Building Sustainable Legacies


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Creating a Culture Through Stories

Blog by Kathy Miller Perkins, www.millerconsultants.com

Our personal stories are powerful. When talking about myself with others, I might recount a particularly exciting experience such as the time I served as a foreign exchange student in Thailand when I had never been away from home before and had never flown on an airplane. Or I might describe my life with my family and my three dogs, who never fail to amuse me.   As I tell these stories, I am sharing who I am – both how I see myself and how I want others to see me. Likewise, when I want to get to know someone, I usually start by asking them to tell me about themselves. I might ask about where they live, their families, their professions, their interests among other things. And I am not merely collecting facts. Instead I am listening to their stories because the tales they tell communicate their character.

So too the stories that we tell within our organizations and to the public about our companies communicate identity.  And Identity is the foundation upon which the organization’s culture rests.  In my work as an organizational psychologist, I am often asked to work with the clients to assess their organizational culture.  While I have a variety of method for carrying out this task, I find that listening to the stories they tell is among the best.   And all companies have their own stories or myths which reveal how they view themselves. And, in turn, their perceptions of themselves influence how they show up in the world.

whats-your-story

Not too long ago, I worked with a large organization in New York. To get a feel for their culture, I asked them to tell me stories about themselves when they were at their best.  They became quite animated as they spoke of how they rallied during the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. As I asked them questions about these stories they filled in details about their smooth working relationships under these extreme circumstances.  And they noted that their interactions aren’t nearly as smooth in their day-to-day work world.  We could all agree that this organization had a hero culture that worked well for them under crisis but not so well in more stable times.

Next, I asked them to tell some stories about incidents when they, as an organization, were at their worst. One of the stories I heard was about a cross-departmental project where people in one group hid information from those in another, presumably to maintain a more powerful position, or because they thought the other group would slow down their progress.  This part of the exercise wasn’t nearly so much fun as the first.  Yet the stories were colorful and revealed clearly some of the cracks in their day-to-day culture that made them vulnerable as an organization.

By analyzing how they acted at their best and at their worst they began to identify the conditions that brought out the good and the bad behaviors. They began to seek new ways of viewing themselves and their work.  They sought to switch from “we are at our best only when in crisis,” to “we can create conditions in our day-to-day world that will bring out the best in all of us.”  They were changing their story.

About this time, a new leader entered the organization. He brought the employees together in a “Town Hall” and told his own stories. He began by telling anecdotes about his  life and his work, followed by his vision for the organization. He claimed that he considered his work to be a calling – not just a job. And he challenged the employees to reconsider how they viewed their own work. He told them that “values count,” and described how his values influence his life every day. He ended by making the following commitment:

“I will give my time, energy and commitment to helping us become a world-class organization. I honestly believe that we can become a best in class standard against which other similar organizations can measure themselves.”

I cannot relay the conclusion of this story because my assignment ended shortly after the Town Hall.  However, when I left, I felt certain that this company could change.  To do so required them to tell a new story about who they are and who they want to be.  And I took away some powerful lessons: Just as we must change our own narratives when we seek to change ourselves, organizations can begin to change their cultures by creating their own new stories.

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Falling on my feet after leaving BSL

Exploring communication in times of uncertainty

It has been two months now, since I was told that my time at BSL is up and that my contribution to the school was no longer desired by the majority shareholder of the group to which the school belongs.

It has been a strange time, with good and bad moments. On one hand it, it has been painful and stressful. A journey that took me from shock that immobilized me, to agitation and concern for what might now happen with the school and the many people there I care so much about – my colleagues, the students, the faculty. On the other hand, it has also been wonderfully liberating. The glimpse at a new phase in my life for which I feel so ready. Possibly so because I had thought of leaving BSL before but have never dared to. I thought I would harm BSL too much by leaving. Now that the owner decided on a new strategic direction, discontinuing what I have invested in and developed – I am suddenly free!

How do you communicate in such a time authentically yet without creating confusion? This is my challenge right now and this is my first attempt at it. I sense that this ability to communicate in uncertain or changing times might be a useful skill for not just me. There are two areas of thoughts I would like to share: a) insights gained and b) emerging questions:

A) These are the insights where I have gained clarity in:

  • I would like to find a way to live more authentically what I “preach”. If I want to suggest changes to make the world a better place, this starts with me. For me, now, this means to slow down and to stop racing from project to project, becoming more careful and mindful in selecting and prioritizing, and connecting to a deeper sensing of how I can truly make the difference I seek.
  • I would like to review my research questions and my teaching and to adapt them based on what I have learned these past years. This includes our experience of self-organization at BSL and the challenge of finding new, better organizational and governance structures to operate in today’s world. Also, I want to revisit my (PhD) question about the connection of the inner and outer world and how transformation occurs at a personal, organizational and societal level. How do we change?
  • I would like to operate in a new structure, rather than seeking a next employment. I want to serve my purpose, to be of service, to add value with my reflections and research, to create tools and methods, courses and programs, more powerfully than before. And I will do that creatively, together with others and in a structure that suits this purpose.

B) These are emerging questions I would like to explore further:

  • What does the BSL incident mean for my work in helping organizations to transform so that longer-term “sustainability” concerns weigh more than a short-term profit focus. What is there to be learned for such change processes? How can this apparent organizational setback instruct my inquiry about the transformation of business?
  • How do I interact with those who looked at the transformation of BSL as an important sign of hope in the landscape of business education, who had chosen it as their place of study, or who had dedicated dear time and energy to support our emergence as a promising prototype for a new type of business education? What can I offer, now?
  • What are my personal lessons from this change? What has prevented me from finding a more constructive solution? What are my shadows, blind spots and shortcomings? What does this mean in my life as I have just turned 7 x 7 (or 49), and what is the deeper message for my journey?

Each of these questions will deserve a separate blog and shall serve as a further attempt to authentically share in times of uncertainty. I am attentive to the interconnection among these and I am curious what I will be learning in my exploration. I am grateful for those who accompany me in this journey. It reminds me of what Bob Quinn calls “Building the bridge as we walk on it”.

Katrin


Personal Change Challenges Leaders

I have been in the change agent business for many years. As an organizational psychologist, I have assisted companies in identifying and addressing obstacles to their organizational success. Recently my work has turned towards companies that wish to redefine and broaden their definitions of success. These companies are examining their purpose beyond profits. They have not abandoned the desire to make a profit and they are certainly still committed to delivering financial returns to their shareholders. However, they are looking for ways to succeed financially by pursuing solutions to societal challenges – the wicked problems that I discussed in my April blog. The question that I would ask the formal leaders of these companies is whether they are ready for the personal changes that this journey will require.

This quest for purpose really picked up steam after Larry Fink, the CEO of the global investment management corporation Blackrock, said the following in his annual letter to CEOs: “To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.” While his proclamation has been controversial, many have heeded his warning by examining their own companies’ purpose beyond profits. By and large I consider this to be very good news indeed. Our societal challenges necessitate looking for solutions from all corners of our world. However, I fear many in formal positions of leadership are unaware of how the pursuit of purpose beyond profits will affect them personally. As Katrin Muff pointed out in her May blog, only exceptional individuals are able and willing to embrace their own roles as global citizens.

Katrin and I agree that the term “leader” should not be limited to those who are in formal positions of authority. Still, successful company transformations do compel those who fill these roles to undergo personal changes. In my role as an advisor to companies undergoing change, I have observed a remarkable lack of awareness of how the desired transformations will necessitate personal changes in those at the top. My educated guess is that many are completely unaware of the need for personal change and others are unwilling to live with the inevitable discomfort that change always brings.

Change is hard. Indeed, global consultancy Bain and Company reports that only 12% of corporate transformation programs succeed in reaching or exceeding the goals. Furthermore, only 2% achieve their goals when the transformation is focused on sustainability. This low level of success can be attributed to many factors including resistant cultures, shifting priorities and lack of a vision that inspires and engages employees. However, my own experiences, both personal and professional, have led me to conclude that leaders’ resistance to personal change is a major stumbling block to successful organizational transformation. Often leaders of our client companies take the position that everyone and everything can and should change as long as they, themselves, are not affected.

Many powerful individuals come to believe in their own infallibility. They assume, sometimes unconsciously, that they rose to these levels of power because of their superiority. These assumptions concerning how they got where they are may be accurate. Nevertheless, as the game changes, so do the rules for how to play it.

When leaders commit to moving their organizations towards purpose beyond profits, they are very likely to find that to succeed, they must give up some of the power that they have enjoyed. Wicked problems require collaborative solutions. Likewise, leaders are likely to be confronted with world views different from their own cherished beliefs. And all must live with ambiguity that may be foreign to them in roles where they have had complete power to make unilateral judgments and act decisively.

These personal challenges are not easy to confront. Some leaders will be up to the tests while others won’t even try. Katrin wrote about the difficulty of overcoming defense mechanisms that blind us to the need for personal change and cushion us from its discomfort. To illustrate this point, a friend and colleague reminded me a few years ago that a person who wants to quit smoking may still be unwilling to give up cigarettes. So too, leaders who want their organizations to transform may not be willing to take on the personal challenges that will lead to success.

I have experienced this resistance myself when I have slammed into my own defenses. As I have worked collaboratively with colleagues from across the globe, I have become very aware of my own limitations when my world views and power are challenged. I work diligently to push through my discomfort as I realize that I must change personally if I am to become a global citizen. Some days I am up to the challenge and other times I dig in and refuse to budge. Nevertheless, I know that my personal journey to overcome my own defenses is worth the effort. I truly want to contribute to addressing our collective global challenges. And to do so requires me to seek awareness of ways that I must change. I must learn to live with the discomfort that I experience as a result. I take one step at a time. Sometimes I fall back a few steps but overall, I keep moving forward. Gradually I am making progress in my own change journey.


Leadership vs. Citizenship

Re-defining the word in the 21st century context

Who is a leader in the context of the challenges in the era of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? Business leaders, government leaders (speak politicians), non-government activist, social entrepreneurs, parents, or maybe all of them? And how do we define if somebody is a leader? Leaders have long been associated with organizational roles they hold; in a company, the CEO may be a leader, but not an accountant, salesman or marketer. But does this assumption still hold true in times where courageous action and responsible behavior is expected from almost anybody at any level of any type or organization, including at home?

Kathy Miller in her recent blog suggests that leadership entails “seeking solutions to wicked problems most always through collaboration with others”. She also reflected on how few true leaders there are on her horizon. Her definition suggests a much larger field of action of a leader than previously considered. When I went to business school in the early nineties, things were still clear. A leader is in charge of managing his company. Period. Ever the Rio Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012, it has become clear that business is expected to deliver far beyond only satisfying internal needs, including those of employees and shareholders. Having included external stakeholders in selected consultation has become a fashion since the start of this decade. And yet, the SDGs introduced in 2015, take the stakeholder engagement perspective even a step further suggesting that business may need to operate far beyond its current set of stakeholders.

I entirely concur with Kathy’s definition of leadership. Even a traditionally defined leader, a person who holds a top position in an organization, is expected today to not only manage her business, but also to engage with players in a growing ecosystem that represents the trillion dollar business opportunities of engaging in solving burning societal and environmental issues. For this, we need to replace the outdated idea that leadership is attached or connected to a specific role or position. Everybody, in every position and role of an organization, no matter how small, needs to embrace the responsibility to seek solutions to the “wicked problems” as Kathy suggested. Is that realistic or even necessary?

At BSL where I work, we see how demanding self-organization is on individual. Self-organization demands a high degree of personal responsibility and emotional independence to allow the organization to thrive. But that is not a realistic expectation. There are many people who for various reasons do much better in an environment where they can rely on emotional support, political support, and a bit of clarification on priorities from somebody better apt at defining these. We have learned the hard way that personal responsibility is not something that can be expected or necessarily developed in a person who is not open to this. We all have effective defensive systems that prevent change and development. Often for good reasons. So what does that mean?

I suggest that the word leader needs to be reinterpreted. Rather than being reserved to those holding a specific role or position, it should be used for those exceptional individuals who have the capacity, energy and competence to build on a high degree of personal responsibility so that they can not only do their day-job but can find synergies between what they do and what can help solve wicked global problems. Such people can be found everywhere, but – and this is a realization I must admit – they cannot be expected everywhere. They are exceptional human beings and I suggest that they fully embrace their responsibility as global citizens and can hence be considered as the 21st century leaders. Such a shift really means that we have come to consider Leadership as engaged Citizenship. And for this, we certainly need to adjust the way we educate such leaders in business and management schools. Or should they be called citizen-schools in future?

 

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash


Where are the Super Power Change Makers?

Since reading Katrin’s March blog on the Superpowers of Change Makers, I have been reflecting on leadership and what it looks like in these tense and polarizing times. I have been asking myself the following questions: Who are the heroic leaders for our times? Where are those superpowered change makers who can lift us out of the pessimism and malaise that leave us exhausted and paralyzed? I am eagerly anticipating Katrin’s book for inspiration as I am failing to find many of these superpowered leaders in my world.

Yet when I view this predicament with a different frame, I realize that perhaps I am asking the wrong questions. Instead of speculating on why more leaders don’t demonstrate these change-making skills, perhaps I should be asking myself how I can acquire these capabilities and inspire and enable others to do the same so that we can all make change. Indeed, Katrin pointed out that superpowers are not inborn traits. The “great man” theory of leadership which contends that leaders are born not made has been debunked repeatedly. With effort and courage, every one of us can become a change maker leader.

The quest to develop the superpowers is not for cowards! Most of us are proud of our strengths. Yet Katrin explains how these strengths can limit us when we take them too far. For example, I take pride in my ability to stand up for my convictions and live by my values. Yet taken to the extreme, the strength of my convictions could lead me down the path of close-mindedness and rigidity. To develop superpowers, I must entertain the potential dark side of my strengths. I must be willing and able to refine how I use my strengths to avoid overdoing it to the detriment of my effectiveness.

One of my coaching clients spoke of the “fully baked leader” recently. He seemed to be suggesting that there is an objective and limited set of skills and capabilities that one must acquire to become a leader. Yet in my opinion “fully baked” leaders do not exist. Those who believe that they have developed a complete set of leadership capabilities and have nothing left to learn, will never become superpower- charged change makers. To become effective change makers, we must commit to ongoing growth and development. We must deny that we can ever become “fully baked.”

Some of us who are not in formal positions of authority may be tempted to avoid the difficult path to developing superpowers. Perhaps we tell ourselves that change making is limited to elected officials, CEOs or others who head up organizations and institutions. I urge you to resist this line of thinking. Leadership is far more than filling a position. We cannot afford to fall into a victim mentality. Instead we must acknowledge that leadership does not require a title and refrain from using a lack of one as an excuse for doing nothing.

Leadership does demand bravery and the willingness to take risks. It necessitates our listening to and valuing diverse perspectives. Leadership entails seeking solutions to wicked problems most always through collaboration with others. It obliges us to always seek balance in how we use our strengths. It requires us to continue to seek development and growth. There will always be one more lesson to learn, one more hurdle to overcome and one more challenge to confront with grace and courage.


Stop making sense!

A special message to the 100 change makers of the Diploma of Sustainable Business of Business School Lausanne and the University of St Gallen IWÖ at the occasion of the first Alumni event in Zurich on April 28-29, 2018. #DASTeamRocks

By Katrin Muff, Co-Director of the Program

 

The early adapters are onboard and solid best practice examples are emerging. We have accomplished much in the past decade on bringing business and its leaders onboard to embrace the challenge to create a sustainable and just world, and to make it their business.

The Rio+20 Conference in July 2012 can be seen as a tipping point for the early adapters in business. More than 5’000 top executives gathered to envision how to scale their efforts towards sustainable development. Failing governments in the previous decade had led to shift the hope to business. With its innovation power and easy access to funding, business became the prime driver for a world “where 9 billion people live well on one planet”, as expressed by one of the business conveners, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, founded 20 years earlier around the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992.

What might be the tipping point so that the large crowd of followers will jump on the bandwagon? That is the one billion dollar question we have to address today. And for this, we – the convinced – need to change our attitude and our tone. Our voices were important to wake up, or shake up, the business community. And those who could hear us, did. But now, our voices need to reach those who weren’t buying into our arguments and who still remain skeptical or maybe also preoccupied by other significant other mega trends that shape the world.

The climate debate in the United States has clearly illustrated to what degree it is pointless to try and change somebody’s mind by providing seemingly convincing facts. The strong bi-partisan polarity experienced in the United States as a result of the election of the current President further confirms to what degree the only result of a well-considered argument is a counter-argument. We are challenged to let go of the polarity perspective of “I am right” and “you are wrong”. If anything, such attitudes – which both sides hold – simply amplify the gap to be bridged.

In some ways, we – the converted and convinced – need to acknowledge that we unintentionally do onto those we are trying to convert what we blame them to do to us. To ignore and reject a given point of view as invalid or worse ridiculous. Ever attempt we make to say “listen to this and you will finally understand” is an opportunity lost to create a true dialogue by first establishing a common ground. A common ground that includes both points of view, and doesn’t presume one is righter than the other. Only once we have established this common ground can we then engage in a dialogue where together both parties take the immense risk of exploring new grounds together. The risk is huge as it involves that we may end up in a place that is not the same from where we started, requiring us to enlarge our existing understanding and integrate further perspectives. Hence, broadening our worldview.

Integral theory call this neutral, higher or detached, space an “integrated state”. Such a state implies the ability to hold both one’s own and somebody else’s perspective with equal appreciation and respect. And this is no small challenge and not for the weak hearted. Try it at home or try it at work and you will see, how quickly you will step down from that “integrated state” back into the polarity of arguing that the way you see the world is right.

I challenge you, dear fellow converted change maker, to practice this new muscle in your mind and in your heart: adopt this higher neutral state more and more often, and every time a bit longer and with a bit more ease. It is the single best thing you can do if you want to create a positive impact in this world and contribute towards a better world. I know that you can do it, you have that capacity already built in, you simply need to remember it and train it again. I think that the deteriorating state of the world has thrown us into a polarity state where we could do no better than “knowing better” and preaching, pointing fingers, raising hands, highlighting, raising awareness and alerting others. They heard us, those we could reach we have reached. Now, we need to develop new pathways together with those preoccupied with other priorities on their radar to collaborate towards solutions that make greater sense to more people and institutions and that embrace more perspectives. By including opposing thoughts and ideas, better ideas and solutions will emerge. Collaborative processes have long demonstrated that – now let’s go the extra mind and embrace a new mindset, that of the integrator.

 

 

Picture credit: https://innovationleadershipforum.org/our-wisdom/mindset-shift/


The Superpowers of a Change Maker

What is it that makes change makers so impactful? And what can we learn from them? How does resilience turn into a strength that when combined with other strengths becomes a true superpower?

As I am adding the finishing touches on my upcoming book that answers these questions in the context of what makes co-creation successful, I would like to share an emerging bit of insight that hopefully adds value to you.

Kathy Miller has expanded the personal resilience story I have shared in January reflecting on my WEF experience with her insights on what makes organizations resilient, pointing out how few companies possess the cultural backbone that enables such resilience. Here I am turning the spotlight on a remarkable group of people that are emerging as the pillars of change in turbulent world: the change makers.

My book features six change makers from all walks of life. They have a few things in common:

  • They feel an increasing need to connect what they do at work with what concerns them in life in general
  • They are triggered and challenged by their environment (students, colleagues, kids, news) to acknowledge that what they do no longer works
  • They have a capacity to reflect and the courage to listen and learn
  • They are able and willing to engage with others, often strangers, to try old things in new ways and to collaborate in entirely new settings and with new approaches

What none of them had, however, were superpowers. And here is were we come in. All of us who care and who resonate with the above. Superpowers can be acquired and developed. Let me explain!

In his book “Building the bridge as you walk on it”, Robert Quinn offers a new way to look at leadership competencies. He suggests moving beyond a static view of preferred traits that we “should” possess, to a dynamic view of so-called competing strength that are both required but which need to be equally developed in order to achieve a higher state in which both strengths lead to a higher state of competency. Too complicated? Take the example of two strengths we are all familiar with:

  • Being tough and providing structure and limits
  • Caring about the other and being lenient and forgiving

Both of these are undoubtedly strengths, yet one without the other will not lead to an ideal outcome. Quinn argues that we need both of them and calls for a higher state of “tough love”. Makes sense, right! You got the concept that I use to define superpowers!

A superpower for me is when a strength polarity pair is overcome and super strength, or superpower, emerges!

In my research that has led to the sequel of the Collaboratory book, we have identified the following three superpowers of individual change makers in co-creation processes (see also Figure 1):

  • Appreciative curiosity results from being constructive and positive, overcoming self-righteous judgment.
  • Building bridges happens when an inclusive influencer stops being opinionated or unprincipled.
  • Empathic support comes from being open and caring, resisting the temptation to be distant and withdraw.

Figure 1: Extract of the Book “Secrets, Solutions and Superpowers of Co-creation”
due for publication in September 2018 by Routledge Publishing
From Strengths to Superpowers

 

From Strengths to Superpowers

We have developed the strengths by having identified the reasons why co-creation efforts among stakeholders fails most often. We have labelled these causes “limitations” and found out that these limitations are not failures or weaknesses, but rather strengths that have turned into a negative expression due to insisting too much. Each strength therefore has a negative expression when over-stretched (see Figure 2). This is something that you may have experienced when having either experienced somebody being too tough or somebody being too caring.

Figure 2: Extract of the Book “Secrets, Solutions and Superpowers of Co-creation”
due for publication in September 2018 by Routledge Publishing
From Limitations to Strengths

 

From Limitations to Strengths

The journey from limitations to strength and from strengths to superpowers is the development journey of the heroes of our times: the change makers. I am sure that you have used your inherent strengths in various combinations with other strengths to develop your very own personal superpowers. Here I invite you to take a look at the strengths we have identified in our research in Figure 2 and to ask yourself: where am I on the scale of these strengths and their respective limitations? Which limitation have I noticed in myself when I overstretch a strength and how can this overview help me return to my powerful expression of the strength again?

The book highlights two additional levels of superpowers that come into play when we co-create: the superpowers of a stakeholder group and the superpower of facilitating the space for solving shared issue. You will find out more about these in the book which is expected in a bookstore near you in September this year.

 

Picture credit: https://www.dumblittleman.com/7-superpowers-you-act-like-you-have-but/

References:

Robert Quinn (2004): Building the bridge as you walk on it. Jossey-Bass.

Katrin Muff (2013): The Collaboratory – A co-creative stakeholder process for solving complex problems. Greenleaf Publications.