When Tony and Philip first met some years ago in a wet and rainy London, Philip’s organization had just embarked on a new global strategy. This was long before the credit crunch and the refugee crisis in Europe. Philip’s executive board had given him the difficult task of leading a merger of the East and West Africa business units to form a new integrated region. It was quite a tall order because these very disparate regions were delivering poor performance and operating largely in isolation from each other and from the wider organization.
As one of the board’s newly appointed regional directors, Philip was left in no doubt about the urgency or the scale of transformation required. He wanted to move quickly in merging his East and West Africa teams, to get them operational as soon as possible. To do that, he needed a business vision and a plan for delivering it. He wanted the new region to be at the forefront of the wave of change rolling across the global organization; otherwise, he feared, they could all too easily become victims of it.
So newly promoted, bright eyed, and eager to move at once, Philip decided to call his new senior managers together. But he wasn’t naïve about what he was taking on. He would be working with a wide range of experienced executives who between them had seen it all. Everyone regarded this territory as a no-hoper, languishing at the bottom of the company league tables. No one expected investment here to deliver big results, and it was expensive to operate in such a volatile environment, so they lived with the constant demoralizing threat of cuts. Might there be resistance to change?
How would Philip’s arrival be greeted? Would colleagues feel resentful toward a younger and less experienced peer promoted over them, and would his West African colleagues be suspicious toward one previously based in East Africa? There would be multiple agendas in the room. How could Philip possibly see all these agendas? How would he bring these into the open? How could he bring people to engage with each other? How would he achieve alignment and build a team?
Philip wanted a facilitator to share the heat, and a colleague who had read Tony’s book, Diary of a Change Agent, suggested Tony. Philip was drawn to the reflective approach described in the book, which chimed with his own belief that the immediate business gains you can achieve after mergers or change will only be sustained if at the same time you work toward long-term culture change. Tony brought Ben Parker, a colleague from his consultancy network, to the meeting. They struck Philip as a good combination: Tony using questions to draw Philip out and coaching to explore and grip the issues, while Ben was being the hard man, more in the face, trying to clear a path through the jungle. For Tony, the project in Africa contained the familiar challenges of leadership and engagement during any complex program of change, but brought these into a totally unfamiliar and multicultural context. While excited by this, Tony was also wary not to get blinded by Philip’s obvious enthusiasm. He asked Philip what outcomes were needed and Philip almost too quickly replied, “At the end of three days, I want a shared vision and an agreed transition plan.”
When Tony pushed him to articulate what he intended to happen longer term, Philip replied, “I’ve learned that real success only arrives if you can push leadership down so that people take responsibility, joining up in teams to address their common problems, and what I really want is to release the creativity and intelligence of all 500 people in my business.”
It was unusual for Tony to meet a leader so confident in the potential of other people. Philip’s words carried experience and humility, and made a lot of sense: Here was a real chance, and a rare one, to build a high-performance organization, and this ignited Tony’s enthusiasm. Suddenly he felt willing to invest the energy to take on the challenge.
They explored Philip’s vision further and it became plain how ambitious it was. The current reality was 500 people physically divided across 11 different countries, split between East and West Africa. Typically working in isolated offices of around 40 staff, people knew and cared very little about the merger. Mostly African, the majority of staff were doing routine, relatively low-paid jobs, with their instructions passed down through a hierarchical chain of command from an expatriate UK country director. Each country had a different culture, with a particular blend of ethnic, tribal, and religious influences, but most shared a colonial legacy that still affected the feelings and behavior of staff. Philip noticed a feed me attitude, even among quite senior people: Staff failed to deliver on promises, avoided responsibility, and passed problems back up the line. Philip wanted a high-performance culture and believed that this required a fundamental transformation of attitudes and behavior. When Tony asked how he intended to release the intelligence of 500 staff, Philip just said, “We will begin by bringing together 30 leaders.”
At the start, we did not know how the 30 leaders would carry forward the merger with the wider staff of 500; we were simply seeking to create an aligned leadership community. Philip’s initial questions about engaging the leadership community were as follows:
- Who are the most important people to have in the initial group of 30?
- How do I bring the opportunity to them?
- How much thinking and planning do we do before it is time to get on with it?
- How do we balance the need to deliver results with the need to change?
Tony and Ben, both experienced members of a consulting network that assists executive boards and leadership teams to engage people during business-driven change, shared with Philip their knowledge of three agendas originally set out over 2,000 years ago by Aristotle and that leaders need to embrace (Marlier and Parker, 2009):
- The strategic thinking agenda
- The behavioral doing agenda
- The engagement feeling agenda
Typically, the leader begins in blind enthusiasm, thinking like a finance or logistics director: What is the business case? What are the logics, benefits, and costs? What are the big tasks and when do we need to do them by? What level of performance do we need to attain? It is quite right that leaders address the thinking agenda because it is their job to set out the rationale and a pathway for moving forward. However, this tends to unleash a tsunami of activity, called the doing agenda, in an urgent effort to operationalize the change. Suddenly there are pressing demands on each person in the organization to produce plans, objectives, budgets, campaigns, logo, signage, systems, structures, job descriptions, responsibilities, resourcing, skills, rewards, incentives, and management processes. Phew! With this swirl of internal activity, it is not surprising that corporate performance and motivation take a hit. What the leader is in danger of missing is their key role in transforming the emotions of their team.
A leader attuned to the feeling agenda slows down and becomes emotionally intelligent. They remember how change can damage a person’s ego, identity, and life-support system. They include the logic of emotion and pay attention to what people are feeling. They contain the fear while tapping into courage, passion, creativity, and positive excitement.
How do they do this? The leader is the first one to change their behavior. The leader inspires people with a relevant story. The leader shares vital information about why change is happening, often with an uncomfortable dose of reality. The leader challenges them to digest the new reality and gives support to bring out the choices ahead. The leader asks a few sensible questions, then shuts up and listens to the words and feelings coming back. When the leader pushes problem solving down to their followers and steps back to enable them to fill the leadership space, this sends a powerful message.
All three of us came out of that London meeting energized and with the courage to embark together on something quite challenging that we had never tackled before. Our collective willingness to take on this challenge grew out of the moment when something clicked for Tony after Philip expressed his ambition. Our collective capacity was made up of the different resources, experience, tools, and ideas we each recognized in the others. Our collective confidence was bolstered by a learning agreement we made: We would conduct regular and frequent reviews, sharing successes, learning lessons, and adjusting our roles and priorities as necessary.
Looking back, these three principles of willingness, capacity, and confidence allowed us to step together into the unknown and became key to delivering a successful change journey. This applied not just to the three of us as leader and facilitators, but also to everyone who became involved.
Three years later, something surprising was happening. Solid evidence of positive business results (numbers of customers, levels of income and costs) was beginning to pile up; staff morale was rising and staff confidence in the region’s leadership hit a staggering 74 percent (measured by Ipsos MORI), beating the best public and private sector organizations in the United Kingdom. Against the expectations of people inside and outside the no-hoper East and West Africa Region, the merger was a success.
That was when people in headquarters began asking why this was happening. At first we found it hard to explain, until we hit upon the idea of an illustrative fable. It began like this:
Fable of the people who turned into hippos, lions, and gazelles
The people in the villages worked hard, and the rains watered their crops. They were well fed and prosperous but sleepy with their success.
One year when the rains failed and the crops did not grow tall, the people carried on as before, saying, “We have stored enough grain.” The following year the same thing happened, and the stocks became low. “Things will soon return to normal,” they said, “Just you wait and see.”
The villages in the East were different from those in the West with their own customs and ways of seeing the world. Each side assumed that they had little in common, saying, “We are all like this but they are all like that.” Both claimed their warriors were tougher and their wines tastier. There had never been a compelling need to find out what they had in common because a great desert separated them and their people rarely met.
In fact, East and West were less different than they thought. Each included diverse people from many tribes and traditions: some friendly others formal, some quiet others pushy, some compliant others dominant, and so on. And since they hardly recognized their problem with the rains, they had no desire to seek help from the other side.
As the fable continued to its conclusion, people became interested and said, “Yes, that’s a real campfire story. But what is it really telling us?” We said, “It is telling you as a leader what you can do to deliver sustainable business results and ensure your merger or change program will succeed in the longer term.”
Here we will give you the full story of what it takes to align 500 people in delivering organizational change. In this case the leader had to produce a fundamental shift in delivery. Hundreds of well-loved local products had to be killed off, in favor of a handful of big, cross-regional blockbusters. Offices had to close. New teams and reporting lines had to be created affecting 500 staff.
We will tell the story in five phases: Each time the leadership team, but with several members changed, gathers in a different African city, then disperses a few days later in airplanes to their home countries. Many months pass before they come back together, and on arrival everyone needs to retell the story so far to pick up the threads. Writing this story was like pushing a pause button on the change process: Helpfully the timescale was stretched, because of the distance and the infrequency of meetings, to reveal a to-and-fro of influences between leader and team and how this was harnessed to tackle the cultural legacy of dominance and subservience. With these difficulties amplified, you will find captured here a story of change, containing both the essential details and the rich complexity.
We now realize that the five phases contain key shifts in leadership emphasis that will drive engagement and deliver high performance, but not only in Philip’s organization. The diagram we produced (Figure 2.1) describes the pathway any leader can follow to disperse their leadership and enable their organization to thrive.
There are many voices in the story: Philip’s, Tony’s, and those of several participants in the change program. In each of the five phases, we give you a similar, recognizable structure. One of us—Philip or Tony—begins with the challenge that is key to that phase, then tells our story supported by the voices of some of the team members who participated. The remaining sections of each chapter are from both the authors, except where we specifically indicate Philip’s or Tony’s voice. Under How do you approach this phase? we offer the key theories, principles, and ideas that underpinned our approach, to help you understand the signs of progress that follow. We then give you the tools that we used and evidence of completing this phase. Each chapter ends with a visual aide-mémoire and some tips to support your work as a leader.
In the final chapter we express the principles we learned from this experience, for you to follow if you want to become a leader who creates leaders.