This week I spent a fascinating three days in a workshop with a key client and Rob Katz . The first two days focused on an intense leadership programme, built around Jim Collins’ Good to Great methodologies, Noel Tichy‘s Leadership Engine and Rob’s own PhD research on spirituality in leadership. In the third day, Rob was assigned to work with us to get consensus on the client’s strategic plan – no small task, in view of the difference of views I knew existed on certain key strategies to be deployed to take the company to its next stage of growth.
I’ve always believed that most people are capable of learning new tricks if they retain the curiosity and edge we all have in our twenties. Leadership, on the other hand, can sometimes become a bit of a cliche.’ We associate it with historic or religious figures or business icons – the various Jack Welchs, Richard Bransons and Steve Jobs. We’ve all been programmed, from day one, to be in awe of leadership. I put the session into a bit of a tail-spin as I was the first to go at leadership nominations, and went with my late mother. But essentially, we know what a leader is. And we’re not quite sure that we can grow, or even learn, to be the right kind of leaders. We’ve all spent time browsing the books at an airport, pocketing the latest guides to make us better managers and survive another day in an office. Most of us want to be good leaders. A lot of us are reluctant ones. Sometimes, there is a feeling that some people are born leaders while others simply don’t have what it takes.
On day one, Rob took us through the basic building blocks – the pillars of leadership. Do a search on Google, and you will find plenty of books with the same title. We did an exercise to assess where we stood in terms of life dimensions and life quality. Big words, I thought. What this boils down to is a snapshot of our thinking, feelings and behaviour in terms of our spiritual, physical, emotional, intellectual, social, financial / work dimensions that determine the quality of our lives.
Rob homed in on value systems. First, on our own values – things we believed in, things that we can never negotiate away, irrespective of potential rewards and personal benefit. We listed them down like kids at school. There were many similarities. The cynic in me quietly whispered that everyone in the room believed in honesty, integrity, trust. But Rob kept moving. He drilled into the company’s own set of values – the result of separate exercises that the executive team had run independently in previous weeks. Rob gently coaxed the CEO into accepting that ‘building leaders at every level of the organisation’ should be added to the list. There were discussions on seemingly esotheric subjects like energy and emotion – before Rob started talking about edge, making tough decisions, even ‘moving people on’ if they were not ‘performing’. At the end of day one, I could sense that although the team was impressed, there was still an element of ‘doubt’ on how this stuff could be applied to ‘real life’. Then Rob gave us an assignment to do at home ‘in forty five minutes flat, over a beer’. ‘Assume that you are being interviewed by a business magazine like the Economist, three years from now. Write down how you got there. Talk about the journey. Use the hard facts that you all have in your head to help you project into the future. Remember, it’s where you and this company are, in three years’ time. It’s where you want the company to be.’
The next morning, six red-eyed executives opened up their laptops and read stories. There were some amazing similarities in where these stewards would take the company in three years’ time. And suddenly it was as if an invisible film had been removed. You could sense the feeling of relief that there was a common purpose in these people’s lives. When the CEO read his own piece, it read like the executive summary of a strategic plan. In purple prose.
And the penny dropped. In two days, Rob had managed to build a level of ‘trust’ among the people around the table, coaxed them to talk about personal stuff that they had never managed to find either the will or time to do, in years of working together. By getting people to articulate their own value systems and apply these to a business context, he had built a perfect platform for what happened on day three – the buy-in into a common strategy. People presented their business areas, and the strategies they were proposing the company endorse to move forward to its next phase of growth. The potential areas of conflict were swiftly resolved through a ‘park and decide’ system – put the issue on the flipchart, discuss it round the table, get buy-in, move forward to the next item. It was fascinating to watch. Strategy buy-in is not usually this quick. When people got stuck, Rob used analogies from his old war years at Microsoft. People round the table were not worried about challenging these. What works for blue chip companies may not necessarily be the winning strategy for an SME. The trust he had built around the group of people, and the trust they had placed in him as a facilitator, meant that strategy was really being worked out through a process of decision by consensus.
Rob Katz believes that it is time for leaders to get in touch with their own personal spirituality. The spirituality that people used to look for in religion has now taken root in business. We spend more than half our lives there. All of us have our deep belief systems – our unspoken set of values. What Rob is ultimately saying is that unless you have an understanding of who you are, and what your values are, it is unlikely that you will be effective as a leader. Especially if the company you are working with has a different set of values to yours. If you want to be happy at work and effective as a leader, there has to be alignment between your personal value systems and those of the business you work for – at whatever level you are engaged in – senior, middle manager, the receptionist, or the consultant / change agent that I have become. We are all spiritual beings, in the end. The challenge for most of us is to find a place where we can work with integrity, get the respect we all crave for. And have a lot of fun. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? It’s putting all this stuff into practice, day after day, which is the real spice of life.