in my life. 

‘We felt it was appropriate to counteract the narrative about the killing, blood and destruction in Syria, so we decided to put the collection online to show the world that Syria is a lot more than we see in the press. Syria is a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious country that has existed for thousands of years, in which people have lived together.’

The family had accumulated a sizeable collection of 500 pieces of artwork and decided to create a non-profit foundation to promote the artwork and the artistic production of Syrian artists all over the world. 

Atassi explains: ‘We wanted to tell the stories over and over again, because we were privileged enough to do this,’ she says. ‘With privilege comes responsibility towards the environment, family, country and friends. 

‘I’m privileged to have been able to go to Imperial College Business School. I felt like I lived in a bubble in Dubai – but I’m a normal person and when I feel strongly about something I find it hard to sit back and watch.’

The Atassi Foundation was incorporated in 2015. Dubai’s legal structure doesn’t allow the existence of not-for-profit organisations, so the company was registered in Lichtenstein and launched in March 2016. 

‘It’s just me and my mum,’ says Atassi. ‘We have a small team and we work from home. We do everything from inventory and stock through to curating, marketing, launches, websites and making contacts.’

She adds: ‘I went against everything the Business School taught me and set up the business without a strategic plan. I just needed to start.’

Since its launch, The Atassi Foundation has collaborated with museums and leading art galleries in Dubai, Toronto and London. In Dubai, it produced the biggest Syrian art show of all time and has commissioned research into the Syrian Cultural field. 

‘It’s been surreal,’ says Atassi. ‘But now, 14 months after launch, I’m taking a step back. 

The first year was great in terms of PR – we set ourselves on the map. Anything that’s happening in the arena of Syrian arts and culture is landing on my lap, so I’m taking a step back, to re-strategise. 

‘We need to think about funding,’ she admits. ‘We need to use our budget in the most sensible way. If we spend money in
the wrong place, we can’t replace this, so we want to build funds to do what we need to do.’ 

Does Atassi feel she made the right choice to forgo financial services for the world of art? 

She considers the question carefully. ‘I don’t have a big ego,’ she says. ‘But I was developing this at Citibank – I didn’t recognise myself. I could have gone places with that career, but it felt like I was wearing someone else’s clothes. At the time I wasn’t aware of that. It felt strange. Now, my commissioning committee and my board of directors are my parents and myself. I have teenage children. I’m able to do what I love.

‘I’m telling a story and it can’t get more personal. It’s my life story and the story of my mum’s art business. This is a beacon of culture. I’m talking about my country and I’m telling my story. I’m privileged because I can tell the story, but I’m just one of many people trying to tell it.’

She pauses again before adding: ‘I understand how humanitarian education and human development is a priority. We’re talking about millions of displaced Syrian people and I can’t begin to tell you about the level of hatred this war in Syria has created. It’s like opening a Pandora’s box of evil. But none of this [evil] has any relevance to Syrian people. ISIS has no relevance to us – they’re not home-bred. It’s out of our hands. 

In spite of this she adds: ‘It just takes more people to do what we’re doing. I was speaking to a non-governmental organisation in Lebanon, setting up schools in the country. They’re doing marvellous things.

‘When you decide to do something like this – and I can’t decide whether I’m a social entrepreneur or a cultural patron – you’re taking a very uncalculated risk. You have no idea how your career is going to go. If I decided to go back into employment, what would I do? Where has this put me on the career map? I’ve spent 20 or more years working in a corporate environment. 

‘No one in this part of the world sets up an art foundation. I didn’t know how it would be perceived. In Syria, entire streets were being wiped out and I was setting up an art foundation, but I’m doing this based on a very important conviction. Art and culture hold a mirror to society; they tell stories. There’s a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of the artists themselves. They bring people together. In the situation we’re in it’s taken a completely different meaning.’

Given Atassi’s experience, her passion for art and the dramatic change from working in banking, to telling the world about the threatened artwork of Syria, virtually single-handedly, does she see herself as part of a new breed of ‘socially responsible’ MBA? 

She says: ‘I don’t think there’s ever one-size-fits-all for an MBA graduate. We need capitalists, bankers and entrepreneurs in the world, but from my perspective, Business Schools needs to nurture an awareness among students. I came to an MBA to open doors, not knowing what doors I wanted to open. Business Schools are evolving like everything else. 

‘When I went to Business School, the internet wasn’t available to everyone. The world was different, but we have to put everything into perspective in the right setting. Education doesn’t stop when you leave Business School, you always have to be on top of things or you’ll be left behind.’

So what is her advice for her MBA student and graduate peers? 

‘In terms of thinking about investment for an MBA student, you’ll ask a lot of questions,’ she says. ‘Will the MBA open your eyes to things you’ve never considered doing before? 

‘I think I listened to my head too much and not my heart. When I think about it, it was always open to me to join the art business, but I wanted to tick boxes on my own – it was my head and not my heart. I didn’t know any better then. 

‘My advice is to dig deep and question yourself about why you’re doing things. Don’t get stuck in corporate stress – you could realise you’re on the wrong track.’ 

As our conversation comes to an end and Atassi considers the next chapter of her story, for herself and for Syria, she muses: ‘Where would we be if we weren’t optimistic. I’m not expecting miracles but I’m definitely optimistic. 

‘What I’m doing is not selfless – it’s incredibly selfish. I’m buying myself back. I used to cry, but not anymore. I know I’m doing something worthwhile; I’m not changing the course of history; I’m not going to stop the war in Syria. I’m not going to remedy the agony of the mothers, the fathers or the children who have lost it all.

‘What I’m doing now doesn’t just excite me; it gives me the oomph and strength to make this work. It’s more than a challenge. What’s the worst that can happen to me [in Dubai]? We’ll still have food on the table. 

‘I owe this to my children. If you ask them, they might not have a Syrian passport, but they’re Syrian. I owe it to me and I owe it to them.’ 

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). 

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.

Leadership: leaving a positive legacy in the boardroom

To reach their full potential, Business School boards and executive teams should follow a five-point action plan, conducting a review that is based on the seven levers of effective boards, writes Sabine Dembkowski

Regulatory pressures, investor demands, innovative competitors and the array of internal and external disruptors challenge the traditional working styles of boards and top executive teams. The social and traditional media is better equipped than ever before to expose the failures and shortcomings of any business board.

In fact, a 2016 study by London Business School’s Leadership Institute concluded that ‘there are some pockets of good practice in the boardroom but, largely, boards have some way to go to reach their fullest potential’.

Another recent study, cited in an article for Harvard Business Review by McKinsey’s Global Managing Director, Dominic Barton, and Mark Wiseman, President and CEO of Canada’s largest pension fund, found that a mere 22% of directors believe their boards are ‘completely aware’ of how their firms create value. Only a sobering 16% claimed that their boards have a strong understanding of the dynamics of their firms’ industries.

These findings are in line with what we, as board advisers, see almost every day in our assignments and interactions with boards. 

Clearly all the tick-box exercises created around governance, and the reports about good practice, have had little positive impact. It is surprising that pension funds and investors have not rung the alarm bells and demanded systematic development programmes for every board and top executive team. 

The new normal

The context within which boards and top executive teams have to operate has changed. Board members are faced with enormous complexities, competing priorities and pressures. Simple one-dimensional mechanisms and responses do not do justice to the new-normal environment. It is easier to describe what an effective board and executive team looks like than to follow the path to get there. 

Academics, governance experts and business consultants are quick to state that an effective board and top executive team needs to be flexible, high-performing and outward focused, and a fresh term for a governance theory is emerging in the academic literature: engagement theory (see box).

According to Naomi Chambers, Professor of Healthcare Management at Manchester Business School, University of Manchester, the emerging proposition is that boards need to embody a culture of high trust across the executive and non-executive divide, together with robust challenge and a tight grip on delivering results.

Since a one-size-fits-all blueprint for an effective board does not exist, any spreading of ‘best practice’ and box-ticking exercises can only be part of the answer. 

For the creation of effective boards, plus executive teams that thrive in the ‘new-normal environment’, there needs to be a system that, on the one hand provides an evidence-based approach to ensure that boards are clear about levers that are known to make a board more effective, but also has the ability to unlock the potential of each individual, as well as the collective. 

This system should combine a digital solution with fine human interaction, since time-consuming interview processes will hardly enthuse board members. 

Five-point action plan for boards

The following five points form a framework for developing an effective board strategy: 

1.Ensure that any board audit / board development is an integral part of the value-creation process. Anyone engaged in conducting a board audit and/or board development programmes must have an in-depth understanding of the value-creation plan of the organisation and integrate the insight into the audit / programme.

2.Provide for an evidence-based approach. A lot of data can be collected but it is only useful if it is the right data. In our analysis, we found that more often than not, board audits touch on issues/themes where there is no evidence whatsoever that could have an impact on effectiveness and value creation.

3.Ensure you provide management with real data. The members of executive boards are achievers and clever people in their own right. They want to succeed and develop, look good and develop their own careers. In our experience, they do engage if they see real hard data that provides them with genuine insight that is really relevant to their role.

4.Provide the management with a safe, neutral and confidential environment to reflect on the data collected and explore which actions would help them to strengthen their own position and that of the collective board, in relation to the value creation plan.

5. Establish a mechanism so that data can be collected on a continuous basis and the executive board can monitor progress. 

Once you have ensured that this action plan is in place you need to identify the crucial levers of effective boards. Standard assessments of leadership competencies and psychometric tests may provide some useful insights, but all are insufficient for the creation of more effective boards and executive teams, and for understanding how you can have a greater impact in the boardroom and leave a positive legacy.

Our research shows that there are seven levers you can pull to create more effective boards and executive teams. 

1. The composition of the board

It is crucial to understand how different areas of expertise and preferred role behaviours in a group setting complement each other and fit into the development cycle of the organisation, the strategic challenges of the organisation and the value creation plan.

2. The ability of the board to use the strength of its members

It is important that the individual members of the executive board understand their own strengths, how they are perceived, the collective strengths of the group and how all can be leveraged to implement and execute the value creation plan.

3. Clarity about roles and responsibilities

Ill-defined roles and grey areas of responsibility are the norm rather than the exception. Clarity and transparency of roles and responsibilities need to be in place.

4. Joint vision

A clear and common vision and orientation is pivotal. Transparency at the outset is vital.

5. Ability to resolve conflicts between the board and management

Effective executive boards and their members understand how to resolve conflicts between the board and the next management level.

6. The structure and organisation of the board’s work

The organisation of the executive board’s work depends critically on the board secretaries and the interplay of the chairman and CEO. Effective boards understand how to organise and structure their work.

7. Regular reviews and reflections about the board’s work

Regular time-outs, where board members can connect, leave the daily work behind and reflect on their work are crucial to success.

To conclude, if you are an executive who would like to make a mark and leave a strong positive legacy, you are well advised to follow the outlined five-point action plan, conducting a board and top executive team review that is based on the seven levers of effective boards. If you wish to establish a process for continuous improvement, apply the same audit questions and remember the real value does not lie in the data alone but the interaction with the data. 

Dr Sabine Dembkowski is a Partner at Better Boards Limited. 

Sabine is a management consultant and top executive coach working for and with DAX/FTSE10-listed companies, global corporate groups, private equity firms, leading consulting firms and mid-sized German businesses.

After studying business management in Cologne and completing a PhD in Bristol, Sabine worked as a management consultant in various leadership positions for AT Kearney and Monitor Company in London. Driven by a passion to get down to the ‘nuts and bolts’ and create real, long-lasting change in organisations, she set up two businesses: The Coaching Centre and Better Boards.

Further reading 

Petersen, R. and Rollings, V. (2016): “Beyond Governance – How boards are changing in a diverse, digital world”, Leadership Institute, London Business School.

Barton, D. and Wiseman, M. (2015): “Where boards fall short”, Harvard Business Review, January – February.

Chambers, N. (2012): “Viewpoint – healthcare board governance”, Journal of Health Organisation and Management”, Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 6-14.