In 2011, a major oil and gas exploration company based in the UK set out on an extraordinary, arts-based leadership development programme at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, designed and led by Dr. Mark Powell, one of the authors of this article. The company’s senior project managers are responsible for multi-million-dollar exploration projects around the world and the programme was designed, not to give these senior managers enhanced skillsets or new theoretical frameworks, but to change their behaviors and mindsets — to change their culture. More specifically, the aim was to create a new culture, the key element of which could be described as ‘open-mindedness’, in two distinct forms:
I spent 15 years learning and applying culture insights as a senior executive, consultant, and coach across multiple organizations before I started to proactively reach out to top culture pioneers and experts to learn about their culture facts and fundamentals. We can’t learn much about culture from the popular press and most social media is dominated by over-simplified culture content. Critical insights from the top culture experts in history are unfortunately “secrets” to the vast majority of leaders. Other leaders turn away from the fundamentals of culture to more exotic and superficial solutions.
Leaders will often ask me what they can do to accelerate a change in their culture. As someone who likes to find ways to provide simplicity on seemingly complex and theoretical topics, I’ve long been searching for that mythical ‘one thing’ that will make the most difference. I think I’ve found it. I’ll be interested to hear if you agree with me.
Our emerging workforce is not interested in command-and-control leadership. They don’t want to do things because I said so; they want to do things because they want to do them.
~Irene Rosenfeld, CEO, Mendelēz International
In an earlier post, ‘Culture for the age of ideas’, we argued that the culture of many organisations is still unthinkingly based on the old industrial-era mindset of scientific management and command and control. We suggested that there are a number of persistent organizational behaviors that have their origins in this outmoded culture that are now actively preventing the things that modern organisations know they most need: employee engagement, commitment and creativity, for example. This idea was fully explored in our book. My Steam Engine Is Broken: Taking the organization from the industrial era to the age of ideas.
“We don’t have time for the soft stuff” was recently heard in a senior leadership meeting. “Let’s get back to the real work—our budget and strategy for next year.” This team had just been through a training workshop that focused on leadership styles, their impact on the workforce, and the need to shift their behaviors toward more openness and collaboration. Comments on the “soft stuff” have been around for some time. It’s amazing in this time of work complexity, ambiguity, vulnerability, and interdependence, that some leadership still undervalue the importance of the human side of enterprise.