We were asked this question just today. “What makes your leadership development programs “transformational”? We explained that when a client is looking for their organization to transform, they are really asking their PEOPLE to transform. This is true because there is no such thing as organizational transformation without PERSONAL transformation. Organizational transformation — dramatic growth, spin-off, business model change, restructuring, turnaround, culture change, etc. — require a different kind of learning from leaders. It is not simply a matter of acquiring more knowledge or even skills, but through shifts in basic assumptions, frames of reference, and ways of learning so that the problems and solutions look entirely different.
How do we do that? There is a lot to that question, but here is a brief response. First, when we commit to work with organizations to support their transformation, we work to harness the individuals’ personal and professional ambitions – challenging them to identify something that they’ve always wanted for themselves but thus far have NOT been able to achieve — and incorporating that ambition into the learning environment. When leaders learn to align their own motivations and interests with the organizations interests, and this is combined with the proper support from a coach and their peers supporting them and holding them accountable, barriers to change tend to fall.
Second, we challenge thinking patterns and assumptions that essentially serve to get us the same results we have always gotten. Doing things in a familiar way makes sense to us because those patterns (with corresponding behaviors) have gotten us to our current level of success. But we all know a shift will be required to get us to a new level of leadership. It’s meaningful experiences and exchange with a diverse group of people that enlighten us, so we create learning environments to refresh the way we learn. Putting our client groups into multi-faceted, fresh learning environments with unique content allows for each person to take away new insights on addressing nagging dilemmas in ways that stimulate and inspire further learning.
In a similar fashion, groups also work to identify their collective ambition, assumptions and frames of reference — which quite naturally revolve around their collective efficiency, effectiveness or company success — and then we align that ambition to the larger organization’s strategy and metrics. Based on cutting edge research in cognitive science, we lead groups through a process of re-designing their core work processes to incorporate what they are wanting to integrate into their culture. We do this because it is the actual practices of work that groups engage in every day that shapes the culture. When you change the way you work, you — and the culture — will change accordingly. By contrast, we don’t believe that by proclaiming repeatedly that the culture will be a certain way will make it so. To put a poster on the wall and say that we believe in ‘respect’, ‘accountability’ and ‘results’ (sound familiar?) is not an effective culture change strategy. If it were, we’d have seen far better results from cultural change programs during the last 40 years. Culture is not what the leader proclaims it will be.
Does it work? Change efforts can falter for 2 main reasons. First, individual change requires trust in each other and in the larger system. Individuals need to trust that when they take a risk or change the way they operate, the rest of the group and their managers will allow for something different to emerge. We work to create this environment of psychological safety and well as the group’s capacity to experiment with new ways of working. It’s a process. It doesn’t take much imagination to also see, then, that the extent to which the organization values ‘development’ will drive that openness. And it’s absolutely achievable because we’ve seen it happen.
Second, you need the top leaders at the right time to engage in the work of organizational culture. That means working at the level of basic assumptions and organizational practices. When a newly empowered and transformed group is aligned on an important topic, and top leaders can see it too, they must be committed to working with those same individuals — often without the luxury and experience of going through a transformational process themselves — to find solutions. Without work at the core work processes level, empowered groups will run up against the cultural forces at play and limit the transformation.
Here you have the “bones” of what we mean when we say that our programs are transformational.